Portugal’s namesake beverage from its namesake city – it seems of the utmost importance to have this experience in order to truly get a flavor for the country. But what exactly is port? What makes it different from other wine? Is it even good?
Let’s start with a couple of caveats. One, as many of you know, I’m not a big drinker. I love food, but alcoholic beverages have never really been my favorite part of travel. However, for the cultural component, I partake, and even enjoy some of them. (I rarely drink when at home, and could easily give up alcohol entirely without a second thought.) Two, I tried port once, more than a decade ago, when I lived in San Jose. I didn’t like it. But I wasn’t in Portugal, and perhaps it wasn’t great port, so again, an exception to my “don’t force yourself to have repeats of experiences you dislike” rule could reasonably be argued. Both of these things said, this was a segment I was kind of dreading, hence the awarding of my second ever title of Jonathan vs. (The first was Jonathan vs an ATV.)
Here in Porto, wineries have been lining the south bank of the Douro River for centuries. This is where wine came to age after the grapes were harvested and fermented east of here in the Douro Valley, one of the best wine regions in a Europe that is full of such places. Port is in fact the oldest wine appellation (name) in the world, with porto officially becoming the name in 1756. (Today, wine sold under that specific name comes from here, while any called “port” or “port wine” can be made anywhere, similar to champagne vs sparkling wine.) The reason the wineries are on the south bank, in an area called Gaia? The number of sunny hours here was better for aging the wine than on the other side, in Porto proper. Boats would bring barrels of wine down the river to this spot, and while tanker trucks are the modern form of transport, many wineries still have a boat anchored in the river, used only during the festival of Saint John in June.
A couple port boats parked in the Douro
I am here, having crossed the magnificent Luis I Bridge, to learn about port and to taste it, hopefully gaining appreciation for this most historic of wines. My journey begins at Ferreira, a winery just off the riverside. Founded in 1751, this is one of the oldest wineries in the region. Even better, thanks to my Porto Card, off-season tours and tastings here are 30% off! It certainly is the off-season, as my 2pm tour is just the guide and myself. We wander through the winery, through tunnels carved into the hillside, past barrels and vats, historic artwork, and antique equipment used in the wine-making process, while he tells me the history of Ferreira.
While the company began a couple generations earlier, it was Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira who grew it into the largest wine producer in the region. In fact, when she died in 1896, she was the wealthiest person in Portugal! She left the company to her sons, who inherited all of her money and little of her business acumen, and within not long, it was bankrupt. Today, the label operates as part of a wider conglomerate, but still commemorates the work of Dona Antonia, with her image on some of the bottles.
A portrait of Dona Antonia
So what is port exactly, and how is it different from other wine? I ask the question in front of a large vat holding 70,000 liters (!!!) of the stuff. According to my guide, the answer is fairly simple. After three to four days, fermentation of port is stopped by the fortification with a brandy that alone would be undrinkable. Normal wine is left to ferment naturally without this interruption. As a result, port is both sweeter and stronger than most wine, weighing in at 19.5-22% rather than 12-14% alcohol by content. Beyond that, varietals function similarly to normal wines. There is white port, a new rosé developed in the last few decades, and reds – ruby and tawny. Tawny ports are aged in oak barrels for flavor, while rubies are in large vats or stainless steel barrels so they don’t develop the oaky flavor. Some ports are aged, some drunk young. Some are single grape, some are blends. There is much more variety than I had known!
70,000 liter vats!
When the tour ends, it is time for the tasting, and two large glasses are poured for me: a white port, honey-colored, and a tawny. The white is lovely, sweet and smooth. The tawny lives up to its reputation for oak, a flavor I personally don’t like. This is the port I had tasted before, and the reason I had decided I didn’t like the stuff.
Port, round one
I don’t think simply trying two is enough to judge a whole cast of wines. Fortunately, there are more than enough wineries to go around, and Taylor’s offers many tasting options both here in Porto and in Lisbon at the Time Out market. I decide to taste the spectrum, including white, ruby, an aged ruby, and a tawny. A pleasant conversation with the sommelier leads to a rosé also being poured. Again, the tawny is oaky and not to my palate. The white and rosé are lovely, though strong. The ruby ports? Divine! And this from a guy who doesn’t like to drink red wine often.
Port, round two
The strength of the wines catches up to me quickly, even with relatively small pours. These are not for the faint of heart, or the alcoholically-inexperienced, to drink lightly, especially without food. I find myself light-headed quickly, even with my water bottle and some almonds Taylor’s provided to accompany the tasting. At least my only other plan for the day was to walk by the river!
Evaluating the challenge, I think I can safely call this one a win. Not only did I survive what was, for me, a large amount of alcohol – especially for a solo experience – but I even managed to enjoy some of it. In Jonathan vs Port Tasting, Jonathan comes out on top!
Note: thank you to Visit Porto and North for providing me with my Porto Card, without which this experience may not have been as easily possible.
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