Rufio’s interest in Port wine began many years ago, a love affair actually spurred by lucky standby upgrades. It took some gentle coaxing to get me to enjoy these high sugar- and alcohol-content fortified wines, but with the help of our favorite neighborhood sommelier, I slowly began to appreciate a good tawny now and again.
For years I remained an occasional drinker, but Rufio blossomed into a full blown enthusiast. For that reason, I knew a trip to Portugal required at least one day in Porto (also known as Oporto). I learned during my pre-trip planning that some of the most premier Port wine grapes are grown in a region called Alto Douro, which also happens to be the world’s oldest demarcated wine region. With that, the first few days of our whirlwind Portugal itinerary fell into place.
Porto is akin Portugal’s Second City, but no less beautiful or interesting than more-frequented Lisbon. Even if you’re not interested in Port wine (though once you visit, you may be hooked), Porto absolutely merits a visit for its food, beautiful riverside vistas, and rich history. It’s also a good base for day trips to the historically notable villages of Braga and Guimaraes.
Port Lodge Tours & Tastings
While Porto is enjoying a wave of weekend travelers coming in to new enjoy art and music venues, thanks in part to increased budget airline service, it has long been a pilgrimage destination for oenophiles. No visit to Porto is complete without a tour of the some of the more than dozen wine caves lining the Douro riverbank in Vila Nova de Gaia.
Vila Nova de Gaia is situated across the bank of the Douro River from the Ribeira district of Porto, connected by six bridges – the most in any European city. The grapes that are scientifically selected to be Port wines have been shipped downstream on rabelos boats to the wine caves of Gaia since 1225, where the cooler coastal climate is better suited to aging wine than in the Alto Douro where they are grown. Much of Porto’s history in producing and distributing Port wines is actually embroiled in conflicts between the British and French. The process of fortifying Douro wines with brandy grew out of necessity; the increased alcohol content preserved wines on their passage from Porto to Great Britain, since they had blockaded their neighboring wine producer. For that reason, some of the oldest Port lodges in Gaia have English names like Taylor’s and Graham’s emblazoned across their red tile roofs.
Opening hours for tours and tastings vary, as do advance reservation requirements, but most Port lodges end their last tours of the day by 5 pm. We arrived in Porto mid-afternoon, exhausted from the emotional rollercoaster of 23 hours in transit, following a night of little sleep, all in the name of standby travel. No matter, our time was limited, and as is our nature we were determined to make the most of it. We dropped our bags at the beautiful Hotel Teatro, then made our way on foot to the birthplace of all of Port wines.
We made our way across the infamous Dom Luis I bridge toward Gaia nearly as soon as we arrived. To speed things up a bit, and have a nice view of the sloping river banks, we took the cable car from the landing of the bridge into Vila Nova de Gaia.
With a Teleferico de Gaia cable car return ticket (€9), we were given tickets for a free tasting at Quevedo Port Wine. After darting in and out of the narrow, cobblestone alleys dotted with Port lodges, we started on our tasting journey with our free samples at Quevedo. Given that it was free, the ticket included their basic €5 “fun and easy” tasting, which includes one white and one ruby port.
We were in the mood for something a little more daring, so our next stop was Ramos Pinto. Here we truly felt we were in Port country. A thick binder was pushed toward us in the bustling tasting room, profiling each variety. While I snagged the last available seats with a table (a requirement if you are going to purchase a flight), Rufio carefully selected our flight: a vintage, a late bottle vintage, a 10 year tawny, 20 year tawny, and 30 year tawny.
We took our tasting seriously, writing notes on color, nose, mouth feel, and taste on the little cards they provided. Around the whitewashed room, some visitors from across the European continent sampled flights, others settled in to cozy couches and enjoyed the company of their friends and family with a glass of their favorite.
When we finished, thoroughly impressed with our samples, we ventured onward. It was getting late in the afternoon, and most lodges had finished their tours and tastings and were shuttering their doors for the evening. We found a tavern with a cramped and lively outdoor patio, and settled in for one more glass, this time a rosada.
More than Port
Porto’s epicurean delights extend far beyond the port lodges. When our afternoon tastings in Gaia concluded, we walked back across the bridge, this time on the bottom level, to Porto. While Vila Nova was winding down, the Porto riverside was just beginning to wake up for the evening. A few patrons sipped wine and ate petiscos on al fresco patios, as crisp winds began sweeping down the terraced hillside. We freshened up for the evening, with the ambitious plan to eat some seafood, have a nightcap, and finally get some sleep after our long journey.
Our plan did come to fruition in that we had one of the most amazing “raw bar” meals we’ve ever had at Ostras & Coisas in the heart of the Baixa, or downtown. We learned from the bartender how to eat barnacles, which quickly became a new obsession for us. However, our best-laid plans for an early nightcap and sleep went astray as we exited the restaurant. The Porto that was only just awakening, groggy and slow, before dinner, was fully now fully awake. Revelers poured out of packed bars and clubs into the streets, enjoying local wines and expertly crafted cocktails. Our faces alit with newfound energy, as we are never ones to pass up a good street party. We popped in and out of bars – first a wine cellar, then a kitschy beer bar, next a craft cocktail lounge – all the while weaving our way through throngs of Porteños and visitors alike.
Having explored Porto’s wine caves and raucous nightlife, we were ready for a change of scenery. Transportation options between Porto and the Alto Douro include a scenic river cruise, historic train ride, or an hour and a half drive. We opted for the latter, which turned out to be one of the most scenic and interesting drives we’ve taken. Flying suspension bridges and 4-mile tunnels transported us through verdant hillsides, terraced with grapes, olive trees, and many other of Portugal’s bounty.
We had some time to spare before our first scheduled tasting, so we checked in to our manor house at Morgadio da Calçada. Nestled into a 17th century village, the home and small vineyard have been in Manuel Villas-Boas’ family since 1692. The village is sleepy, save for the odd tour bus that drop off visitors to amble at their leisure down the narrow cobblestone lanes. Manuel is a friendly and welcoming host, and an expert in the region and the science of growing and producing Port wines.
Settled in, and with dinner reservations secured by Manuel, we made our way down into the valley. Our first stop with Quinta de Seixo, a property belonging to the famous Sandeman family of vineyards.
Grape vines have been growing in Alto Douro since the Bronze Age, and in 1756 the region became the first demarcated wine region in the world. Much like Champagne, fortified wines can only be classified as Port if they are grown on one of the many quintas, or wine estates, within this region.
We arrived a few minutes late for our scheduled tour, thanks in part to misjudging how long it would take to traverse the dozens of hairpin turns en route to Pinhão. No matter, the accommodating staff hastily welcomed us in for our own selected tasting before the tour group filed in to the tasting room. Missing the tour ended up working in our favor; we had our choice of samples to try, along with a cheese board. We selected the “complex and elegant” flight for €6 and the “fruity and intense” flight for €9. As a special bonus, the lovely tour guide offered us complimentary tastes of their exceptional 10 year and 20 year tawny.
We could have enjoyed sipping on their 20 year tawny all night, but we had another reservation. We did arrive at Quinta do Bomfin in time for the tour, but learning from our serendipitous mistake earlier, we opted to design our own tasting instead.
Quinta do Bomfin is located near the beloved Pinhão railway station. From the bougainvillea-draped terrace, you can sit back and relish one of the Symington family’s – whose many estates produce nearly a third of premium Port categories – 1985 vintage while the steam engine train and sailboats slowly meander by on the tracks and river below.
We finished our evening strolling along the picturesque riverbank, before dining on succulent locally-raised pork paired with Morgadio da Calçada’s own 2007 Reserva Tinta. Later, Manuel regaled us with stories of the region while we enjoyed more of his family’s reserve wines and, naturally, a nightcap of Port, under the large walnut trees outside the manor house. Unfortunately, our plans for another tasting at the popular Quinta de la Rosa and a scenic river cruise the next day were unexpectedly dashed when we learned the road into Pinhão was closed for several hours for a marathon. With that, we reluctantly departed for the coast. I may have arrived in Port country a casual drinker, but learning the about the rich history and the science of the completely underrated drink, surrounded by the beautiful terraced hillsides of the Douro may have propelled me to Rufio-level enthusiast.
Itinerary: If you’re coming in from elsewhere on the continent, you’ll probably want to start your wine tour in Porto, as direct budget flights are available from a number of European cities. If you’re already in Portugal and have a rental car, you could opt to begin your wine journey in Alto Douro and end in the cellars of Porto, tracing the process from vine to barrel.
Getting there and around: The drive is beautiful, but if you’re not comfortable on hairpin mountain turns, in long tunnels, or on mile high bridges, consider taking the river boat or the train!
Check here for Teleferico de Gaia opening hours and prices.
When to go: The crowds aren’t bad in May, though it can be a little chilly still. September starts the harvest season, but accommodations will be limited and prices higher at this time.
Vineyard tips: Check prices online before purchasing from the vineyards. We found better prices in Lisbon wine shops for some of the vintage bottles we selected at the vineyards.
While it is definitely worthwhile to take a tour to learn about Port history, growing, and production process, the tastings that come with the tour price tend to be less interesting than the flights available on the quinta menus, or ones you can pick and choose on your own. If you’re planning to visit multiple estates, check to make sure you can visit the tasting room without having to join the tour, to sample at your leisure.
Have you been Port tasting in Porto or the Alto Douro? Leave a message below!
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Disclaimer: Some of the links in this post are affiliates, meaning if you reserve a room using the link I may make a small commission, at no extra cost to you. As always, the opinions and recommendations presented in this blog are mine, and always an honest reflection on our experiences. Thank you for reading, and helping to make our future travel dreams a reality!