When in Porto, drink Port!
Or perhaps Gaia should be the more accurate phrasing! Only wines from Portugal are allowed to be labelled as “port” just like how other Protected Designation of Origin products like Champagne. Port wine is a Portuguese fortified wine from the famous wine region of Portugal, Douro Valley. It is located in northern Portugal. Port is usually on the sweeter side and usually red wine. Port is usually drunk as a dessert wine. The wine is produced then a spirit is added to fortify it. This is what makes it so sweet as not all sugar is made into alcohol. After that, the wine is transported to Vila Nova de Gaia or Gaia on the Douro River for storage and ageing before being sold overseas. The wines are held in barrels and aged in Gaia before being bottled and this is still the case right now. In Portugal and Gaia sometimes the cellar is called a lodge. Given how they have been mostly exported from the seaport Porto, this is how they got their name.
Graham’s Port Lodge
This is the first Port winery that I visited. Thank you for inviting me over Maite. Graham’s has a history of over 2 centuries! They have their roots in 1820 and just celebrated their 200th anniversary 2 years ago. Can you imagine this! That’s almost 10 times my age. Graham’s has a lovely lodge, it is located on the west of the city on a little hill, this gives them an amazing terrace with a jaw-dropping view. it is open for tasting only by appointment. So do plan ahead if you are keen on visiting.
I took part in an English speaking tour and there was a total of 12 of us. We started on the tour learning about the wine and the region where Port is made. It is nice learning about the history of the wine as well as that of Graham’s. We learn about how the brand started and how the owner purchase this in the first place. The owners were originally in the textile industry.
We learn from our tour guide, Francisca about the Douro Valley where it all started in 1756. This is the oldest wine region in the world and recently climate changes have changed, resulting in less and less rain in the region. However, the soil and ground in the region retain water very well which helps the vines. Much of the harvesting is still done by hand over a period of a month. They are then transported immediately to being working on the grapes.
One of the main grape varieties is the Tinta and port wines do not fermentate for very long. It only takes 2 to 3 days before the fermentation process is stopped. This is why they have such high sugar content. But starting another process known as fortification is started by adding 77% alcohol spirits which have no taste and flavour. This will instantly kill the yeast and stop the fermentation. This results in port wine having higher alcohol content than dry wines.
Graham’s produces around 80,000 thousand litres and they use mostly French oak for ageing. When the wines come here in the spring they are kept in stainless steel vats before being transferred into barrels to age for 5 to 6 years. While the ruby ports are ready, a huge portion of the wine will be moved into barrels to evolve, where the wine goes from having very little contact with the wood to a lot more in the barrels. This is when they get their amber golden colour from the air and the wood.
The Tawny are not fruit-driven, they are more complex and have flavours of oak, spicy and vanilla. Every year they create about 5 Tawny, from 10 years, 20 years to 40 years. Some are older than 40 years. The oldest port they have are from 1882 where one barrel has been bottled and cost 12,500 Euros.
Port wines can be left open and you do not have to drink them all at one time. Ruby can last about 1-2 months, Tawny can be longer at 6 – 7 months. The Vintage is the best of the best, made from the best harvest and grapes. Vintage ports are not declared every year and vintage ports are always unfiltered. These have to be stored horizontally to remain in contact with the cork. Vintage can’t last the moment you open it and you have to finish it as soon as possible.
We end the tour with a tasting and I was brought to one of their most gorgeous private tasting room. Check out how classy this place is. It looks like a private member club. We tried Graham’s Six Grapes, the most fruity port which is youthful and bursting with fruit flavours. They were aged for 2 years. Then we had the 10-year-old Tawny followed by the 20 year old Tawny. You can see the colour changes as it gets aged longer and longer. My favourite was the Six Grapes. It is going to be so good having a small glass with some cheese.
What I like about Graham’s is how lovely their lodge is! And this is my favourite part. The location of the lodge or cellar makes it perfect! It boasts an amazing viewing of both Porto and Gaia as well as the Luis I Bridge.
Next up on my port journey was a visit to Churchill’s and I was warmly welcomed. Churchill’s is similarly located on a little hilltop and probably just about a 5 mins work from the river. I was warmly welcomed and once my tour was confirmed I was invited to have a sit and have some white port! This got to be the best way to start a tour and the first one that I experienced having a drink first. In my opinion, all wineries should do it this way instead rather than only getting to taste it at the end of the tour.
We started with the White Port which is one of the rarer varieties in town given that most port wines are red wine-based. This is made with white grapes and aged for 10 years. I find it lighter on the palate and much more refreshing.
We then start with a tour. It is much more intimate here and there are only 4 of us. Lisa was a true gem and super knowledgeable. We first heard about the history and an introduction of Churchill’s as well as their vineyard in Quinta da Gricha. Most of the activity happens in Sept and Oct. The Douro Valley isn’t conducive to machines and as such much is still done by manual labour and this includes the manual process like pressing the grapes by feet. This less violent pressing as compared to machines prevent over pressing and extraction of the bitterness.
Churchill’s ports are less sweet and on the drier side. Their style is to allow a longer fermentation and add fewer spirits. This is what makes it unique. They produce White port, Tawny as well as Ruby.
We went back to the tasting room for more ports and start with the Ruby before going to the Vintage and the Tawnys. Churchill’s uses barrels that are at least 7 years to age their wines and some are more than 100 years old. We first tried the 3 years reserve Ruby which taste a lot similar to red wine. This will be perfect with cheese.
After that, we proceed to the 10 years Tawny, you can see how much the wine has developed and it is more of a caramel colour now. It does have a hint of cream Brulee. Compared to Graham’s this is more intimate. My favourite wine of Churchill’s got to be its White Port which is so special and refreshing. It is a rather unique one.
The last winery that I visited was Pocas! Pocas is located rather out of the way and quite far from the riverfront area. I will recommend taking a ride here. It is on the opposite side of Gaia train station. I was warmly welcomed by Leticia who was a gem. Pocas have their roots since 1918. We started with a recommendation of the area and the Douro wine region. The current operator, Manuel Poças Junior is the 4th generation in the family and the winery is still 100% Portuguese.
The ageing process starts in spring. It starts from small barrels which hold up to 200-700 litres to bigger barrels which are made of oak that hold up to 9000 litres. The barrels are around 80 years. We even got to see how the barrels are fixed and repaired when there is a leak.
Pocas oldest port is from 1967 and it is said to have flavours of dried fruits, caramel and smoke. The oldest wines are known as the family reserve and these are like inheritance and pass down from generation to generation. They are kept for heritage and research by future generations. Recently, to celebrate its 100 years of history, it bottled some of its oldest wines that are 100 years old.
We end the tour with a tasting in the tasting room. Typically the colour of the whites gets darker as they get older. The ruby starts in big barrels while the tawny starts in small barrels with more contact with the wood. This makes them have a dark to light change as time goes on. There is also a rose port which uses only red grapes, the difference is the force used in extraction where the grapes are only pressed gently to get a little colour. They are good for cocktails like a port tonic.
We started the tasting with the Brig Rose which is kept in stainless steel vats. They are on the drier side and very refreshing.
We then tasted the 10 years old white which tastes fresh and is best drunk chilled. Following on, I found my favourite port of all, the 20 years tawny. It is magical and we love it so much. That strong hint of almond is so delicious and tasty. This is one port that I could get drunk on.
I have only visited 3 wineries in Port or Gaia but there are tons of them and depending on what you like you can choose which to visit. Visiting Port Cellars and wineries is one of the quintessential things that you have to do whenever you are visiting. It is a part of the culture and the history of the city! I enjoyed it and this marks yet another boozy related visit and experience that I have done after wines, whisky and champagne! As a point of note, I managed to convert my non-drinking mum into a port fan after these four days! Well, she got drunk on port too!
This was a hosted media visit, though all views expressed are my own.