On my last tour of Portugal we visited the Douro Valley to discover Porto wine and its production sites.
Already during our stop in Lisbon we had an interesting tasting at the Mercado da Ribeira, beginning to understand that Port Wine is not made from a single type. We understood the word Towny, Ruby, late bottled, but we didn’t fully understand their differences, especially after the three sangria drunk before tasting.
The only thing we understood was that all the production is done in the Douro Valley north of the city of Porto and we immediately tried to figure out where it was because everyone told us that the view would be exceptional.
Port and the Port Wine Cellars
We arrived in Porto now in the evening coming from Coimbra and immediately headed towards the Douro River which crosses the city in the Old Port. On the right bank in the popular district of Ribeira, made up of traditional bars, restaurants where fado is sung and shops selling typical products, while on the left bank is the Vila Nova de Gaia area where all the cellars of the famous dessert wine are concentrated.
Wineries Porto Vila Nova de Gaia
Sandeman, Ramos Pinto, Offley, Croft, Tylor’s, Ferreira. The whole world of Port liqueur wine in one square kilometre. All overlooking the Douro river, which was used as a route for transporting wine from the mountains to the port of embarkation with characteristic boats still moored in front of their companies, to be sent all over the world.
Our faithful Lonely planet told us that one of the most interesting to see was the Sandeman winery, one of the oldest and largest. So we decided to take a guided tour with tasting at the winery to better understand the secrets of Port Wine.
The Sandeman Winery
After about half an hour of waiting we entered for the guided tour – alas in Spanish – but after sipping some good wine we understood everything very well. Sandeman was born in 1790 from George Sandeman, who began his trade between Portugal and Great Britain with a loan of 300 pounds from his father.
The cellar is wonderfully large, perhaps the largest in Porto. If I had to find analogies I would say that it is very similar to the Florio winery in Marsala… also for production similarities.
Here we begin to understand the differences between the various types of fortified wine produced, already from the shape and size of the barrels: Towny Port is produced in small Sherry Oak barrels, while Ruby Port is produced in large wooden vats.
The unmistakable Sandeman brand, the black silhouette with the glass, was designed in 1928 by George Massiot Brown. It represents the two characteristic territorial elements of this production: the Tabarro used by Portuguese university students still used today, which we have seen many times in Braga, and the wide-brimmed, stiff hat typical of Spain.
At the end of the visit the real tasting, 3 wines: A Ruby, a Towny and an Aged bottled Vintage
Visual differences between a Port Towny and a Port Ruby
If you find yourself sipping Port at a friend’s house you will immediately understand if what you are drinking belongs to the Towny or Ruby family in a simple way: The Towny lets you see the bottom of the glass while the Ruby doesn’t!
The Douro Valley
We had already planned to visit the Douro valley and its wine growing area, but after our visit to the Sandeman winery the decision was made. We set off in the morning in the direction of Vila Real on a journey lasting about 2 hours west of Porto.
Being Tuscan, I have seen some vineyards: the hills of Chianti and the area of Maremma are magnificent, but I assure you that the Douro valley has no equal and will amaze you.
Growing vines in the Douro is part of what I call “heroic agriculture”: boundless mountain landscapes snatched from the woods, all terraced in vineyards. I was lucky enough to go there during the harvest to see that everything is done strictly by hand.
It is no coincidence that the Douro area is classified as a World Heritage Site by Unesco for its enchanting landscapes and for being the oldest wine growing area in the world officially established in 1756.
Braga and Guimaraes
We took a very long tour to get to the Douro vineyards because we wanted to visit Braga and Guimaraes and see the beautiful sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte.https://www.youtube.com/embed/R72Z1aGTSaE
However, in order to devote more time to this enchanted valley, I recommend that you head straight to Vila Real on the A4 motorway to Pinhão. The Duero valley takes a whole day to fully appreciate. The most beautiful landscapes can be found along the N323, the magnificent road that goes up and down the hills in the middle of the vineyards that starts from Sabrosa, a UNESCO World Heritage road.https://www.youtube.com/embed/uCSNCQU0mqE
With ancient knowledge, men have tilted the terraces so that the sun reaches the vines and gives the grapes the warmth they need for their wine. Thus, from the product of the earth and the work of man, a unique wine and landscape were born.
PINHÃO e il fiume Douro
After our ecstatic wanderings through the vineyards we reach the Douro and Pinhão rivers. We stop for a coffee and recover from the fatigue of the road. Pinhao owes its fortune to the famous Portuguese liqueur wine. To see in Pinhão its magnificent railway station completely decorated with azulejos and still in time. From March to October it is here that the historic steam train that takes tourists through the vineyards along the Douro river passes.
Rest, we continue along the famous N222 road towards Régua, to return to Porto. The road runs along the river, reaches the dam and offers breathtaking views. There are not many places where you can stop to take photos but when you get the shot you must. When we arrived in the evening at our hotel in Porto we were very tired, but I assure you that it is a route worth taking, I will always take it with me!
Types of Port
That of the Port is a rather variegated family that expresses itself in different types and characteristics:
Porto White (Bianco)
Yes the port also exists White. A very young, but dry liqueur wine conceived as an aperitif, made from sweet or dried grapes, according to the indication on the label. It is very reminiscent of dry Marsala.
Known as Pink: also as an aperitif, produced since 2008 by some farms. Light and fruity wine, produced with the technique of Porto Ruby but fermented like a Rosè wine.
Young port, aged 3 years in cask. It is not refined in bottle and is the most sold type of Port. They are very sweet wines, ruby red (Ruby), extremely drinkable but not complex. There are some Reserves with longer maturation periods and much more elegant.
The vine is the same as the Ruby, but the maturation takes place in small oak Sherry barrels which favour a greater contact with the wood. The wine loses its ruby red colour to become more nuanced and amber (Tawny, in fact). It is a less sweet wine than Ruby, characterised by the presence of toasted nuts, such as nuts and hazelnuts, but also dark chocolate.
Porto Aged Tawny
Identical to Tawny but the barrel stay can be up to 40 years. Once opened, they can be drunk within 3-4 months. They can be exceptionally complex, but never like Vintage wines.
A rather rare style, whose term means grape harvest, consists of an aged Tawny Port made from grapes of a single vintage. The Colheitas must mature in barrels for at least seven years, but they are aged for periods of up to 50 years. On the label, the year of harvest and the year of bottling must be indicated. Madeira can also have the same characteristics and are also called Colheita, so beware of errors.
Widespread mainly in the United Kingdom, characterized by the presence of a considerable sediment at the bottom of the bottle (crusts). It is essentially an unfiltered Ruby, composed of a blend of several vintages and requires decantation, in addition to filtering with a special funnel to remove excess sediment. These wines are very pleasant and generally quite cheap.
Porto Late Bottled Vintage (o LBV)
They are single vintage wines but, unlike Vintage, they are aged in casks for 4 – 6 years and then bottled. In the first case (4 years), they have a slight evolution in the bottle, in the second case (6 years), no. On the label, as in Vintage, there is an indication of the year of harvest and the year of bottling. With an average cost, they border on a cheaper alternative, although not qualitatively comparable, to Vintage, like single vintage Porto Ruby, with some features common to Vintage.
The highest point of Porto’s production is Vintage. Only 2% of the Port can bear this name. Single vintage wines, produced in vintages considered to be of exceptional quality, mature 2 years in cask and then continue to evolve in bottle. The evolution can be extremely long, leading to priceless results for the taster.
Sediment decantation and filtration is absolutely necessary. On average, only three Vintage vintages are declared in a decade. Expressions with at least 15-20 years of age can already be appreciated now (such as the memorable vintages 1963 and 1985, declared by all manufacturers), for others you will have to be patient. The bottle, once opened, must be consumed within 4-5 days.