Porto, along with Vila Nova de Gaia, its sister city across the Douro River, is both a destination and a jumping-off point for those who love Port wines and who want to understand them in all their forms and complexities.
It is at Porto that the once wild Douro River — now a sedate series of lakes, locks, and dams — comes to rest in the bosom of the Atlantic Ocean. Beginning in the 1700s, British wine traders built the Port business here, locating huge warehouses in Gaia where the young, tannic red wines, whose fermentation has been halted by a liberal application of unflavored grape brandy, are still blended and sometimes aged. Here, they become rubies, vintages, tawnies, or other iterations, some aged in the bottle and others in huge, ancient, wooden vats or smaller barrels.
Porto is an ideal destination for the sophisticated traveler who wants a comfy bed with a view, Michelin-starred or -noted cuisine and an opportunity to sample a variety of exquisite Ports.
Upriver, still primarily accessible only by old-fashioned trains and hold-your-breath, narrow mountain roads, life is considerably more rustic, if charming. Here is where the grapes are grown on small estates owned by family farmers and the large Port brands or “houses” and where the base wine is made and then transported by truck downstream the following spring.
The Douro is a great place to re-visit downriver and upriver, as I did during this year’s harvest as guest of the Fladgate Partnership, which owns Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, and Croft.