I’m going to start this post with a disclaimer: I don’t even like Port. For those of you that haven’t drunk it, Port is a fortified wine, typically red, and rather sweet. We visited the Port Caves of Porto solely for the benefit of my husband, but I enjoyed seeing them, too. I may have sampled a few drops (of white Port, of course. I avoid reds like the plague).
If you are overwhelmed with the huge number of options for your visit to Porto, read on! I’ve refined your options, so you can enjoy a relaxing day getting mildly plastered on the rather potent local tipple.
To start, lets talk about the history of Port and Porto.
WHY IS PORTO FAMOUS FOR PORT?
Non-fortified wine has been made in the Douro Valley since Roman times. After the Kingdom of Portugal was formed in 1143, it became one of the key exports of the region. The supply of wine from Portugal became even more critical as French and British trading ties soured. The English discovered Portuguese wine in the 1660s, when political problems between England and France cut off access to Bordeaux wines. English merchants living in Portugal offered up the rich wines from the area as a worthy alternative. The Brits were only too happy to have something else to drink.
When sending their wine to Britain, the exporters sometimes added a bit of brandy or grape spirit to stablise the wine for its journey by sea. This increase in alcohol stopped the fermentation process. This left a greater amount of residual sugar and a sweeter wine. Eventually, everyone started adding brandy before the wine had finished fermenting, helping the Port to age well – and be suitable for cellaring.
While the Douro Valley has seen its ups and downs – it was severely impacted by the Phylloxera louse in the 1800s – it today continues to flourish, and is an amazing place to visit from Porto itself.
WHAT ARE THOSE LITTLE BOATS I SEE CRUISING THE RIVER?
The flat-bottomed rabelo boats traditionally carried people and cargo to and from the Duoro Valley. They are unique to the region. The particular design of the boat was made to deal with the fast moving currents of the river before it was dammed. It can’t be found anywhere else worldwide. The last commercial voyage of a barco rabelo took place in about 1961. Apart from the boats that operate as cruisers, you will mainly see them out and about on the river during the festival of St. John.
WHAT DOES PORT TASTE LIKE?
According to Matt, raisins. Or berries. The official line, by the kind folks at WineFolly, is that Port typically has flavors of raspberry, blackberry, caramel, cinnamon and chocolate sauce.
There are a few different types of Port, but the two main styles of Port include a red Port with berry and chocolate flavors, and a tawny-colored Port with caramel and nut flavors. Fine aged Vintage Port or Tawny Port have an even wider array of subtle flavors including graphite, green peppercorn, hazelnut, almond, butterscotch and graham cracker. I’m not sure if we picked up on those, but hey, good to know.
There are many different official categories of Port, but most will fall under 4 main styles:
- Ruby (Red) Port: a deeply-colored red Port which includes Vintage, Late-bottled Vintage (LBV), Crusted and Ruby Port
- Tawny Port: a very sweet barrel-aged port with oxidative nut and caramel flavors
- White Port: made with indigenous white grapes including Rabigato, Viosinho, Gouveio and Malvasia
- Rosé Port: This is a new style of Port wine made like rosé wine with flavors of strawberry, violets and caramel
If you really want to make sure you walk the talk, download this infographic and study it prolifically before visiting Porto. The above information is pretty much all from the WineFolly website, because I have absolutely no idea about anything related to Port.
WHICH CAVES SHOULD YOU VISIT?
We spent about eight hours meandering through the caves over two days, so managed to fit in a few visits. Thankfully, most of the other tourists visiting the area seemed to be there to enjoy the Port – not to get sloshed. You’ll find a few jolly characters though, and I’m 99% sure they will be Brits abroad. Anyway, we did find the prices a little more expensive for tasting than expected, so don’t come expecting a terribly cheap day. In saying that, we went to some fantastic caves – and a few tasting shops and restaurants – and I’ve outlined our recommendations below.
This seemed to be one of the most popular – and busiest – caves in Porto. Lots of tourists. We shared a chocolate and Port flight. The Ports sampled here weren’t Matt’s favourites – they seemed to fall heavily on the raisin side of the scale. To make matters more interesting, a rather disheveled group of African businessman came in for a tasting not long after we arrived. It got jovial awfully quickly. We made haste. If you are interested in learning about the history of Port, they have an interesting (but expensive!) museum you can visit.
Offley was good enough that we went back twice. It was quiet, air-conditioned, and the staff were very knowledgable. We opted for Offley over Taylors, considering you can buy a bottle of Taylors at any duty free shop worldwide. It’s a little hike up the hill – or at least it seems that way after a few drinks – but it’s worth it. Note that they are actually only open during the peak season, and shut from November to February. Matt brought a few bottles here, so they must have been doing something right!
Reading a few reviews online, people seemed to feel like this place pressured you into buying, and that you needed to be dressed to the nines to get in. I don’t know if things have changed over time, but we didn’t get that impression at all. We waltzed in, normally dressed, Matt tried a few different drinks, and the price of them were deducted from the two bottles he bought. I didn’t see any hard sell, and the man who spoke to Matt was knowledgeable and friendly. It’s not one of the big producers, but given they do seem to be catering to the ‘luxury’ end of the market, it’s a bit of a different visit.
Matt then wanted to try a few different Ports that weren’t tied to specific houses. We went to find some food – and a bit of Port go with it, of course! Just a note about Portugal. The service is pretty ho-hum everywhere. With that in mind, we still had a lovely time at The Wine Barrels. They offered a flight for a reasonably priced 12 euros (even if no commentary came on the wines). It didn’t really matter. Matt was pretty jolly by that time, anyway.
This was the last place we visited, and our guide really knew her Port. They have over 200 different varieties on offer. Many of these are from smaller vineyards that aren’t represented by the big Port houses over the river. It’s only a tiny space, but if you have any interest in learning about Port, don’t miss it. Their flights were well priced, from 10 euros, and there were many different options. They will also ship bottles home for you, if you’re feeling a little worse for wear. Which, judging by some of the people falling around the riverside, was not uncommon after a day in Porto.