It’s been a while since our last installment here on Halfway There Travelers.
We’ve been back home for three months from our trip to Spain and Portugal for a Viking river cruise on the Douro, and it’s been nearly six weeks since our last post about the brief stop we made in Coimbra on our way from Lisbon to Porto. Following our usual pattern, this posting would be about our time in Porto. We’ll get to the city of Porto (a real delight) soon, but for this report we took slices from multiple days to report on, well, port.
We learned a lot about port (and other fortified wines) on this trip. We learned that the grapes going into fortified wines are actually fermented very briefly (just a few days) to prevent the yeast from turning all the grape’s natural sugars into alcohol, which helps ensure a sweeter wine. The fermentation is stopped by adding “brandy” (largely tasteless, as it’s nearly pure alcohol) to the grape juice, which kills the yeast. The brandy is made as part of a near-industrial process that makes use of the crushed grapes left over after the initial crush.
Cruise ships in Porto are actually docked across the Douro at Villa Nova de Gaia where port exporters have their wine caves and tasting rooms, located there long ago to avoid heavy tax burdens from the city of Porto. Their vineyards are located far away from Porto and the Atlantic coast in the upper reaches of the Douro river, where summers are hot. The wine from the current year remains upstream over the winter, and is brought to age in Gaia’s man-made wine caves where humidity and temperatures are more moderate and consistent. Today the wine is moved down the river in tanker trucks, but in the distant past wine was transported in casks piled high on small open-hull boats known as rabelos. Most ports (especially 10/20/30/40-year old tawny ports) are blended from multiple vintages to help ensure product consistency, though high-quality harvests are bottled as vintage offerings.
Our first encounter with port on this trip was at a tasting we reserved on our own at Graham’s 1890 Lodge, a short walk up a hill from where our ship, the Viking Helgrim, was docked. The walk was steep, and the road was narrow:
Can you believe that not long ago this road was two-way and buses were expected to be able to pass each other?
The Lodge had a commanding view of the city or Porto, the Douro, and the Luís I Bridge:
Next is a reverse view of Graham’s from the far shore of the Douro in Porto, where you should be able to see the white letters of their sign in the upper right of the picture, just in front of the buildings on the skyline, with multiple cruise ships rafted together at the left side:
Our tasting was preceded by a tour of the cellars where a cool, humid warehouse held many large barrels and tanks of aging port wine:
We also saw the collection of vintage bottlings held by the family that owns Graham’s and other port exporters, the Symington’s:
Here are the cards describing our tastings. It was challenging trying to decide which of them we liked the best and which we wanted to buy. With the help of the friendly tour guide, we made our selections and (believe it or not) some bottles actually made it all the way back home with us.
The main floor of the Lodge was a gorgeous wooden structure. Here is the tasting room and the shop:
Walking back down the hill after our tasting, we spotted some fun graffiti that reflected the area’s primary industry:
Our next fortified wine event was the next day in Favaios. There Viking took us on tours where we visited both a local wine museum and a cooperative where they bottled their local variation of fortified wine. They can’t call their wine “port” because their grapes are not grown in the official appellation (or ‘DOC’, which stands for “Denominação de Origem Controlada”, meaning “Controlled Denomination of Origin”. Port wine grapes can only be grown between certain altitudes, and Favaios is at too high an altitude.
Mechanization has eased the work of harvesting grapes, but the hard labor of pickers in the past is commemorated with a statue in the village’s center; you can get a sense of how heavy the baskets filled with fruit was based on the size of the basket.
The fortified wine here is called Moscatel de Favaios. It’s a white wine, and to our taste is very “raisiny” – quite good. Much of their output is bottled in tiny nip-sized bottles, but as you can see from the shrink-wrapped bottles we spotted on the loading dock, they also use full-sized bottles.
Vineyards are everywhere in the region. This is the view when we stepped off the tour bus:
Our last wine event was at Quinta Do Seixo, one of the many vineyards owned by the Sandeman brand. We reached the vineyard and winery after a long, winding ride up narrow roads to the top of a mountain, surrounded by other terraced hills of vineyards and olive groves:
Sandeman is probably the most recognizable brand of port due to its iconic “Zorro” logo. The tour guide sported the character’s cape and hat:
Sandeman’s harvest is processed here. The crushing room shown below has multiple concrete tanks, and the metallic mechanism at the far end is a robotic wine crusher that is designed to emulate the pressure and action of stomping by foot, a relatively gentle process that helps avoid releasing too many tannins from the skin and stems of the grapes.
Of course, the tour of this winery concluded with yet another port tasting. You know, sometimes travel can be so tough.
Stay tuned for additional installments from our “non-cruise” journey along the Douro.