Each HOUSE has A STORY – and A wonderful PORT TASTING EXPERIENCE
Although wine-making in the Iberian peninsula pre-dates the Roman occupation, the earliest recorded shipment of port wine took place in 1678. Porto became the centre of the trade from the early 18th century, although the wine itself is made some 80 km away in the Douro valley. Casks had to be transported long distances by boat, so to keep the wine fresh, it was mixed with a little brandy.
Thus the wonderful drink of port wine, with its distinctive flavour, was created! Nowadays, brandy is added during fermentation in order to create the fortified wine we know and love. But although methods may have changed and modernised, you can step back in time by visiting the old port wine houses.
Vila nova de gaia
The port wine houses are located on the southern bank of the River Douro at Porto, in the industrial neighbourhood known as Vila Nova de Gaia. This area has a very different feel from the Cais da Ribeira on the opposite bank, which is well on its way to gentrification. Vila Nova de Gaia still has dilapidated buildings that seem to be on the point of collapse.
If you enjoy industrial history, you’ll love this area. A stroll along the riverside is a good way to soak up the atmosphere. You can even take a river cruise on one of the old rabelos that used to transport the wine barrels from the Douro valley.
The British connection
The close diplomatic relationship between the UK and Portugal goes right back to the 13th century. The alliance is thought to be the longest-standing in the world, and has facilitated many commercial agreements benefitting both nations.
So it’s no surprise that the British were deeply involved in the port wine industry from its earliest beginnings. It all started when the advances of Napoleon encouraged the British to look beyond France for their wine supply. They developed a taste for Portuguese wines, particularly for port wine.
The function of the port wine houses in Vila Nova de Gaia was to receive, pack and transport goods to customers. British merchants initially bought into this side of the business, while the Portuguese continued to look after the grape growing and winemaking side of things.
Following a disastrous phylloxera outbreak in the late 19th century, some landowners sold their devastated vineyards to British merchants who were in a position to hold on to the land and wait for a solution to be found. It took almost a decade of research to find a phylloxera-resistant root stock which could be grafted onto the vines.
Today, several of those famous British names are still evident in the port wine industry, such as Croft, Graham’s, Taylor’s and Cockburn’s.
Most people are aware of at least 3 port styles: ruby, tawny and white. There are others, however: vintage, late bottled vintage (LBV), crusted and garrafeira. Vintage port is released only for the very best years, and must meet stringent standards in order to be approved. The vintage year is always recorded on the bottle label, which is one way to spot a wonderful port!
There are various sub-categories and premium versions of these styles, depending on factors such as whether the wine is aged and for how long, the varieties of grape used and whether they originate from a single vineyard. Every estate or quinta has its own special characteristics, based on local climatic conditions, environmental features and soil (terroir).
In 2008 a new rosé aromatic style of port was released by Croft. Other port houses have followed suit with their own versions.
Planning your port tasting tour
Being located within the same area, most of the port wine houses can easily be visited today by strolling around on foot. Each has its own offering when it comes to port tasting tours; some also have bars, restaurants and even museums to show off their colourful histories.
Of course we don’t recommend visiting all of them for port tasting in one go, unless you intend to be like a professional taster and use a spit bucket! After all, port is much stronger than wine. We limited ourselves to visiting 4 houses in one day, with lunch in between.
Another option is to join an organised tour. Some houses also offer private tours for small groups, which must be booked in advance. If there are children or young people in your party, they may be able to join your tour if you choose wisely. Some of the houses provide alcohol-free grape juice for kids. Be sure to check the relevant websites before you go.
We have included 16 port wine houses on our list. This would be a long post if we wrote about them all, so we’ve decided to feature four of them in particular: two British and two Portuguese. You can refer to the map below to see where each one is located.
Sandeman are particularly known for their tawny and vintage ports, which we can testify to be excellent.
George Sandeman was an ambitious young entrepreneur from Perth, Scotland. Based in London, he set himself up as a wine merchant in 1790 with his brother David, specialising in port and sherry. George was the first to ‘brand’ his barrels with his initials using a branding iron. You can see these old implements when you visit the Sandeman cellars, which George bought for his growing business in 1811.
The Sandeman ‘Don’ – a dark figure in a Spanish hat and Portuguese student gown, holding a glass of ruby port – was created in 1928 and remains the brand’s distinctive trademark. Tour guides at the cellars wear the Don style of dress.
Our visit to Sandeman Cellars occurred as a result of couple of chance encounters. The brand first came to our notice when we visited the Fonab Castle Hotel in Perthshire, Scotland for a memorable New Year party (you can read more about this in our post Why you should experience a luxury Hogmanay break at a Scottish castle). We were intrigued to see that the castle’s fine dining restaurant was called Sandeman’s.
It turned out that Fonab was built for George’s nephew in 1892.
Subsequently, we unexpectedly bumped into the Sandeman family again, this time at The Don restaurant in St Swithin’s Lane, London. The occasion was a dinner organised by the New Zealand Society. We had never heard of the restaurant before then. Turns out that its premises once housed the London base of George Sandeman’s growing wine export business!
During that dinner we met a representative of the present day Sandeman company, who promised to arrange for us to have a private tour of Sandeman Cellars should we ever visit Porto. That was enough to convince us to take a trip.
The tour was excellent. We loved seeing the musty wine cellars, full of old barrels and historic exhibits, and learning more about the man whose family we seemed destined to get to know. If you’re not lucky enough to secure a personal tour, Sandeman Cellars offer a wide range of options. I’m particularly tempted by their Port Wine and Chocolate Experience!
This Portuguese wine house is distinctive because, unusually, it is associated with a woman – the amazing and indefatigable Antónia Adelaide Ferreira. Born in 1811, she inherited Casa Ferreira 33 years later, at a time when she had been widowed and left with 2 children. The odds may have been stacked against her, but she managed and expanded the business with exceptional courage and determination.
When phylloxera attacked her vines, Dona Antónia headed to England to search for a solution. She returned with the new American vine roots that were immune to phylloxera, to graft onto her vines. She also helped others in the Douro region to overcome the devastating effects of the outbreak.
Today, Dona Antónia’s name and image still feature on the labels of Ferreira port. You can learn more about her and the history of Casa Ferreira when you visit the cellars. Various different port tasting experiences are offered, incorporating visits to the Vintage Museum, garden and cellar. Tastings of ruby, tawny and white port are served on azulejo tiled tables.
In recognition of Dona Antónia’s achievements, the annual Premio Dona Antónia (Dona Antónia Prize) is given to exceptional Portuguese female entrepreneurs who contribute to the country’s economic and social development.
If you choose Taylor’s as one of your port tasting venues, we suggest going just before lunch. That way, you can refresh in their wonderful terrace restaurant Barão Fladgate. Here you can enjoy a tasty lunch overlooking the Douro and the city. It’s a very popular stop so book in advance if you want to be sure of getting a table.
Taylor’s are best known for their rare old tawny ports, some dating back to pre-phylloxera times. The company was founded in 1692 by Job Beardsley, a London innkeeper who was one of the early British adopters of Portuguese wine. In 1744 his grandson Bartholomew became the first British shipper to buy his own property in the Douro Valley.
Joseph Taylor was made a partner of the company in 1814 and was sole owner by 1826. By 1835, Joseph’s health was failing so he brought in 2 new partners: John Fladgate and Morgan Yeatman. They continued to develop the business and bought more land in the Douro Valley. John was later honoured by the Portuguese government for his work in fighting the phylloxera outbreak.
Taylor Fladgate Yeatman, as the firm became known, have managed to survive and thrive through difficult times – such as the phylloxera outbreak and world wars – thanks to their constant research, experimentation and innovation. They introduced the first Dry White port to the market in 1934 – Taylor’s Chip Dry – and in 1970, the first LBV. They have also expanded their vineyard holdings in the Douro Valley.
A tour of Taylor’s cellars costs €15 per adult and €6 per child (8 to 17 years). Children under 8 are admitted for free. The cost includes tastings of 2 port wines – Chip Dry and LBV – with grape juice and cookies for the kids. You can view many museum pieces that bring the history of the company to life, and the many characterful figures who have made it what it is today.
We must also mention the rose garden, which is the perfect place to take a moment after lunch, before proceeding to your next tasting.
4. Real Companhia Velha (the royal oporto wine company)
The oldest Portuguese port wine company has the distinction of royal connections, having been founded by royal charter of King Don José I in 1756. Like Taylor’s, they are known for their vintage tawny ports. Their vast collection is said to include bottles dating back to the year of their foundation!
Real Companhia Velha is located a little further away from most of the other port wine houses but it’s worth the walk – the tours are excellent. Classic, Premium and Founders’ tours each include visits to the warehouse, museum, and tastings of 4 ports along with a presentation on the company’s history. The price differences between the 3 types of tour reflects the quality of ports included in the tastings.
Another option, if you want the full luxury version, is the ‘Trio of experiences’. This covers the same content as the tours, with premium level port tasting, but also includes a 3-course lunch with tea or coffee at the company’s 17.56 Enoteca gastro wine bar. Lunch begins with an aperitif tonic port and ends with a Quinta das Caravalhas reserve tawny port. The cost of this experience is €68 per person. Advance booking is required.
Other port wine houses
These other wonderful port wine houses offer tours and tastings to visitors. The hardest part is choosing which ones to leave out! Please refer to the map above.
12. Porto Cruz
14. Ramos Pinto
Where to stay in vila nova de gaia
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If you’re taking your port tasting very seriously, and want to stay locally in Vila Nova de Gaia, there’s really only one place – The Yeatman*, which is right next door to Taylor’s.
Not only does it have a luxury spa, indoor pool, private terrace with superb views of Porto and Caudalie personal care products in the bathrooms, but it also boasts a 2-star Michelin restaurant. What’s not to love? The hotel also has its own programme of port tastings, seminars and wine dinners.
If you’re not quite ready to bust your budget on luxury accommodation and prefer to save it for port tasting, Booking.com* have a range of great stays in Vila Nova de Gaia to suit all pockets.
Alternatively, you can of course stay across the river in the city centre of Porto. If you’re looking for ideas for other things to do in Porto, take a look at our post on 7 top reasons to visit colourful Porto.
Visits to the douro valley vineyards
Many port wine houses offer visits to their quintas in the Douro Valley, either through direct bookings or by means of a third party organised tour. They typically include river transport, lunch and tastings. It’s a lovely way to spend a day out of the city and experience the winemaking side of the industry.
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