You may recall that last December I met up with a friend in Porto; a chance to catch up, to shop, to explore and of course to visit the cellars (caves) and taste port in a port lodge! By the way everyone talks of the caves and prior to our visit I presumed these were all natural caves in the hills however there are no caves. They are either cellars or purpose built cool rooms that maintain a constant temperature.
The other thing to be aware of it is not Porto where you go to visit port lodges. The port lodges are in Vila Nova de Gaia, a city which like Porto sits on the banks of the Rio Douro, the third longest river in the Iberian Peninsula. However as Vila Nova de Gaia is directly opposite Porto and within walking distance, I suspect many tourists don’t even realise it is a different city they are visiting.
We braved the sea mist, a common occurrence here, and made our way by foot using the upper level of the Ponte de Dom Luís I. At 279ft high and 1298 feet long there are plenty of opportunities for great views of both cities. Although as I look back through my December album every photograph I have taken seems to be either of Porto or of the Douro below!
By the time we had made way down to the river front it felt like the mist was on the verge of developing into a rain storm so into a cafe we retreated. Fortunately the downpour didn’t appear and so after a short refreshment we could continue our explorations. It was noticeable as we headed away from the waterfront the tourists disappeared. Few seem to explore this city, the focus is all on the bridge, the water front, and the port lodges and their ‘caves’.
We didn’t find much to wow us initially, but after heading up hill for what seemed like forever we eventually found a way to zig zag back down towards the river. And to my delight stumbled across a piece of street art I had heard much about, but had failed to discover on my previous visit. The extraordinary ‘Half Rabbit’ by Bordalo II.
Bordalo is a Portuguese street artist, whose work is based on the philosophy that ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”. He says;
I create, recreate, assemble and develop ideas with end-of-life material and try to relate it to sustainability, ecological and social awareness.
By now we were beginning to feel damp from the sea mist and more importantly hungry, and so we made the excellent decision to enjoy lunch in the Vinum Restaurant at the port lodge where we were booked in for a tour later in the afternoon. Of course that entailed a walk back up hill as thanks to ‘trade’ contacts my friend had arranged for us to have a personal tour at Graham’s, a fabulous port lodge but also the one that happened to be the furthest away from everything!
There are dozens of port lodges here, and only the daft would attempt to visit multiple ones. The trick is to choose one or maybe two that offer tours that suit your interests, schedule (some such as Graham’s have to be reserved in advance) and possibly even more importantly wallet.
Port is a fortified wine made from grapes grown in the mountainous Upper Douro region, and since its origins in a monastery has grown to become one of Portugal’s biggest and best known exports. Despite the worldwide exports and thousands of tourists who visit the port lodges in Gaia every year, it still seems to be a drink that is little understood and is kept by most in the cupboard for special occasions or Christmas. However once opened most bottles need to be consumed relatively quickly if you are to enjoy them at their best, and even unopened bottles are not designed for long stays in a cupboard unless they are an expensive vintage and the cupboard has atmospheric controls! I was therefore really looking forward to our tour, a chance to learn and a chance to taste in the company of a fabulous friend.
Graham’s lodge with its half metre thick granite walls dates back to 1890 and has been family owned since the company was founded by the Graham family in 1820. It remained in the Graham family until 1970 when it was bought by the Symington family, who themselves have been in the port trade since the mid 18th century and had ancestral connections to Graham’s.
The Graham’s Port lodge in Gaia currently houses over 2,000 oak casks and 40 large oak vats of ageing port as well as extensive cellars of Vintage port aging in their bottles. By the time we finish our tour we were looking forward to our tasting, and thanks to my friend’s contacts we had a memorable tasting in the vintage room. Sampling a 10, 20 and 30 year old tawny, as well as Vintage 2000, a special reserve and a rare Single Harvest. What a treat! Typically it was one of the more expensive ones I liked best.
If you are looking at all those glasses lined up and thinking that’s a lot – don’t worry! Even with the help of the spittoon and glasses of water, we didn’t finish even half of what was in those wine glasses. We could have done as after our excellent tour guide had taken us through each of them, we were left to sit back and soak up the atmosphere (as well as port!). However it just wouldn’t have been sensible and most importantly finishing them off would have detracted from what had been an incredible experience. We did however purchase a little something to take back with us!