Spain, Italy, France. These are the places most people first think of when they imagine going on a wine-tasting trip in Europe. Portugal seems to get lost in the shuffle, a side trip on the Iberian Peninsula or a long strip of land between Spain and the sea. But that’s about to change. Not only is Portugal one of the most affordable wine-tasting destinations in Western Europe, but in addition to producing an incredibly diverse array of quality wines, the country also offers enough other specialty drinks to keep your liver working overtime for weeks.
The country has been getting big buzz lately; not only are Portugal’s wines top-notch, but the food is better than ever, with talented new chefs putting modern twists on traditional cuisine. Travel in Portugal is cheap, easy, and — for the moment at least — relatively uncrowded. Here are a few potent potables not to miss in Portugal.
Port, a fortified wine, is Portugal’s most famous and distinctive export. In the early 1700s, during England’s war with France, the citizens of England were deprived of French wine and looked to Portugal for a replacement. But the wine spoiled on the long trip, so they devised a method of fortifying it to increase its longevity. A neutral grape spirit, called aguardente, is added to the wine-making process to stop fermentation, keeping more of the natural sugar intact. The wines are then aged in barrels or bottles depending on the style — white port, ruby port, tawny port, late bottled vintage, colheita, blends, and vintage port.
In the 1700s and 1800s, the grapes for the port were grown in the Douro Valley and then shipped to Porto, where they were turned into port wine and aged in cellars (called caves) in the city so they could easily be shipped down the river to the Atlantic and then on to England. Nowadays, the grapes are still grown in the Douro Valley (in fact, they must be in order for the end product to be called port) but much of the cellar space is just for show. And as in the early days, many of the port houses are still owned by the English. Yet the tradition of port making — and port drinking — is decidedly Portuguese.
Where to drink it…
Porto, or Oporto, is the center of the port wine industry, though the port houses of Porto are technically in Vila Nova de Gaia, a short walk across the iron-trellised Ponte Luís I bridge, made by a partner of Eiffel. Here there are more than a dozen port houses, like the more touristy Sandeman, Taylor’s, and Graham’s, along with lesser-known (and still Portuguese owned) Wiese and Krohn, Burmester, and Kopke, the oldest of the Porto port houses.
Some, like Croft and Taylor’s, offer free tours on which visitors learn all about the port history and production, as well as the varying styles. Others, like Sandeman, may change a small fee for the tour and tasting. And still others, like Kopke, don’t offer any tours. Instead, visitors to Kopke can sample by the glass or order a port wine flight, which is paired with chocolates. Tastes range from €1 to €3 on up to €8 to €15 (and much, much higher) depending on the age and style. Or, visitors can opt for a flight with pairings for just €13.
For one-stop shopping, head to the Port Wine Institute in Porto (there is another one in Lisbon), where you can sample from hundreds of ports starting at €1 per glass while taking in beautiful views of the Douro river. To get closer to the source of the wine, you can also book a day cruise down the Douro. For the ultimate in luxury, stay at The Yeatman Hotel, a wine hotel on the Vila Nova de Gaia side. The hotel offers wine-themed rooms with private patios overlooking Porto, just steps away from the port caves. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/Amaury Henderick)
Try it with…
Most port is traditionally served after dinner with strong cheeses, chocolates, or fruit. White port is served as an aperitif before dinner, with fruit or milder cheeses.