On our recent trip to Portugal, we spent five lovely nights in Porto, which was voted Best European Destination in 2014. It’s also the birthplace of port.
Port is a type of fortified wine. Fortified wines are made by adding neutral grape spirit (aquardente) to stop the fermentation process and secure the remaining sugar in the wine. Port has a similar designation as champagne – only fortified wines coming from Portugal’s Douro region can be called “port”.
The location of the port wine cellars in Porto is slightly deceiving though; as the cellars aren’t actually located in the town of Porto itself. They’re found across the Douro River in the municipality of Vila Nova de Gaia.
The port cellars are often referred to as “caves,” but most of them are designed more like warehouses. In the time we stayed in Porto, we visited several of these cellars (although one wasn’t really a cellar…but more on that later). These are the five I would recommend if you’re so lucky as to spend some time in the Porto region.
Taylor’s is probably one of the most recognizable port wine companies around, especially in Northern Canada where our port wine selection is rather lacking. But Taylor Fladgate is one that is seen consistently on local liquor store shelves. In fact, my first experience trying port was a bottle of Taylor Fladgate back in university.
The company is one of the oldest port houses (opening in 1692), beginning with an English merchant by the name of Job Bearsley. Joseph Taylor, originally a manager in the London office of the company and later a partner, became sole owner in 1826, giving the company the name of Taylor’s.
In 1838, a partnership agreement was signed between the Taylor’s company, and two merchants by the names of Morgan Yeatman and John Fladgate. This gave rise to the company’s full and present name of Taylor Fladgate and Yeatman. The company has since expanded to include the Yeatman, a luxury wine hotel just a short walk from the Taylor’s cellars.
Why it’s worth visiting:
Personally, I wanted to visit this cellar because it was the only port wine company I knew by name and I quite liked their product. So if you’ve ever had Taylor Fladgate then you’ll want to visit their cellars and take the tour, which runs about 30-40 minutes. Interestingly, I was under the assumption that they were the largest port wine company in Portugal, however that isn’t the case. In the top 15, they come in at number 13 on Ranker.com.
The tour itself was actually quite comprehensive, and covered the entire port wine making process from foot to mouth, as it were. Yes, although they have proper equipment to do the grape-crushing, apparently nothing comes close to the perfection of the human foot, which is able to crush the grape skin and fruit without also crushing the seeds, which adds bitterness to the final product. So went our tour guides’ claim, that they still often crush their grapes with foot-power, even allowing tourists to dance around in huge vats of the gooey stuff during the summer grape harvest. I’m not sure whether I believe it, but it’s a much more romantic image than big stainless steel machines doing the work.
Tours of Taylor’s are available for a reasonable price too. For 5 Euros you get the tour of their cellars plus three port tastings at the end: a chip dry (the first dry white port, first launched in 1934), a late bottled vintage (also known as LBV, these are ports that weren’t quite good enough to be awarded “vintage” status, but are the next best thing) and a tawny 10 year old.
We also visited Calem, which is right on the main road along the Douro River, so you can’t miss it.
Calem is much newer than Taylor’s, only getting its start in 1859. Initially it began life by exporting wines to Brazil in exchange for exotic woods. They now export their ports to about 30 countries around the world.
Why it’s worth visiting:
Calem is super-easy to find, so you can hit it as soon as you arrive in Vila Nova de Gaia. Calem also offers tours of their cellars, but in reality, the story of how port wine is made is very much the same everywhere you go, so the process doesn’t change and the repetition may start to get dull if you’re planning to do more than one tour.
That being said, the tour at Calem offered a visual of the numerous floods the region has experienced over the last hundred years or so, which was something we didn’t learn about anywhere else. Below is a timeline display, including a beam of light indicating the flood water levels for each great flood in the area. For example, 1962:
Their tasting room, while lacking aesthetically, had an impressive array of ports, olive oils and wine-related souvenirs for purchase. They also have fado shows if you care to take in some traditional Portuguese music. And if you want to visit the number 1 port wine company in Portugal? You’re looking at it!
Offley’s was opened in 1737 by William Offley. But it was a man named Joseph James Forrester, who joined the company in the 1830s that changed the course of port wine making in the region. He was the first person to physically map the Douro River and valley area. His passion for viticulture and the Douro region earned him the title of Baron in 1855 from the King of Portugal.
Since we were in Porto in the low season (November), some cellars weren’t offering tours, and we hadn’t booked anything in advance, we just showed up to a port cellar and asked if tours were available. By the time we got to Offley’s though, we had already had both the Taylor’s tour and the Calem tour, so we decided not to ask at Offley’s if tours were still available (the sign on the door said they were open from March to October, but it seemed like they were still running some tours of their facilities.) Their tasting room was still open, however, and that was what we were most interested in.
Why it’s worth visiting:
Offley’s had a great selection of menu options for port tasting, including port and cheese or chocolate pairings, and themed flights. Again, prices were reasonable; 4 euros for “the Classic” tasting flight, for example. We chose the Intense and the White flights to try.
Which brings me to the next reason to visit Offley’s – one of the most generous pours we experienced at any of our tastings:
I mean, dang, right? Our server was knowledgable and gave us the low-down on each port, especially the Lacrima, a rich, even sweeter variation of white port. Their tasting room had a nice, calming vibe to it too, including a water feature.
The Croft company is the oldest company still producing port wine. (They started way back in 1588!) The company began with Henry Thompson, a wine merchant from York. His main focus was in trading Portuguese wine to England, but he also chartered his sailing vessels to bring goods back from England, such as textiles. The company underwent a few name changes over the years as partners came and went. John Croft joined the company in 1736, and eventually the company name changed to Croft.
For being such an old company, they’ve managed to remain somewhat innovative, creating the first ever rosé port.
Why it’s worth visiting:
First off, let’s go straight for the visual: this was the prettiest tasting room we’d seen. Stone walls, thick, crooked wooden beamed ceilings, and even cobwebs. I could have stayed here forever!
Also, because we were here during the low season, it wasn’t very busy. When we arrived, it was us and two other people and that was it. When our tour guide appeared and announced the next tour was beginning, we were the only two who stood up. I guess the other couple was just there for the tasting. So we were lucky enough to get a private tour!
Our guide was very sweet and open to any and all questions since it was just us, and since we had already had two tours of other facilities, we didn’t need the Coles’ Notes version of how port gets made. Instead, we talked about the unseasonal weather, the impact of the weather changes on the grapes, and even traditional Portuguese Christmas traditions, with an emphasis on port, of course. It was definitely a specialized tour that no one else would have had!
But getting back to their tasting room. I mean seriously, how cozy does this look? Who wouldn’t want a cask of port in their sitting room?
Another reason to visit Croft is their fascinating history. Specifically, the history of John Croft III’s son, known as Jack the Spy. An accomplished scientist and linguist, he was recruited by Charles Stuart, the British Minister in Lisbon, to collect intelligence on French troop movements in the north of Spain during the Napoleonic Wars.
And then there’s the port. These were probably our favourites, although maybe the atmosphere had something to do with the enjoyment.
Quevedo is a bit of an honourable mention, as it’s not a port wine cellar proper, it’s really a port tasting room without the huge casks stacked up in a high-ceilinged back room.
Quevedo popped up after new European Union legislation was created, stating that both grape growers and wineries in the Douro could export their wines directly to the retailer. One of our tour guides in the Douro Valley referred to Quevedo as a “tourist trap”. But that isn’t always a bad thing.
Why it’s worth visiting:
When we purchased round-trip tickets for the gondola in Vila Nova de Gaia, we were given tickets for two free port tastings at Quevedo. Score! Even if something isn’t actually free, I like the illusion/impression of getting something for nothing. Quevedo was one of the busier locations for tastings, no doubt for this very reason, but it was a nice vibe. Prices were fair as well, if you wanted more than your freebie tastings.
The ports weren’t bad at all, and we went with one of each: a white, a rosé, a ruby and a tawny (which is a ruby aged in smaller casks so the wood adds vanilla and oaky notes). The tasting was straightforward and without pretense.
It was also kind of nice to do a tasting that didn’t include a tour, since there were other companies that had this in the bag. Quevedo also hosted live fado music in the afternoons, so you didn’t have to wait until late in the evening to catch a live show. So “tourist trap?” Maybe. But that suited us just fine.