One of the main reasons to come to Porto is the wine. The nearby Douro Valley region in northern Portugal is the exclusive source of Europe’s port wines. Though fortified wines like port can be produced anywhere in the world, according to European law, only wine from the Douro Valley can actually be considered port wine and labeled as such.
What is port wine?
Port wine is a sweet fortified wine that is usually consumed as a dessert wine or aperitif. Though most port wines are red, this is not your average red table wine, which contain an average of 12-15% alcohol by volume. The high sugar and alcohol content (an average 20% ABV) of port wine will fuck you up if you’re not careful. But if you’re on vacation, maybe you don’t mind.
Types of port
Officially, there are a ton of unique blends of port, but most fall into three major categories: tawny port, ruby port, and vintage ports. Tawny port is barrel-aged and is sweet and smooth, often with nutty or caramel undertones. Ruby ports are rich and deep red, with a flavor profile that highlights the taste of fruit and berries. Vintage wines are only obtained from the best vineyards on exceptional harvest years, which may be every 3 or 4 years. Vintage ports are rich and flavorful.
Aside from these, you can also find white ports, which are made with white grapes. They’re a bit less sweet than the red varieties. Rosé ports have also become increasingly common. These are sweeter than white ports but not nearly as rich as rubies or tawnies.
Where to drink port wine in Porto
The grapes for port wine are harvested in the Douro Valley and brought down the river to the dozens of cellars and port houses where the wine is aged and bottled. And you can visit each of these in Vila Nova de Gaia by crossing the Dom Luis I Bridge.
Many of the cellars offer tours, some by appointment only. And almost all of them have tastings that allow you to sample the various wines without having to take a tour.
The heavy-hitters in Porto are the Symington Family. They’re one of the 11 families in the Primum Familiae Vini (the best families in wine) where you can find the most prestigious wines in Europe. They own a few of the port houses on the Douro including Graham’s and Cockburn’s. Graham’s requires tour reservations in advance, but you can step into Cockburn’s anytime and enjoy a tasting in one of two tasting rooms.
Another popular group of port houses is the Sogrape group which includes Sandeman, Offley, and Porto Ferreira. Sandeman has the most iconic look and you’ll see its caped don represented all over town. The cellar tour guides even wear the outfit. You can only get access to the tasting room if you take a tour, though they do have tables outside and on the terrace where you can drink to your heart’s content.
Perhaps the most relaxed of the port cellar groups is the one that includes Taylor’s and Croft. Taylor’s has a beautiful tasting room that looks out onto a perfectly manicured garden that’s full of peacocks. Croft, just down the street, is even more relaxed. Out of all the port houses, it feels most like a corner bar. The tasting room is cool and dark where you can pull up a barrel and have the wines of your choice.
Planning your visit
Since some of these do require reservations, it’s good to mix and match to check out several on the same day. The tours are usually less than 30-45 minutes, but you want to make time to sit in the tasting room and enjoy the wine. You can easily do this in one day or take your time and go to several different ones over a couple of days.
Graham’s also has a spectacular restaurant called Vinum that overlooks the Douro River so it might be a good place to stop either mid-day to offset the drinking with a good meal or at the end of the day.
As much as I love walking around cool cellars that smell like wood and wine, I probably wouldn’t do more than one tour, at least in one day. Ultimately, they all make the same kind of wine so you’ll get a lot of similar information in each. And obviously, it’s better to take a tour where one is required to do a tasting like Sandeman’s.
But if you don’t care about the history of the wine or the wine-making process and you just want to get wasted, have a heavy breakfast, and go nuts. You’ll be in a drunken stupor before sunset.