Visiting the Port Wine Cellars

One of my goals for visiting Porto was to see some of the port wine cellars located throughout the city. Or, to be accurate, what I thought was the city. Despite the name of the product – “port” – and the name of the city – “Porto” – the port wine cellars are actually on the other side of the Douro River, in the city of Vila Nova de Gaia.

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barcos ribeiras, looking back towards Porto

Port is a fortified wine, which means that a spirit has been added to it. The grapes come from the Douro River Valley and while there are over 100 varieties approved for use in port production there are only five varieties that seem to be widely planted. Once the grapes have been picked, sorted, de-stemmed and crushed, the fermentation process begins and continues for two or three days. Fermentation is stopped, and the yeasts killed, when the winemaker adds aguardente, a distilled grape spirit (similar to brandy). The timing is quite important as the winemaker wants to ensure fermentation stops before all of the sugar is converted to alcohol.

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tasting room at Taylor’s

Visiting the port wine cellars is a rather simple process and is actually a good value for money. The basic visit costs around €5 which includes both the tour and the tasting at the end. Port cellar visits are also paired with a number of other tourist packages, including fado nights or hop-on hop-off bus tickets, so if you only want to visit one cellar then it could be worthwhile to just buy a package that includes something else.

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some dusty old bottles

I ended up doing two visits, one to Taylor’s with some people I met on the walking tour and then to Ferreira. One of the girls from the walking tour was really focused on port and chocolate since she had friends who did a port and chocolate tasting, but I really wanted to visit Ferreira so I split from the group after visiting Taylor’s.

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Taylor’s Chip Dry White Port

The Taylor’s cellar is located at the top of a rather steep hill and I started to wonder whether or not it would be worth the effort. I was pleasantly surprised to see the beautiful gardens, modern tasting room and a large staff. The tour would be starting in about twenty minutes so they started us off with one of their white ports, the Chip Dry White Port. It had some nice notes on the nose, but on the palate it was a bit harsh, to be honest. The taste of alcohol was just far too prevalent, a disappointing outcome since I’ve tried Taylor Fladgate’s tawny and ruby ports in the past and have enjoyed them. I think that the staff is used to people arriving at random times as they make a provision for it – there are three wines tasted during the Taylor’s tour and they seemed to be pouring the white port to everyone upon arrival. I suppose it beats sitting around with an empty glass!

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giant barrels

There were close to 20 people on the tour which meant that I had to strain a bit to hear the guide. The tour was quite fast moving and we were brought from the tasting room into one of the storage areas to see some of the barrels. The type of port wine, and the requirements of the style, dictates which barrel will be used for aging. Larger barrels are used for late bottle vintage and vintage ports as the winemaker wants to ensure that the wine remains smooth – most of the aging happens in glass bottles – with a touch of oak. Tawny ports, meanwhile, are aged in smaller wooden barrels which means that there is a much stronger presence of oak and also more oxidization. The colour of a tawny shows the oxidization process as they have reddish-orange hues.

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more barrels…

The guide quickly walked us through the cellar, showed us the barrels and pointed out the primary vineyards and regions for their port. We had been handed a guidebook before the tour started and it contained much of the information that she had shared. She briefly touched on phylloxera, describing it as a mosquito, but neglected to mention the role that North American vines had in saving the European wine industry. I suppose that’s still a bit of a sore point.

Back in the tasting room there were two more wines for us to sample. One was a Late Bottle Vintage 2009 while the other was a 10 Year Tawny. The guide had attempted to explain what a 10 year meant versus a 20 year, but it confused some of the people I was with. Basically, the average age of the blend is 10 years. So it could contain wine that is 8 years old and wine that is 12 years old, all blended together by the winemaking team. A few port cellars let you do a blending seminar but you usually need a minimum group size and a budget that is larger than mine.

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Taylor’s LBV 2009 and 10 Year Tawny, ready for our drinking!

The staff in the tasting room were knowledgeable and were able to answer a few questions that I had about the winemaking process and the house itself. I couldn’t help but want to know more about the blending process, and the selection process of wines in the spring after they spent the winter stored in stainless steel tanks in the Douro River Valley. The guides told me that they conduct a scientific analysis on each batch before it arrives so that they know whether or not it will become a tawny, ruby, etc. This is important since they basically transfer the wine into the oak barrels as it arrives.

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each port house has its name boldly emblazoned on the side – you can see most of them from the Porto side of the river

Ferreira was located down the hill, right on the waterfront, and I was told that it was one of the last Portuguese owned port houses. I’m not sure if this is actually the case as I was told that it was part of the Sogrape Group along with houses like Sandeman’s and Offley’s. I tried to ask for clarification from the guide but I think that it was lost in translation.

It was late in the afternoon by the time I arrived at Ferreira and I was told that there was a Spanish tour starting immediately or an English one in close to an hour and a half. Uninterested in waiting that long, and without the requisite Spanish skills to really understand what was being said, I inquired about the availability of a French tour. One was starting in just under half an hour, so I signed up for that and prepared to parlez en français. When I returned to the port house it ends up that my mental preparations were unnecessary – the guide came over and we had a brief discussion, in French, over my language preferences and she told me that it would be no problem to do the tour in English. My linguistic laziness won out and we switched into English.

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cement tanks, generally just used as temporary holding tanks for wine

It was a private tour for a short while until an Israeli couple showed up and started peppering the guide with questions. She finally, tactfully, shut them down and said that she still had a lot to go through before the end of the tour and that she would cover a lot of their questions during the presentation. They also seemed to be strangely fixated on bottle shape.

The Ferreira tour involved a great deal more walking than Taylor’s and we seemed to cover a lot of ground. At Taylor’s we walked in one door, quickly circled around and then ended up back in the tasting room. Since we didn’t start in the tasting room at Ferreira, the route was much more convoluted as we walked down long corridors, through massive storage rooms and even walked up an incline. It was always a bit of a shock to come into a bright room since the storage facilities were kept so dark. There was also a smell present, one that I’ve noticed at other wineries, of slightly musty wood and fermented grape juice. It’s hard to describe, but isn’t giving your senses a workout half the fun of a trip to wine country?

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copy of the baskets used in harvesting

They had a small museum set up near the end of tour with a bunch of old winemaking supplies and machinery. Due to the terrain of the Douro River Valley, with its steep hills, terraces had to be built in order to grow wine on many of the slopes. This unique topography is one of the reasons why the Douro River Valley area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but in more practical terms it meant that the harvest had to be done by hand. Ferreira had copies of the baskets used by the grape harvesters and the large baskets were eventually discontinued because the weight of the grapes on the top was actually pressing the grapes on the bottom, causing the juice to run out.

We finished at the shop and tasting room, where we had a chance to see an empty bottle of their most expensive, and oldest, offering. This bottle was a vintage port from 1863, available for the super low price of €1,500. It would have been a worthwhile investment if I had Russian oligarch money, since that converts to approximately $2,250 in Canadian dollars. It’s not a lot when you compare it to an old first growth Bordeaux, but it’s still a bit more than I would be comfortable spending on a bottle of port!

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1863 bottle of port – only €1500

There were only two ports available for tasting, a white medium dry port and a tawny (that ad no year associated with it). I liked the white at Ferreira a lot more than the white I tried at Taylor’s – there was significantly more fruit on the nose and it was a lot more balanced. I would have rather tried their 10 year tawny, especially after having one at Taylor’s only a little bit earlier, but unfortunately you couldn’t buy additional samples at Ferreira.

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the white and tawny ports sampled at Ferreira

Visiting the port cellars was a fantastic way to spend the afternoon – I would have probably visited more if I didn’t have to shell out €5 or so and go through the tour each and every time. The tour at Ferreira was significantly more interesting and detailed than the tour at Taylor’s, but I think that you received better value for money in the tastings at Taylor’s since you were able to try three distinct types of port. It also provided a good introduction for people who haven’t really tried port before.

There were a lot more to visit, but I managed to tear myself away from the port cellars and the deliciousness in the glass in order to spend some time exploring the rest of the city. It was a challenge, but fortunately I had a full day of wine tasting to look forward to!

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