Tasting Port Wine

The river Douro bisects the city of Porto. The old and picturesque town cascades down the northern banks of the river. Along the southern shores, in the district of Gaia, is the concentration of warehouses and tasting rooms for the main port producers, among them: Taylor, Cálem, Kopke, Sandeman, Quinta do Noval, Vasconcellos, Ramos Pinto, Offley, Cockburn, and Graham’s.

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On our beautiful warm day, we crossed the river on the river taxi, and started our stroll along the river front. We planned on stopping in whatever port producer’s shop appealed in the moment. We came upon the Vasconcellos storefront area. The main doors were closed, but next door in a covered entry, two young men were talking at what looked like a desk. As we approached, and while we were still on the sidewalk, a short middle-aged man started talking to us. He asked if we were looking to taste some port. He looked a bit disheveled. In our years of traveling, we have developed a resistance reflex if anyone approaches us out of the blue, especially if they are asking if we would like something. So we brushed him off. He persisted. We turned away from him, still walking toward the entrance. He exclaimed, indignant, that he worked for Vasconcellos. We spied a small metal name tag. OK, we said, sorry about that; yes, we would like to taste some port. He, however, turned away from us, saying that if we were going to act this way, he would have nothing to do with us. He stomped off, offended. We were stunned. Don’t vendors know that you can’t just accost people on the street and and convey authenticity?

A little shaken, we continued along the route. Just behind the Vasconcellos establishment was a small port house called Quinta dos Corbos. The entry was simple, some glass in the face of a stone building. This time it was obvious who worked for the port house, and he welcomed us in. A short tour in English was just starting, so we were able to join in. A lively South African woman was leading the tour. She explained to our group about the different types of port, which depend on how they are aged (in bottles, tanks or barrels). She explained about the grape varieties, and the processes of cultivation, harvest, fermentation, addition of alcohol, the development of final alcohol content, the contribution of the oak from the barrels to the tastes, and how some ports (not aged in oak barrels) retain their fruity qualities. Of course, the tour concluded with some port wine tasting. We always enjoy experiencing and articulating the nuances of how wines smell and taste. We were able to compare white and red ports, tawny and vintage ports, 20 and 40 year old ports. Port wine alcohol content is a bit high, at 20%. The more you taste, the more you feel it (happily)! And the more likely you are to buy more port. Which, of course, is what we did. We selected one bottle that is 30 years old, and a few more younger (more affordable!) bottles as well. They are just so helpful, offering to ship the bottles home for us!

As you’d expect, the whole process of touring and tasting primes us malleable tourists to purchase. We are willing participants. Our South African tour leader / salesperson was delightfully personable, making the process a pleasure. What do we really know about port wine? But we enjoyed what we tasted, and we look forward to enjoying our Quinta dos Corvos with French cheeses or desserts, while recalling our fun time in Porto.

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