How many times can you fit “port” into a post title? Three, apparently!
Porto, or Oporto as it’s locally called, is the home of Port wine. Maybe you knew that, but I have to confess that I never made the connection until I started looking into visiting Portugal. Oops. I’ve had Port wine before, but it’s not something that I really considered as a drink to have often, or that I would like a lot. If you haven’t had it, port is a sweet wine that’s best enjoyed in smaller amounts, like for dessert or a nightcap. Little did I know, visiting Porto was going to make me fall in love with Port wine! But where do you go for Port wine tastings in Porto, and which are the best Port wine cellars?
A brief history of Port wine
We all know the British like a drink. During the 17th and 18th centuries Britain was at war with France and decided to boycott French wine, which meant they needed to look elsewhere to satisfy their drinking habits. A combination of factors led to the popularity of this Portuguese drink, including the full bodied flavours of the Douro valley wines that appealed to the British, lower taxes and the addition of spirits to the wine allowing them to make the journey to the north without spoiling. Throughout the following centuries the Port making process was perfected as the wines proved popular, and spirits were added during the fermentation process as they are today. Regulations were brought in to only allow true Port wine to come from this region, in the same way champagne can only come from a specific place in France. The Douro region is now the third oldest protected wine region in the world.
Traditionally the vineyards in the Douro Valley stayed under Portuguese ownership and the Port wine makers bought the wine from the farmers to be transferred to Porto for ageing and exportation. Unfortunately a disease spread through the vines in the late 19th century, destroying many of them and causing grapes to be unusable for over ten years. This lead to sales of the land to foreign buyers who waited for a solution to be found before the Port wine making process resumed. This is why so many Port wine houses have foreign names, rather than Portuguese ones.
What is Port wine?
I never thought I would be that interested in the Port wine making process and in tasting different Ports, but I actually loved finding out more during my time in Porto. Visiting the Port wine cellars in Porto is the best way to learn. Especially when it’s in addition to tasting the wine itself…
Here’s what I learnt:
Wine can only be called Port wine if it comes from the Douro Valley, 100km away from Porto. The grapes used for Port are the same grapes used for normal wine, but it’s what happens after they are picked that separates classic wine and Port wine.
The making of Port begins in the Douro Valley, and ends in Porto. Many of the vines have been there since the Roman times, and how Port wine is made has not really changed in hundreds of years. No machinery is allowed in the vineyard itself, so all collecting is done by hand into baskets and the grapes are transported to machines near the vineyard. I’m not sure I envy that work!
Before, the wine was held in stone vats which hold liquid and heat well, but now it’s mostly in steel vats which obviously have less wastage of the wine (important of course!). Port wine is fermented for only a short time, between three and eight days depending on which Port wine house is making it, and then around 20% brandy or moonshine is added to stop the fermentation process. Once the wine is bottled it stops ageing and it’s ready to drink.
Many people think Port wine must have added sugar, since it tastes so sweet, but it’s just the sweetness of the grapes. Apparently they taste terrible if you try and eat them, but they’re perfect for making wine.
Different types of Port
So after the wine is collected from the Douro valley and transported to Porto it’s aged in different ways to get different kinds of Port. Then we visit the Port wine cellars to try them. Yum.
This is the Port that is most widely known. The name comes from the “town” in English apparently, although I’m not sure why. It’s usually a golden or lighter red colour, but it does actually come from red grapes. The colour comes from the fermentation taking place in smaller wooden barrels, which also add a flavour to the wine. It’s usually paired with desserts and dark chocolate, but it can be with main courses too.
Ruby Port is stored in large vats or barrels which allow the wine to keep it’s deep red colour, more similar to classic wine. Like many red wines, it’s best with cheese.
White Port obviously comes from white grapes, but it can appear more yellow as it gets some colour from the smaller wooden barrels it’s aged in. It’s like a super sweet white wine, and goes well with ice cream, cheesecake and the endless supply of cod fish cakes they have in Portugal.
The newest kid on the block, Rose Port is a more recent invention in the last decade. It has no contact with wood at all, which is why it stays a pinker colour rather than becoming deep red. It’s often served cold and can be used in cocktails. If someone invents an amazing Rose Port cocktail please let me know!
This is a type of Tawny Port that has only a single vintage and is aged for at least 7 years. Other Ports will have things like 10, 20, or 30 years showing on them, but these are blended just indicates a category rather than the actual length of time the Port was aged for.
To be declared as vintage a particular harvest of grapes has to meet very high standards, which doesn’t happen every year. If they are met the single harvest wine is aged in a barrel for a maximum of two and a half years and then for a further ten to forty years in a special bottle that must be stored lying down and has a larger than normal cork. Once opened they must be drunk within a maximum of 3 days. That means you better have a lot of friends around to share with when you crack that bottle open!
They say that in Porto there’s nine months of winter and three months of hell, with temperates reaching over 40 degrees.
The best Port Wine Cellars to try in Porto
I didn’t visit every single Port Wine house in Porto. Trust me, I wanted to, but there are a lot of Port wine cellars and I only had a limited capacity to drink Port before it would be too much! But here’s an overview of the best Port wine tastings in Porto that I did do, and then a bit of info on the other Port wine tours available.
You can fit several Port wine tastings into one day in Porto, but you’ll need to plan carefully if you want to do actua tours of the Port wine cellars. They run different language tours at different times of day. Many of the Port wine cellars have a tasting area though where you can try whatever you like, or do different Port wine flights. “Flights” in a tasting sense are when you do multiple tastings, often paired together especially to give you an overview of a certain type of alcohol and with complimentary tastes.
Kopke is the oldest Port Wine House, dating from 1638. It was started by a German owner who chose the opposite side of the river to Porto town, because it was less populated, the land was cheaper and it’s cooler because of how the sun hits the city. It was a trend that has continued ever since.
At Kopke you can only do Port tastings, not a tour, although they were very willing to answer all our questions. They had a lot of different Port wine flight tastings available but we just picked a few from the general menu. Kopke has a lovely bar area that includes comfy couches overlooking the river. Glasses were around €2-4 euros and then upwards for more speciality Ports.
Honestly, Kopke had some of my favourite Ports out of all the ones I tried in Porto., and I’d definitely rank them among the best Port cellars. Their Rose was absolutely delicious, and for me, they had the best Ruby Port in Porto.
Cálem had the most reasonably priced Port wine tour in Porto that I found. For just €6 they offer a small tour of their cellars with a guide who will explain the Port wine making process and then you get 2 tastings. You don’t see a whole lot of the Port making process, other than some great pictures that show the Douro Valley, and then you get up close with some giant and then smaller wine barrels, but it’s still something.
However, I do have to say that while the Port we tasted was nice, it wasn’t as outstanding as some of the others. They offer different tastings on different tours though, so you never know what you’ll get and like!
Royal Oporto are the only Portuguese owned Port wine house left. Their Portuguese name is Real Companhia Velha but they are exported as Royal Oporto. They don’t have a cellar, just a shop where you can do tastings and buy the wine. They had a huge range for us to taste from and so of course, we tried them all! Their Extra Dry White Port was really good and is apparently a best seller. It was also great to try the difference between a normal Tawny Port and a 10 year one, which I much preferred.
This is the most modern looking out of all of the Port wine cellars in Porto. They don’t have any kind of tasting tour, although you can show yourself around a few exhibits including a cute video with a little boy that shows the whole wine making process from vine to table. You can taste their Port wine downstairs as well. We grabbed our samples and took them up to the rooftop bar, which has an amazing view over Porto. I think because it wasn’t a busy time of year they were ok with us up there just having samples, but you are supposed to buy something normally. We went at the perfect time of day, as the sun was setting in Porto.
In 1790 the son of a Scottish cabinet maker borrowed £300 to launch a Port and Sherry trading business in London. Basically, it escalated from there to become one of the most well known and recognised brands, largely thanks to it’s distinctive logo of a man in a cape with a glass of port at his shoulder. Sandeman run three different Port wine tours, starting from €10 for a more basic tour and ranging up to €40 for a specific tawny Port tour where you can taste a lot of different years. They also have a terrace open from March to October where you can relax with views over Porto and taste whatever you like from the menu.
Graham’s 1890 Lodge
Graham’s began with two brothers, also from Scotland, in 1820. In 1970 it was sold to the Symington family, and it is now the only British Port company owned by a single family. The Graham’s cellars in Porto are still working cellars housing thousands of casks. You can visit Graham’s by reservation only and a Port wine tour costs €12 including a tasting. It’s a little further from the rest of the Port wine cellars though, so it’s good to know you have a confirmed booking.
Taylor’s Port Cellars
Taylor’s offer a self guided audio tour followed by a tasting of two Ports in their tasting room or terrace and gardens for €12. I did go up to the Taylor’s Cellars and although I didn’t take their tour they do have a few exhibits on display that are interesting and you can see for free. You can always just enjoy a Port tasting of your choice without the tour part. Taylor’s is one of the older Port wine houses in Porto, although it was not called Taylor’s until halfway through it’s four century history.
Another Scotsman, Robert Cockburn, and his brother John, were successful wine merchants in Leith, Edinburgh. In 1815 they set up a branch in Porto. Until the 20th century the same family ran the Port wine cellar, although after that other families became involved as well. It is now owned by the Symingtons, the same family who own Graham’s, although they are entirely different brands. You can take a tour of Cockburn’s with a tasting included from €10.
If you had told me before that I would write an entire post purely about the history of Port and where to go Port wine tasting in Porto then I would not believe you, but there you go! That’s the beauty of travelling, we get to learn about things we would have no idea about otherwise. I’d highly recommend a visit to Porto, and if you’re wondering where to stay then there’s some great accommodation around the Port wine cellars. Even if wine isn’t your thing, the cellars are an interesting part of history and trade links in the past. And seriously, just give it a little try, you might surprise yourself!
Have you tried Port wine? Would you visit Porto just to see the Port wine cellars?
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