There’s more to Porto for alcohol lovers to enjoy than plain old port. Ever heard of white port? No? Well, read on…
“Sorry sir – we have no port left. Would you like a glass of white?”
Two things struck me as being odd with this. Firstly I was in Portugal’s second city, Porto – the place that gave everyone’s favourite post-Christmas dinner tipple its name. You wouldn’t expect to be told there were no fish in the sea, would you?
And secondly, white port? Until then, I didn’t know such a thing existed. But I’m glad I found it, and enjoyed a few too many glasses of this 20 per cent concoction on my first night out in Porto’s antiquated yet lively Ribeira District.
The next day I set out to learn more about my new find, and walked across town, over the bridge spanning the estuary of the River Douro to Vila Nova de Gaia. Although Gaia faces Porto across the Douro, it’s officially a separate city – look at it as Gateshead to Porto’s Newcastle. The riverside and the steep banks are thronged with port warehouses which welcome tourists for tasting sessions and history lessons.
I went to one of the most famous of these, the 300-year old Taylor’s. It’s hard to find up a winding cobbled path, but worth the trek for its views across the river and manicured lawns complete with prowling peacocks. For just €1.45, I was given three glasses to taste – tawny, vintage and white – and a brief précis of how port came into existence, from the most knowledgeable barmaid I’ve ever met.
In the 17th century, England’s supply of red wine from Bordeaux was severed following war with France. The search for a new source of grapes took importers to northern Portugal, but the wine made here didn’t travel well. By fortifying the wine with brandy, it was protected for the long trip home. But the English rather liked this new wine/brandy combo, and the port legend was born.
Gaia has over 50 port warehouses – some you will have heard of such as Taylor’s and Cockburn’s, some you may not such as Calem and Krohn. Port was traditionally shipped from the vineyards further inland, along the Douro on wooden flat-bottomed boats called barcos rabelos to Gaia where it was stored and exported worldwide. Nowadays it’s exported directly from the vineyards, although the warehouses remain to educate and entertain tourists.
After my tasting at Taylor’s, I could appreciate and distinguish between the tawny and the vintage, but the white port was the drink for me. Most firms have their own version of white port, but Taylor’s were one of the pioneers, introducing their extra dry “Chip Dry Port” in 1934. I was told it was produced in limited quantities, and rarely exported outside of Portugal, so I stocked up at the airport duty-free shop, although I have since seen it sold in my local Morrisons!
On leaving Taylor’s, the bridge back to Porto was closed as the annual Red Bull Air Race was taking place. This was most unfortunate, as it allowed us time to indulge in a port-crawl in the warehouses before relaxing in the sun and watching one of sport’s craziest events. Pilots guide small aerobatic planes at speeds up to 230mph through an obstacle course of giant inflatable markers floating on the Douro. After the last race of the day, the bridge re-opened and we could return to Porto, along with the rest of the 80,000 spectators. The two storey bridge – full name Ponte de Dom Luis I – is an emblem of Porto, and can be seen on just about every postcard of the city. Road traffic and pedestrians use the lower level crossing, while metro trains and pedestrians with a head for heights use the top level – the views from here are dizzying and would have provided a brilliant base to photograph the air race.
Wherever you stay in Porto, you’ll be doing a lot of walking, as the city is built on a series of shockingly steep hills. We stayed at the Residencial dos Aliados (doubles with breakfast from €60) just off Avenida dos Aliados, a wide boulevard lined with grand art nouveau buildings. From here it is a good twenty minute walk uphill from the riverside – much needed to burn off the white port-induced calories. Fancying a nightcap, we chanced upon a bar around the corner from our hotel called Praça (Praça de Felipe Lencastre 193) which turned out to be the place to be. A band rattled off Britpop classics as people who couldn’t get inside stood outside to listen anyway. As Blur covers followed Oasis and James, it was a fitting image – we give Porto our music while Porto gives us port.