Travel tales

Just a drop: A port wine tasting in Porto

Port tasting samples in Porto, Portugal

It’s in both the name of the country and the city – there’s no escaping port on a trip to Porto. I’m a huge wine lover and have tasted my way around wine regions across the world, but for some reason port has never really been on my wine radar. I’ve tended to lump it together with other fortified wines like Madeira, Marsala and sherry, dismissing them as something old-fashioned. In the UK you’d traditionally think of your gran drinking a sweet sherry and upper-class gents having a port and a cigar after dinner. But times are changing, with fortified wines being used in fashionable cocktails and new varieties being developed to appeal to more people. So when I visited Porto I had to investigate for myself.

Stack of port barrels at Taylor's in Porto, Portugal

Stacks of port barrels at Taylor’s

Porto is home to over 40 port producers – well almost, they’re actually based across the River Douro in Vila Nova de Gaia. The hillside is covered with red-roofed buildings topped with famous names like Graham’s, Taylor’s, Cockburn’s and Croft. But the port isn’t actually made here. Production starts 50 miles upstream in the Duoro Valley, where the climate is perfect for growing the grapes used to make port. Like Champagne, port can only be produced in a specified area. Once the grapes are picked, pressed and fermented, the port is transported to Porto for storage and shipping around the world. Traditionally it was sent downriver in the rabelo wooden barges you see on the Duoro, but it now travels less romantically by road.

Port tasting at Taylor's in Porto, Portugal

Tasting samples of Taylor’s dry white, ruby and tawny ports

Many port lodges run tours, where you can try their different ports and learn about how they’re made. Some are free and others cost a few euros and include tastings. We had a tip-off that Taylor’s did a good tour, so headed there first… or at least tried to. After crossing the Dom Luis I bridge we headed for the Taylor’s sign. It only looked a few hundred metres away but half an hour worth of climbing up and down through winding streets we finally found it, just in time for the next tour. Our guide took us thorough the cellars and explained how port is made. It starts off like normal wine, but brandy is added during fermentation which stops all the sugar in the grapes being turned to alcohol, making it sweeter and more alcoholic. Different types are produced and aged in slightly different ways, giving a variety of colours, flavours and sweetness levels.

Port tasting at Taylor's in Porto, Portugal

Three different ports we tried at Taylor’s

Theory done, it was on the tasting. We had three ports to try, starting with a white port, which I’d never tried before. Traditionally you think of port as dark red, but 90 different grapes can be used to make it, including white ones. White port can be sweet or dry, and this was their refreshing and crisp ‘Chip Dry’. You can drink it as an aperitif or mixed in a port and tonic – much tastier than it sounds. Next was a deep red ruby port. These are only aged for a few years so keep their bright colour and fruit flavours. And finally we had the tawny port, aged for longer in wooden casks so contact with wood and air give them a lighter, browner colour and more mellow flavours. Then there are the vintage ports, made with the best grapes from a single good year and aged for decades, which sell for hundreds of pounds (sadly not part of the tasting).

Port tasting at Taylor's in Porto, Portugal

Touring the cellars at Taylor’s

So am I a port convert? Definitely. I enjoyed them all but the tawny was probably my favourite. It tasted like dried fruit and caramel, almost like a pudding in a glass. From Taylor’s we went on to Ferreira, down the hillside near the banks of the river. The next tour here was in Spanish so we gave it a miss and went straight to the tasting room. Expecting the samples to be a few centimetres deep, we ordered a dry white, sweet white, ruby and tawny, for €1,50 each. We ended up with four almost half-full glasses of port and which took the rest of the afternoon worth of tasting and chatting to work our way through (at 20% ABV you have to remind yourself not to drink it like wine). Nearby along the riverside a convenient cable car took us back up the hill to the Dom Luis Bridge to save us from too much post-port exertion.

Port tasting at Ferreira in Porto, Portugal

Generous-sized tasting samples for €1,50 at Ferreira

But I had one question left: why do so many port companies have English names? Apparently it dates back to the 17th century when England and France had a trade war. French wine was banned and the English started getting their wine from Portugal instead. Brandy was added to the barrels before shipping it to England to stop it going off and people loved the sweet, strong taste. So English wine merchants set up port companies in the Duoro and Porto to make more, many of which are still run by the same families today.

The details

You can get a full list of Porto’s port cellars on the Association of Port Wine Companies website. Prices for tours and tastings vary: Taylor’s is €7 (with three port samples) and Ferreira is €6 (with two samples).

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 Tasting port in Porto's Vila Nova de Gaia on a tour of the cellars and a tasting of two of Portugal's most famous producers – Taylor's and Ferreira

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25 Comments

  • Reply
    ailsapm
    March 8, 2013 at 11:04 am

    Yum, you should try hot port sometime, Lucy – made just like a hot whiskey but substituting port for the whiskey – guaranteed to chase away the winter blues! 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      March 8, 2013 at 2:30 pm

      Wow, I don’t like whiskey but I love mulled wine so this sounds great!

  • Reply
    Suzanne (Travelbunny)
    March 8, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    Great post – you really must have a glass or two of Port with your next cheeseboard – my favourite combination! I learned a lot about Port that I didn’t know here and aren’t those tours good value 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      March 8, 2013 at 2:31 pm

      I managed to find space in my suitcase for a couple of bottles to bring home and have been having it with cheese – apparently ruby port is best with cheese and tawny better with dessert, though they all tasted pretty good to me!

  • Reply
    Ship's Cook
    March 8, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    Port and Tonic? sounds all wrong but what the hell might give that a go. Re the English brand names the same is true for sherry and Harvey’s

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      March 8, 2013 at 2:32 pm

      Sounds bizarre I know but works pretty well, very refreshing. Might have to give sherry another try sometime, that’s another fortified wine I’ve never really tasted properly (excuse for a trip to Spain maybe!).

  • Reply
    beyondlisbon
    March 8, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Late harvest Ports are also very good – incredibly sweet and can be served with entrées (chilled) or with desserts (at room temperature). It tastes similar to Moscatel, if you ever tried it.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      March 8, 2013 at 2:35 pm

      I tried Moscatel on a wine course and really liked it, and love sweet wines like ice wine or Sauturnes so will have to give that a try too.

  • Reply
    aBitofCulture
    March 8, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    Like you, I’d never heard of white port before I went to Porto but fell in love with it. It’s hard to find at home, but selfridge’s usually have some – I might have to get myself a bottle now. A great read – cheers!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      March 9, 2013 at 9:12 pm

      Good tip, I might have to give Selfridge’s a go before summer – though their wine section has some great stuff, I better get saving first!

  • Reply
    Janice and George Mucalov
    March 8, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    Nice post on port to whet our whistle before traveling to Portugal later this year – we have assignments to write about a cruise on the Douro River from Oporto…

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      March 9, 2013 at 9:13 pm

      Thanks, and enjoy your river cruise, I didn’t get chance to go further up the Duoro this time but definitely one for a future visit.

  • Reply
    holidayaddict
    March 8, 2013 at 9:59 pm

    I’d love to go Port tasting! I went sherry tasting in Jerez a few years ago when my sister was living in Spain and it really opened my eyes to a drink I realised I knew nothing about. Suffice to say I love a really dry, white fino sherry now, the sort of stuff I never knew even existed! We’re off to Portugal next month, but it will be Lisbon this time!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      March 9, 2013 at 9:14 pm

      I’m a bit of a sherry novice so might have to try a white fino as it sounds interesting. Enjoy your trip to Lisbon, I’ve heard really good things about the city so look forward to seeing how you get on.

  • Reply
    Arianwen
    March 9, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    I’ve never really been a fan. It’s like wine gone wrong to me. But perhaps a few tastings would convert me…

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      March 9, 2013 at 9:15 pm

      I think it helps to think of it as a totally different drink to normal wine, and a few tastings can’t hurt either!

  • Reply
    maryrichardson
    March 12, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    This is inspiration for me. I’m leaving on a wine trip tomorrow and your post makes me excited!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      March 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm

      I love travelling around wine regions! Hope you have a fantastic time, will make sure to check out your site to see how you get on, I’m always on the lookout for new wine destinations.

  • Reply
    restlessjo
    March 18, 2013 at 9:25 pm

    We did even worse with Taylors, Lucy- arrived at closing time, and couldn’t be bothered to climb up there again another day. No wonder people were arriving by taxi! The views looked lovely though.
    Ferreira is supposed to be the one that Portuguese people recommend. Must be the size of the samples!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      March 18, 2013 at 9:57 pm

      Oh dear! It was quite a maze to get there. We didn’t have the best views as the weather wasn’t so good that day, but I can imagine on a sunny day that terrace would be a great place to while away an afternoon.

  • Reply
    Suzy
    March 24, 2013 at 9:11 pm

    I didn’t get to do a tasting when I was in Porto but I did get to drink some port. Your tasting though makes me want to return and try some more. It wasn’t my favorite drink of choice, but I think I need to try more.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      March 24, 2013 at 10:35 pm

      I wasn’t convinced about port before the tasting either but once you try a few (and get over the fact that it might look and smell a bit like wine but it’s a totally different thing!) it definitely grows on you.

  • Reply
    Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista
    March 26, 2013 at 6:51 pm

    I haven’t found too many Ports here in the states that I like but would LOVE to visit Porto and the Duoro Valley for the port! In fact, I really think I’d like to enjoy a river cruise along the Duoro tasting port all the way.

  • Reply
    pam
    May 4, 2016 at 9:02 pm

    Great tips on Porto! I searched your site hoping you had made a trip to Portugal. I am going to Porto and Lisbon in June. My group is already during a tasting and tour of Taylor but I now hope to also work in a trip to Ferreira. I went on their site and really could not find out how to get there but will work that out when I arrive. Do you remember any other good tips from your trip to Porto? I really enjoy reading your blog and posts!!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      May 6, 2016 at 3:22 pm

      Thank you! Ferreira is quite easy to find, as far as I recall it was on the way down to the river from Taylor’s. I didn’t get chance to do it but I hear the boat trips in the old port barges are good too.

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