When in Rome, do as the Romans do – or so the saying goes. In my mind, there’s one clear way to apply that to a trip to Porto:
When in Porto, drink port wine.
But where do you find the best port wine in Porto, Portugal? (Try saying that after a few glasses.)
This guide will tell you everything you need to know about port wine.
What is port wine and how is it made?
Before visiting Portugal, I thought port wine was reserved for grannies on Christmas Day. But having thoroughly sampled it myself, now I realise that maybe grandma is on to something.
Port wine is a fortified wine, made by adding brandy before the wine has finished fermenting. This means that the wine retains some of the natural sweetness of the grape, making it very rich and smooth on the palate. It also means that it has a higher alcohol content than regular wine.
Thanks to it’s sweet nature, it pairs excellently with chocolate, fruit, or cheese. Traditionally it’s served at the end of a meal as a dessert wine, or used as an aperitif.
(An aperitif is an alcoholic drink taken before a meal to stimulate the appetite, in case you didn’t know. I don’t know who comes up with this stuff, but from the bottom of my heart, I thank you.)
Port wine history
Port wine is produced in the mountainous regions of the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. It is one of the world’s oldest vineyards, where wine has been made for at least 2,000 years. Port wine owes its distinctive character to a unique combination of climate, soil, grape variety, and production techniques and traditions.
The wine is then transported to Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the river from the old city centre of Porto, where it is aged, blended, bottled, and finally shipped. Despite being named port wine, all of the wine cellars are actually in Vila Nova de Gaia, not Porto.
Historically, Britain was by far the largest market for port wine. This was partly due to the Windsor Treaty in 1386 that established political and commercial ties between England and Portugal. Another contributing factor was the war between Britain and France, which led to Britain boycotting French wines in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Some of the oldest and most famous producers, such as Taylor’s, Croft’s, and Graham’s, were founded by people of English and Scottish heritage who came to Portugal in search of fine wines.
Brandy was added to protect the wine from the long journey over the sea, and thus the process of fortification was born. Over time, it became common practice to add the brandy before the wine had finished fermenting, as this resulted in a fresher, sweeter wine. By the 1850s, the fortification process was a component in the creation of all port wine.
Today, Porto and the Douro Valley are a hotspot for wine-loving tourists. Port wine is enjoyed around the globe, and there is even a worldwide annual celebration of port wine known simply as ‘Port Wine Day’. Mark your calendars for 10 September and make sure you have a bottle ready!
Types of port wine
There are many different official categories in the port wine family, but most can be grouped into 4 main styles:
- Ruby (red) port: A deeply-coloured red port, often with berry and chocolate flavours and slightly less sweet.
- Tawny port: More brown in colour, often with caramel and nut flavours and more sweetness.
- White port: Pale in colour, with bold fruity flavours.
- Rosé port: A newer style of port, made similarly to rosé wine with flavours of berry, violet, and caramel.
Similarly to wine, the ageing process can affect the quality of the drink. A Vintage Port can only be made in years of exceptionally high-quality harvests. This usually only occurs 2 or 3 times each decade. The wine will remain in the vat for only 2 years and then age in the bottle. Great vintage ports can be kept for decades, and can be expensive to buy.
Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port is a wine that was harvested during a ‘vintage’ year, but has been kept in the wooden casks for longer. They are lighter in colour and not as rich as a Vintage Port, but are much more affordable.
The best port wine cellar tours
One of the best ways to experience port wine in Porto is to take a tour of one of the many wine cellars. You’ll learn more about the history of port wine from an expert, as well as getting to sample some. There are plenty of wine cellars to choose from, and we’ve listed our recommendations below.
It’s best to book ahead for whichever tour you choose. Many of the wine cellars are open to walk-ins, but the English (or your preferred language) tours may not be very frequent.
Cálem Cellars are some of the most famous and most visited wine cellars in Porto. The tour includes an interactive museum as well as an insight into the ancient traditions of port wine. It concludes with a generous tasting of two port wines. You can also experience a fado concert at Cálem, a traditional Portuguese style of music.
Espaço Porto Cruz
Espaço Porto Cruz isn’t just a wine tasting tour, it’s a wine multimedia centre. It was created as a place to celebrate the culture of port wine. There are information and exhibition spaces that offer new experiences around port wine, combining it with other artistic creations such as fashion, art, and gastronomy.
Besides wine tasting, you will have access to the multimedia centre, workshops, and chocolate and cheese tastings. There is also a restaurant and a 360º terrace with fantastic views.
Graham’s Port Lodge
Graham’s Port Lodge is perfect for those looking for something a little more sophisticated. Sit back in a comfy armchair while sipping on a glass of fine Vintage Port. The tasting room is in an impressive location, with high ceilings and big windows through which the impressive views of the city can be appreciated.
The best bars in Porto
Ok, so you’ve learnt all about what port wine is and how it’s made, as well as the history. Maybe you’ve even sampled a few and have a favourite.
Now it’s time to explore some of the best bars in Porto.
Base might be the coolest bar in Porto. Set in the Passeio dos Clérigos urban park, it is an open air bar with great views of the surrounding Portuguese architecture. Grab a cosy cushioned bench or sit in the shade of a tree on the perfectly manicured lawn to enjoy your drink.
360º Terrace Lounge
The 360º Terrace Lounge is on the rooftop of Espaço Porto Cruz, and is worth going to even if you don’t opt for the full wine cellar tour there. Take the elevator straight to the 4th floor, and you will be rewarded with views of the Porto skyline across the Douro River. The bar serves an excellent mix of port cocktails, so you can experience a different way of drinking port wine.
Another bar with a view, Miradouro Ignez is back on the Porto side of the river. It’s set just behind the Jardins do Palácio de Cristal, and has a terrace that overlooks the city and river below. Gaze out over the port cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia and see if you can spot the one where your drink came from.
Is Port wine good for you?
Research shows that Port wine is full of beneficial vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and antioxidants, as well as possibly protecting against prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart disease. So do yourself a favour and fill up a glass.
Just remember, Port wine is stronger than most wines so don’t go too crazy with it. Or do – we won’t judge.
Have you enjoyed this guide to port wine?
We’ve also put one together for pasteis de nata, the Portuguese egg custard tarts that we can’t get enough of.
Take a look at our Porto travel guide to start planning your own trip to Porto.
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