Port Tastings and other Discoveries

Today we decided to go for port tastings, after all, it is Robin’s birthday (Feb. 6th) and we must celebrate. Our landlord Fred has given us the names of four port houses that we must visit while we are here….Taylors, Cockburns, Pocas and Symington’s. So what do we do….we make a booking at Sandeman’s. Actually the only reason is that Sandeman’s could accommodate us early this afternoon and they are right along the river. We have booked for Cockburns for next week and will definitely take in Taylors as that is the port we usually drink at home. The tour at Taylors is a self audio guide however both Cockburns and Sandeman’s are guided tours.

So off we go to Sandeman’s. We are running late, so decide to take an Uber across the river. We really could have walked but we would have been late…..next time, we will walk. Great views of Porto from Vila Nova de Gaia.

A view of Porto from Vila Nova de Gaia with a traditional “Rabelo” boat in the foreground

The History of Port Wine

The following is mainly from various guidebooks. “In the 17th century, as a result of the rivalry between England and France, the English increased their interest in Iberian wines. England signed a treaty with Portugal in 1703 wherein they would increase their imports of Portuguese wines and England, in turn, would return British textiles. Due to the time it would take to ship the wines, the Portuguese starting adding a grape brandy to the wine so that it would not sour. This process, called aguardentacao, halts the fermentation and it is said that this resulted in “port”. As port exports increased there was a fear on the part of the Douro Valley producers that cheaper wines would take over the market. Therefore in 1756, the Marquis de Pombal created the General Company of Alto Douro Viticulture in order to preserve the quality of the product and stabilize the prices”.

The Marquis was the Secretary of State for Internal Affairs. I wrote at length about him in my Lisbon blog last year. He was also influential in the rebuilding of Lisbon after the great earthquake of 1711.

” The “Company” also instituted demarcation lines to note the best wines “vinho fino”. Over the years the rules have been changed and added to, mainly for the protection of the wine known as port. At one point they did have a phylloxera infestation and the production areas were expanded to allow for more production from healthy vines. Port must have a minimum alcoholic content of 16.5%. In 1932, the Casa de Douro was created and they took ove the control of the port industry. All the port companies were forced to build “lodges” to age their wines in Vila Nova de Gaia. The goal was to protect and control the production of port.”

In 2001 the Upper Douro region, consisting of 61,776 acres was classified as a Unesco World Heritage Site. We will be visiting the Douro region next week.

Historically, the wine was brought down to Vila Nova de Gaia in “Rabelo Boats” – picture of a traditional boat above. They could carry between 50 to 80 casks, depending on the size of the boats. Today, the grapes are transported in stainless steel tanker trucks.

Styles of Port Wine

As our guide told us at Sandeman’s, port is a “robust wine with unique flavours, aromas and a range of colours“.

Tawny Port (pictures on the left) Tawny port may be a blend of red and white ports.

Ruby Port (middle) Deep red in colour and has been aged two or three years. Should be full of fruit flavour.

White Port (pictured right) Made from white grapes. Very sweet and should be drank chilled.

Vintage Port Made from wines of a single year, the liquid is blended and bottled after two years and left to mature.

Late Bottled Vintage Made from wines of a single year, but bottled between four and six years after the harvest.

History of Sandeman’s

Sandeman’s was founded by a young Scotsman, George Sandeman in 1790 to trade Port Wine and Sherry. It is known for its iconic logo “The Don”, which is a man who wears two distinctive Iberian symbols: the Spanish sombrero and the black cloak worn by Portuguese students. This symbol was created in the early 20th century and our guide (dressed like the Don) told us that it was one of the first logo’s created. Sandeman’s produces sherry in the southern part of Spain in Jerez de la Frontera and port here in Porto; so that is why the two symbols. We were near Jerez in Spain a couple of years ago, but did not stop….pity!

Sandeman’s is located right along the Douro River. We take the guided tour, led by The Don (pictured above). He leads us into the caves which were dug out in 1811. The temperature is a constant 22 degrees. We walk among the rows of wine vats and large barrels and he explains the history and process of aging this special wine. They use both oak and chestnut wood casks. A large barrel, called a Bosedos (?) can hold anywhere from 1,000 litres to 50,000 litres depending on its size. The small barrels hold a maximum of 550 litres. Here in the Douro they normally use a blend of five varietals of grapes to produce some of their port. The wine is normally put into the large barrels first so that the wine stabilizes – white maximum 5 years and the reds a maximum of 7 years. They are then transferred to smaller barrels and when the wine maker decides it is time, the wine is bottled. He spoke about vintage bottles of port. If you happen to own one of the port can stay in the bottle for years if not a century. Once you open a bottle of vintage port, it should be drunk in one week, otherwise it starts to lose its flavours.

We follow this up with a tasting of the three types of port….white, ruby and tawny.

We purchase a bottle of “ruby” port and head off to get some lunch along the river. We decide on shared appetizers of a goat cheese platter and bachalau fish cakes.

We then walk across the Ponte de Dom Luis1 back to Porto. Before this bridge was built, people used to tie their boats together to cross the Douro. This bridge was constructed in 1886 by Theophile Seyrig, a student/partner of Gustave Eiffel. It was the longest metal arch bridge in the world when it was first built.

For something different, we decide to take the funicular back up to the cathedral near our apartment. When we arrive I note that the automatic ticket machine is not working so we join the line at the ticket wicket. The gentleman in the booth seems perplexed and is clicking away at his computer with nothing happening. After about five minutes, he exits his booth and tells everyone in line that we will have to wait five to ten minutes for the system to work or he tells us…..walk up the hill! This is the first person we have run into who is not overly friendly…..but hey, he is probably stressed out.

Robin and I decide to walk back up the hill and we make our away along Rua das Flores. This street was Porto’s upmarket shopping area in the 19th century. I soon realize that it is the same street where we had a glass of wine the other night. The upper part of the street is just a few steps from our apartment. Over the years, this area declined but in the last decade there has been a refurbishment of the buildings and the area. Still lots of construction happening and we do see some beautifully restored balconied buildings and tile work. New shops and cafes have sprung up. We come across one lovely shop where everything is made of wholly or partially of wood, such as purses, wallets, lamps, furniture and even bikes. Robin can’t believe his eyes.

We also pass by the “Wines of Portugal” shop which we will definitely come back to visit. We had enjoyed some wine tasting at their shop in Lisbon last year.

As it is Robin’s birthday today, we decided to book a dinner out at one of the restaurants that was recommended by our landlord and it is a short walk from the apartment. When I called for a reservation, they told me they had two seatings. Either 7:30 pm or 9:30 pm. If you chose the 7:30 pm seating you had to be out before 9:30pm and if you chose the later seating, you had to be out by midnight. I simply cannot imagine starting to eat dinner at 9:30 pm, simply too late, I would be falling asleep in my plate of food.

We make it to the restaurant “Brick” a little before 7:30 pm, but the doors do not open till then. I look inside and I am surprised that is communal seating and worse, one sits on stools…..oh no, this is not looking good. When we are being seated, Robin notices a bench that backs onto the window and asks to sit there. There is room for five other people at the table. We are given the menu and we see that the choices are limited to salads, wraps and sandwiches. Oh my, I feel so bad, it’s his birthday and here we are at a restaurant that seems to be more of a lunch venue. Well, all we can do is laugh. We opt on sharing a chicken wrap and a chorizo sausage sandwich accompanied by a bottle of wine. Hey don’t judge. The chicken wrap looks more like a quesadilla. It is accompanied with a fruit/vegetable salad. My eldest brother would not like this salad….he tells us that it is just not right to mix fruit in a salad! The chorizo sausage had been taken out of its casing and lightly fried. I wish I had taken pictures of these two entrees, the presentation was spectacular and the food was excellent. Robin opted for a chocolate cake for desert, I passed. Well this ends up to be such a tasty meal, a pleasant surprise…. think we were a little quick to judge. Notwithstanding the great meal, I still have to take Robin to a nice restaurant for his birthday…..one with proper chairs!

Friday comes along and not really anything on the agenda. We decide to walk down Rua de Flores which leads down to the Ribeira, the river front. Came across at least three chocolate shops, needless to say, we will be back. As mentioned before, some beautifully restored buildings along this street and the 16th century Igreja da Misericordia church.

Buildings along Rua das Flores

We continue walking along the path of the Douro river.

We find ourselves by the tram stop. We hop on and continue the ride until we arrive at one of the transfer stops, then onto another tram to get to the grocery store. The second tram we ride is at one of its final destinations and there is no place to turnaround. The driver takes his removable chair which is hung on a steel bar and walks to the other side of the tram car where there is another driving hub. He then comes back along the car, asks people to stand up and he takes the backs of the chairs and simply turns them over, we are now able to sit facing the direction in which we will be travelling…ingenious!

We know we have to buy some groceries today, and I remembered that the “Santiago” restaurant which serves the Francesinha is located right across the street from the grocery store. This specific restaurant was recommended by both our guide and landlord. When we arrive about 1 pm, there is a line of people waiting outside. Not only tourists, but locals as well. I check in with the hostess who tells us that there is about a 20 minute wait, not an issue for us.

The famous Francesinha…yummy!

Robin and I wisely choose to split the sandwich and our waiter signals that this is a good choice. We certainly enjoyed our lunch…wouldn’t want to guess how many calories this sandwich contained. The sauce that is poured over the sandwich and french fries is also very good. I noted that some locals actually ask for more sauce which is provided in a stand up gravy pitcher. Robin says he feels his arteries clogging up!

Saturday arrives and we decide to visit the Casa Museu Teixeira Lopes which is located in Vila Nova de Gaia. It is an easy metro ride and short walk to get there. This museum is the former house and studio of Portuguese sculptor Antonio Teixeria Lopes. He was born in Vila Nova de Gaia in 1866 and died in 1942. His father was also a sculptor and ceramist. The home was designed and built by Antonio’s brother Jose who was an architect. Once I started reading about this sculptor, I also found lots of references to both he and his brother. Many of Antonio’s sculptures and some buildings designed by Jose exist in Porto and in other parts of Portugal.

What a beautiful home, almost reminiscent to me of a hacienda. Also a small intimate garden on the grounds with some of Antonio’s work. We are taken on a guided tour of the interior of the home. In addition to the sculptures, we also view Antonio’s various collections (art work, coin collection, ceramics, etc). The home is built in a circular design with a specific room built as a studio which spans two floor and large windows to allow for natural light. There is a small balcony on the upper level which allowed his students to see what he was working on.

Another building attached to the main building housed his parents. The guide told us that in the Porto area there once was some 32 ceramic manufacturers but unfortunately today, none are in business. Not sure where all the ceramic tiles that are still used in building are coming from.

I had read that it was a tradition for people from Porto to go to Matosinhos (a suburb adjacent to Porto along the ocean) for reasonably priced fish/seafood lunch on Sundays. Our landlord had told us to go to the Ramada do Mar for Sunday lunch as it was owned by his friend. By the way, I think he has rich friends….this restaurant was probably one of the more expensive ones in Matosinhos. What a great choice though….ambience and food certainly made up for the birthday dinner….even comfortable chairs to sit on! We enjoyed a delicious lunch of grilled sea bass with vegetables and potatoes. This was of course served with some white wine, desert and port. Got here by metro and a short 5 minute walk. The restaurant is only about one block from the ocean, so after our lunch we decide for a short walk along the beach. Very windy and cool, but there are locals in wet suits kite surfing and surfing.

The metro system here is very efficient, but like any other metro we have travelled on, once must validate your card each time you change lines. Good thing we noticed that a few days after we arrived, as everyones cards including ours, were checked the other day while we were on the metro. A guard simply scans your card; quite efficient on their part.

As mentioned before, it is nice to spend a month in a city. One gets to know your way around and you are in no hurry to see the sites. There is a small coffee shop that we have stopped at on several occasions and the waiter now knows that we order a chai verde (green tea) and a galao (latte).

We opt to do the “Six Bridges” cruise which in all honesty is probably a tour that everyone who visits Porto undertakes. You embark on a large “rabelo” replica boat and cruise the Douro river enjoying views of both Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia.

Arrabida – This is the closest bridge to Foz do Douro (where the Douro meets the Atlantic Ocean). We can sea the ocean crashing agains the sea wall in the distance.

Dom Luis 1 – An iron bridge which dates to 1886 and connects Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia. As mentioned before the upper deck is for the metro and the lower deck for cars; while pedestrians can use either the upper or lower decks.

Dona Maria – The first metal railway bridge to link the two banks. Finished in 1877; it was designed by Eiffel Constructions Metalliques. It was deactivated in 1991 for safety reasons and has been replaced by the Sao Joao bridge.

Infante – Opened in 2003 due to the lack of road traffic once the metro started using the upper deck of the Dom Luis 1 bridge.

Sao Joao – The new railway bridge has three spans supported by two pillars grounded in the riverbed. The engineer who built this bridge described it as “a steel bridge with a concrete coating”.

Freixo – This bridge lies at the eastern part of the city and built in 1995 to relieve some of the road traffic of the Arrabida bridge.

Not sure the reader really cares about these six bridges in detail…..wrote about them to satisfy my curiosity. Hey….our tour was in spanish, yes spanish not portuguese so I had to pursue this!

On our way back to the apartment, we took the Funicular dos Guindais (2004) for the first time as it was working today. It rises 60 metres from the riverfront to Praca da Batalha; which is only about a 5 minute walk to home. Great picture of the Dom Luis 1 bridge from there.

Another day and somewhere else to visit. Today we decide to visit the Museu do Carro Electrico; so we walk up the hill about five minutes and of course, catch a tram to get to the tram museum…what other way to go! Even got a discount on our entry ticket as we had a monthly Metro pass! The museum is housed in the former power station and houses the equipment used in the metro system and its history. In 1895 the city of Porto opened the first electric tram service for public passenger transport. In the museum we saw a variety of tram cars, the oldest dating to 1872, a horse drawn tram. Lots of other trams on exhibit such as summer trams, those used to transport fish baskets from the fish markets of Matosinhos, coal wagons and even the type of specialty vehicles used to fix the tram lines and equipment.

In the afternoon, we head off to Cockburn Port Cellar in Vila Nova de Gaia. This is one of the port cellars which was highly recommended to us. This port house was founded in 1815 by a scottish wine merchant Robert Cockburn. In 1962 it was sold to Harvey’s of Bristol and eventually became part of an international group. In 2010, Cockburn was returned to family ownership, the Symington’s, descendants of Cockburn. Upon acquiring the port house they reviewed all the processes and started to introduce improvements and by 2011 were receiving accolades over the port. The Symington family not only owns Cockburn, they also own Graham’s, Dow’s and Warre’s in addition to their lands in the Douro.

They have the largest collection of oak barrels and wooden vats of any Port cellar in Porto. Once again, we are guided through the cellars where the temperature is very cool. Probably the most interesting difference in this port house, is that they have their own “cooper’s”; a dedicated team that take care of all the barrels and vats in the Lodge. We saw them working on fixing barrels during our visit. The Symington group is the only port group which has a full team of skilled coopers. They feel it is essential to making Ports of top quality. They clean and repair the oak barrels and large vats; quite interesting to see them at work.

In both port houses that we have visited to date, we have been told that the picking of the grapes is still mostly done by hand in the Douro Valley. This is mainly due to the steep and terraced landscapes. They have mechanized some processes, such as the stomping of the grapes.

For our port tasting this afternoon, we opted to taste three types of port paired with chocolates. The first was the white port with a passion fruit dark chocolate, the second was the 10 year tawny port paired with a yuzu/cinnamon chocolate (yuzu is a citrus fruit grown in China, Japan and Korea) and the final was a vintage port paired with a raspberry chocolate.

I always love the way wineries/port houses define their wines; a port with crisp flowery aromas and hints of tropical fruits, silky smooth with notes of vanilla and honey and spice flavours, a very rich red fruit flavour with minty aromas and peppery tannins…..heck, I don’t know…..they all taste really good! Robin was in heaven….port and chocolate.

In the last week, we have seen more flowers coming out in bloom….look what we came across today.

I also like the many quirky/interesting signs, displays symbols and graffiti that one comes across when visiting cities. Below are a few, including the blue logo for the City of Porto.

We decide to visit the Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis. This museum is housed in an old palace that was built in the late 18th century for a wealthy Porto family. On the main floor they manufactured epaulets and their residence took up the second and third floors. It later became a royal palace and was used by the King when he visited Porto. The state later acquired the Palace and it is now a museum. The Museum takes it name from a Portuguese sculptor Antonio Soares dos Reis. When we arrived, we were told that the second floor which exhibits comprise paintings and sculptors was closed as it was being painted. We did visit the decorative exhibit on the third floor which included some beautiful ceramics, pottery, glassware, a few paintings and some spectacular jewellery and silver work.

As we were walking through the final gallery, we saw the following on the grand stair landing.

This horse is made out of wood and duct tape! Just too funny…not sure what it was doing here as it had no signage and certainly not in keeping with the rest of the museum. By the way, it was a three legged horse with one peg leg and check the underwear hanging off the the lance on the back. Certainly made us laugh.

Our weather here in Porto has been mainly cloudy with highs of anywhere between 16C to 18C. Just a few showers which haven’t stopped us from enjoying this beautiful city.

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day and we are off on a tour of the Douro Valley….stay tuned!

One thought on “Port Tastings and other Discoveries

  1. Our thanks once again and a happy belated birthday wishes for Robin on February12 and so close to Valentine’s day.
    We guess he must be now about 76 and keep in mind his twin Terry.
    Love to you both,
    Tim & Gail.
    The horse’s tail must have come from a fairly robust person!!!


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