In Portugal Port is King
By Kaleel Sakakeeny
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Really, it was Portugal that “launched a thousand ships,” not Troy, in spite of the mythology.
And it’s too bad the intrepid maritime masters of the known world – Vasco do Gama, Magellan, Henry the Navigator – couldn’t have fortified themselves with Port, Portugal’s most famous product. It would have made their journeys no less historic, but perhaps less horrific.
Alas, Port wasn’t created until the 17th century, and today it’s undergoing something of a renaissance.
So never mind that this easy-going, southern European country produced navigational giants that dominated the sea routes of the world, or that it controlled colonies as diverse as Brazil and Angola.
What it controls today is perhaps more precious.
According to international law, only Port produced in Portugal can be called “Port.”
And this sought after liquid Ruby must come from one section and one section only of the land: the upper Douro Valley in the north- east part of Portugal.
These are the demarcated Port vineyards of the world, the roads less traveled by visitors to this interesting country, but ones that ought to be taken.
Happily, Port’s public relations efforts have caught up with the times.
Once considered the drink of royalty or of fussy, traditional Men’s Clubs, today Port is drunk by those with the curiosity and interest to appreciate the complexity and variety of this “Vinho de Vida,” wine of life.
The Port Wine Trail begins in Porto, a three and a half hour train ride north from Lisbon (see Lisbon Box), and the gateway to the Douro Valley’s prized vineyards.
But Porto itself is an elegant, old city, rich in Baroque cathedrals, winding, cobblestone streets, twisting alleys and huddled 17th century homes, still inhabited by the original families.
At night, Porto is more artfully lighted than Paris.
Whoever designed the lighting scheme dramatically illuminating the old cornices and Rococo facades, is a master artist.
In the bright light of day, colorful bits of laundry wave in the breezes from the Douro River.
Sleek crafts slip silently along the river carrying oaken casks of Port on their open decks.
The Douro divides Porto from the small town of Vila Nova de Gaia, on the other, nearby shore.
Both Gaia’s and Porto’s waterfronts are architectural delights: flower-draped homes listing with age line the banks; small cafes spill along the walkways, and orange-tiled roofs are shaded by towering Baroque and Gothic spires.
The hills of Gaia are home to the lodges wherein lie the sleeping casks and bottles of Port, quietly aging to perfection.
For some kinds of Port, the wait may be as long as ten, twenty or fifty years.
Taylor Fladgate Fonseca (perhaps the preeminent producer of Port in Portugal www.taylor.pt and www.fonseca.pt ) has taken the lead in making the drink more accessible to the public through educational and PR programs.
Its lodge is a handsome affair, with an extensive patio projecting over the rows of tiled roofs and the river.
Free wine tasting are part of the daily tours, and in the adjacent garden, staff give lively talks about Port and pairings, discussing the differences say, between Tawnys, and Late Bottled Vintage Port. (see box)
At the end of the day, orientation completed, the traveler is ready for the trip by train into the heart of the vineyards, to the town of Pinhão, some two and a half hours away.
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The Porto train station is a work of art.
Its cool, blue and white hand- painted tiles (Azulejos) crafted from the region, depict life in Portugal from Crusader times to harvest time.
Spend a few minutes before boarding the small train that slips away from the city, passing stalks of corn grown green in the late summer, past farms punctuated by the ubiquitous red and orange-tiled homes.
There are many small villages begging to be explored, someday.
The land morphs into acres of terraced vineyards, wrapping around hill after steep hill, and flecked with silver green olive trees.
Each stand of grape vines is hedged by low stone walls, the terraces no wider in some cases than an arm’s width. It’s amazing to think that someone planted all these vines; patiently placed each stone.
Each vineyard is its own microclimate, so grapes grown in one area will produce a Port that is different from grapes grown a mere half mile away.
Now and again a bunch of bright, blue flowers surprises the eye.
The Pinhão train station is surprisingly as beautiful as Porto’s.
But Pinhão is a very small village where little has changed over the centuries. The deep silence is broken only by the occasional rumble of a car’s tires on the cobblestones street. And then only very briefly.
This the heart of Port wine country, the main artery that serves the various Quintas (estates) that grow the grapes for the world-wide companies that make them: Graham; Sandeman; Royal Oporto; Quinta do Noval and Taylor Fladgate with its Taylor’s and Fonseca Ports.
There are many other small villages to visit from Pinhao on day trips: Alijo, Sao Joao da Pesqueira or Tua along the Port Trail, with many authentic inns and Pensão (Pousadas).
You’ll travel winding roads and stay at some memorable places along the way.
But a stay at the Fladgate-built Vintage House firstname.lastname@example.org www.hotelvintagehouse.com) is obligatory.
An old Port lodge set just back from the river’s edge, the rooms, terraces, gardens, bar and dining room are lovingly tended. It’s a classy place, and a perfect launching pad to explore the region.
Lucky guests can witness the decanting of a vintage Port, a complex ritual involving heated tongs, cold and hot water, a candle and the artful cutting off of the bottle’s neck, just before the cork ends, allowing the liquid to flow into a decanter of shaped, cut glass.
It’s possible to be invited deep into a Quinta and see the harvest. Better, if timing is right, the traveler can see the “treading” of the grapes.
Bare-footed groups of men and women crush the grapes in stone vats (Lagares) accompanied by Portuguese musicians, and followed by a very happy celebration.
While only a fraction of the harvested grapes are prepared in this time-honored way, interestingly the modern “treading” equipment I saw was designed like human feet, confirming, I suppose, the wisdom of old method.
Port has become a drink for all seasons and occasions, Gillyane Robertson, the British-born wife of Taylor’s Chairman, Alistair Robertson, points out.
Her guests at Vargellas (the Taylor’s Quinta) have include Dick Cheney, various royalty and other notables.
But I visited Vargellas as a Port plebian, and came away with the realization that the land, the wine and the traditions of Port can make anyone feel special.
Maybe even a bit noble.
This is not a café-society city
Far from the financial and political nerve centers of Central Europe, Lisbon retains the flavor of a country not quite so driven by time.
It’s not an elite café-society city. Being stylish doesn’t quite matter here. In fact, the city is a bit conservative as European capitals go. What does matter are families, different generations enjoying themselves and each other. And hard work.
Lisboans seem to know how to appreciate life without quite trying so hard or making it so obvious.
Old Lisbon is the Alfama district, once a Moorish stronghold, where small tavernas and neighborhood cafes spring to life from hidden doorways and narrow alleyways.
The twists and turns of the walkways spill out onto an old church or crumbling castle…or lovers kissing.
But Lisbon is also impressive museums and contemporary design centers living comfortably with Baroque cathedrals and boutique specialty shops.
Perhaps most of all, Lisbon is Fado music, that uniquely Portuguese, soul-searching sound that speaks of things lost…and of dreams never realized.
The broad Tagus River carries the city on its back, so to speak. And when the light fogs lift, they reveal a good people with strong values; a people with a sense of pride in their past and faith in their future.
• For the absolute best cream custard tart, the national desert, visit the blue-tiled, labyrinthine Antiga Confeitaria de Belém (Rua de Belém, 84). Ask anyone for directions.
These warm, crisp, golden confections eaten with a cup of strong coffee in the labyrinthine, blue-tiled café are world-famous.
• Fado music, of course, is a must. One of the best places to hear it is at the Clube De Fado (Rua S. Joao da Praça, 94, www.clube-de-fado.com ).
It’s obscurely located in the Alfama district, but any cabbie will know it. Good food and wonderful music.
• Exceptional hotels exist in Lisbon. Skip the anonymous modern ones in favor of the authentic ones like the Hotel Lisboa Plaza (travessa do salitre, 7). Email: email@example.com
www.heritage.pt) The Plaza is informal yet classy. In the heart of the city, it retains the ambiance of an historic house, very well cared for. Terrific breakfasts.
A Primer on Port
Trying to figure out all the variations and nuances of Port wine can make anyone crazy. It’s probably not worth the effort, nor is it necessary to understand the mystique surrounding Port in order to enjoy it.
Simply, Port is wine to which a “grape spirit” has been added to “fortify” it.
Originally designed to protect the product during it’s long Atlantic sea voyage, the addition of the “grape spirit” also stops the fermentation process, allowing the Port to age without “turning,” enabling the Port to mature into a full-bodied, rich beverage.
• Vintage Port (a premium at the liquor store) is aged in casks for two years, and must be bottled immediately after.
It then it further ages for anywhere between 10 and 50 years in the bottle. Thus the price…and the delight.
Vintage Port typically must be consumed within 3 days.
• Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) “rests” for 4-6 years in casks, then is bottled and ready to drink. These do not improve with age.
• Tawnys “rest” or age in casks for between 10 and 40 years and are then bottled. However, the year of bottling for an authentic Tawny must be on the label as well as the vintage year.
• The classic “pairing” for full-bodied Port is cheese: blue cheeses such as Stilton or Roquefort in particular, or with desert at the end of the meal.
But truthfully, today’s Port aficionados are drinking it anytime and with whatever pleases them.
For further information on Port, contact the Port Wine Institute at www.ivp.pt
• ICEP Portugal, the national tourism board in New York. 1-800-PORTUGAL or visit their comprehensive web site at www.portugal.org or www.portugalinsite.com