Explore port wine in Porto

Tuesday, 16 April, 2019
Clifford Roberts
South Africa has a long history for making champion port-style wine. Go back even further, and the journey leads to Porto, Portugal, writes Clifford Roberts.

The 360° Terrace Lounge is cooking tonight. It's winter, but the open-air venue atop the Porto Cruz building of Gaia, Portugal is busy.

From here, there's a view of the bustling Avenue Diogo Leite,the cable car for sightseers, the 172m-long bridge of Dom Luiz 1 and the Douro River that flows below it. On the other bank is Porto's old town, a chocolate box collection of narrow alleys and weathered apartment blocks.

Porto is where the fortified wine gets its name, but Villa Nova de Gaia is Ground Zero for the city's port wine experience. It's home to a concentration of ancient cellars and local visitor centres, including Porto Cruz.

The punters in the rooftop bar are sipping cocktails. Here and there are a few glasses of port, which makes this experience so fascinating.

I can't remember the last time I was in a South African equivalent where glasses of port were being passed around.Of course, that the diversity of the beverage is on show here helps to push along the sales.

The story of port is ancient, but centres around the Douro Valley where the wines are made and extends some 150km to Porto where the wines are blended and matured.

It was in the mid-1700s that the Douro Valley became one of the first to be demarcated as legislated region of winemaking.

"It was pioneering at the time," says our guide Tania Ferreira at the home of Graham's port.

We listen to her in the coolness of a dimly lit cellar; the air thick with the smell of maturing wine and wood. Most of these buildings are original. Their thick, moss-covered walls provide ideal insulation, but the roof trusses showing the weight of the heavy clay tiles they bear. Nearby, a fountain trickles softly.

"British traders wanted to develop the trade in port from the Douro while Douro farmers wanted to regulate the system.

"This old alliance between Portugal and Britain still exists and became the political context for the demarcation of the Douro Valley," she says.

The British influence is immediately apparent to the Porto first-timer. In the case of Symington, owner of amongst others the Graham's brand, the original family members settled in Portugal in the 19th Century. Buildings all around Gaia and Porto are emblazoned with port wine brands: among them Taylor's, Sandeman, Croft and Offley.

The Douro Valley is largest mountain vineyard area in the world. Some of its vineyards are famously planted on terraces, many dating from the 18th Century, along inclines of 30 degrees. " The climate where the wines are grown is drier than Porto. The soil is rocky slate and schist," explains Tania. "The vines must struggle deep down in search of nutrients, but the advantage is grapes with concentrated sugar sweetness, which is good for making port."

In the back of my mind, I was thinking of the arid Klein Karoo town of Calitzdorp; home to our own excellent tradition of port-style wines where Portuguese varieties have thrived.

The Douro has traditionally been dedicated to port, but these days half of the plantations are dedicated to table wines. According to Tanya, more than 150 grape varieties are planted in the region.

Harvest generally gets underway in September. As juice is extracted in traditional open-tanks or lagars, fermentation gets underway. After two or three days, fermentation is halted when neutral grape spirit of around 77% alcohol in strength is added. In this way, natural sugar from the fruit is retained.

This fortification is also one of the reasons for the wine's age-ability. Casks used for the maturation of port are generally older than 10 years, having been used mostly for the storing of red wines. Thereafter, some can go on to serve as storage for even 90 years.

After vinification, the wine is transported to Porto and the cellars in Gaia, where the cooler climate aids maturation – plus it's closer for loading up on passing ships.

Porto is as picturesque as they come and a magnet for tourists, especially from South Africa.

The older mode of transportation, traditional cargo boats called rabelos, were used until the mid-1900s, but remain on display along the banks of the river. It was a harrowing journey, facilitated somewhat by locks built into the river. These days however, the wines get to town by road in tanker trucks.

Visitors keen to get to the valley can do so in various ways, including boat and train. A historic railway traces the river all the way to the Douro and even stops at some of the estates.

While the moderate winter makes Portugal an all-year destination, it's a season when many estates are closed, and visitors are restricted to Gaia and the many specialist wine shops littered across the city.

We spend two full days exploring the area on foot, taking in the spectacular views from the bridge and then from the elevated Hill Garden. Our farewell to the city is a Porto classic: the port tonic - the cocktail aperitif that pairs dry white port and tonic water, on the veranda of the Yeatman Hotel.


Sidebar 1:

The ties between SA and Portugal

South African and Portuguese wine relations have been in the headlines of late.

At the beginning of March this year, two South Africans were among speakers at the Climate Change Leadership wine industry conference in Porto – Vinpro soil scientist Heinrich Schloms and André Roux, Director of Sustainable Resource Management at Department of Agriculture: Western Cape.

In February, a wine tourism delegation from Portugal was hosted in South Africa by SA Tourism, Cape Winelands District Municipality, Vinpro, Wesgro and WOSA. Among the 17 delegates were Secretary of State for Tourism Ana Mendes Godinho, president of Tourism Portugal Luis Araújo and Wines of Portugal president Jorge Monteiro. The mission received insight into local wine tourism and related initiatives;and, how wine tourism contributes tothe local economy, transforms regions and provides sustainable livelihoods.

Sidebar 2:

The state of tourism in Portugal

Tourism is among Portugal's biggest economic drivers.

According to Tourism Portugal, it ranks:

  • 17th for tourist arrivals (World Tourism Organisation, 2017); and
  • 21st for tourism revenues (World Tourism Organisation, 2017).

Tourism is responsible for 50% of the total exports of services and 18% of the total exports of goods and services. It provides 7.5% of total employment in Portugal.

Port tastings are a dime a dozen along the Gaia riverbank. Among them is Quinta do Noval
Port tastings are a dime a dozen along the Gaia riverbank. Among them is Quinta do Noval

As with all vintages, some years are more keep-worthy than others
As with all vintages, some years are more keep-worthy than others

Aged Tawny Ports
Aged Tawny Ports

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