Thursday, July 19, 2012
I like wine. I won’t lie; it’s one of my favorite things to drink. When I travel to a country that produces it, I like to go to the source and taste the offerings. From Australia to South Africa, New Zealand to California, I have done the wine regions of many countries. But while my knowledge of wine has grown over the years, my knowledge of Port has not. As such, when I was invited to Portugal to spend four days learning about the Portuguese wine and Port industry, I gladly accepted.
I started my trip in Porto, the most famous city for Port wine. But what most people don’t know is that Porto isn’t really the most important city for Port in Portugal. That title actually belongs to another place: Vila Nova de Gaia.
Located in northern Portugal right across the Douro River from Porto, Vila Nova de Gaia—or Gaia as the locals call it—is best known for its biggest export: Port wine. All of the major producers in the Douro Valley have their Port houses in Gaia, making it the epicenter of the industry.
And the industry dates back a long time. While the exact history of Port wine is debatable, the generally accepted version is that during the early 18th century, England went to war with France and needed to find an alternative trading partner to keep its wine-thirsty citizens happy. Enter Portugal.
The only drawback was that the Portuguese wine, which was produced inland in the Douro Valley, would often go bad by the time it made its way to England by sea. Then someone discovered that when a bit of brandy or spirit was added to it, the wine not only arrived in England unspoiled, but also tasting good. Thus was born the Port wine industry that has flourished for centuries.
Vila Nova de Gaia’s role in the Port trade has always been a pivotal one. Back in the days before the Douro River was dammed, wine producers in the Douro Valley would send their barrels down the rushing river on a precarious journey to Gaia. Once there, it would be stored and aged until it was ready to be shipped further afield.
Over the centuries, technological advances improved shipping methods to the point that today the wine is brought to Gaia in trucks. But many Port houses still age their wines and Ports in the city, and a feeling of history permeates the area.
I arrived in Gaia on a Sunday evening. The city is located on the river, and like it’s neighbor, Porto, Gaia ascends steeply uphill from the water. Our driver took us to the very top of the hill to The Yeatman, a five-star luxury hotel with some of the most stunning views I’ve ever seen. The golden light of late afternoon illuminated the hills and river below, leaving us all in awe.
We were at The Yeatman for dinner, but before we ate, we went on a quick tour. The hotel was a unique concept created by the people behind Taylor’s, which had its famous Port house next door. The idea was to have a hotel that promoted all Portuguese wines and Ports, rotating featured producers regularly.
The Yeatman itself was beautiful, with opulent decor that stayed on the right side of good taste and guest rooms that all had views over the river and the city. There was a decanter-shaped swimming pool, huge terraced lawns, and balconies for outdoor enjoyment.
Naturally, there was also a wine cellar filled with wines from all over the world and Ports from the region. Upstairs was a restaurant where we sat down to enjoy some of those wines and dine on Michelin-starred cuisine.
Dinner started off on a positive note, with amazing local olive oil and several amuse bouches that impressed us all. The most memorable was a thin wafer cone filled with sea urchin mousse and caviar. From there the meal went from salt cod to steak, finishing off with a cherry-inspired dessert and petit fours.
The next morning, we were back in Vila Nova de Gaia for a tour and tasting at Graham’s, one of the largest and most well known Port wine houses in Portugal. There we met Raul, our guide for the morning and one of the most enthusiastic people I have ever met.
Raul took us all through the cellars at Graham’s, explaining the Port making process and the difference between ruby, tawny, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), and vintage Port. He also told us about white Port and rose Port, and showed us a map of the Douro Valley with all of the different vineyards on it.
By the end of the tour, we felt like we had a pretty good knowledge of Port. It was a good thing, too, because when we went back to the tasting room, there were a lot of wines and Ports to try.
We started with two wines from the company’s Altano label, then a delicious one from their Post Scriptum label. From there we sampled ruby, tawny, LBV, and vintage Ports from Graham’s and is sister labels, Dow’s and Warre’s, of which I liked the tawny and vintage the best.
Before tasting, I never realized how many different kinds of Port there were and how each one tasted distinctly unique from the others. Even the colors varied widely from the dark red of the ruby Ports to the brownish amber of the tawny Ports.
At the end, we were treated to special tasting of a tawny Port from 1882. It was coffee-colored and had hints of coffee and chocolate on the nose. It went down almost too easily, and had us wanting more.
Thankfully, we were heading straight from Vila Nova de Gaia to the Douro Valley, where three more days of wine and Port tasting awaited us. If I didn’t leave Portugal an expert on Port wine, it would be by no fault of my hosts. To be continued…