Port Tasting in Gaia, Portugal

Ruby, tawny or white – whatever your poison, there’s a port for you. The Douro valley is famous for its vineyards and when in Porto, you can’t pass the opportunity to see how the grapey magic happens in the cellars of the local port makers.

You could easily spend a week visiting different cellars, so to pick only one is a tough choice. Which one will be the most true to what port stands for and not a tourist trap? Wary of anything with an English-sounding name when abroad, I was surprised most cellars had British names behind them. Taylor, Croft, Graham… If port is a Portuguese thing, where did the British influence come from? This was explained to me during the cellar tour and for you, here’s a one-minute history recap to explain this.

Due to the conflicts with France in the 18th century, the British boycotted French wine and began to trade more with Portugal, which had been producing wine for centuries. Since it’s a long journey between the Douro valley and the British isles, wine had to be fortified – or it would’ve spoilt. Traditionally, the Portuguese used brandy for that purpose – it stops the fermentation process which leaves more residual sugar, resulting in much sweeter wine. And that’s how port was born. Initially, farmers and landowners producing port were Portuguese but when their vineyards got attacked by an American root insect and stayed closed for business for a decade, many gave up. They sold their land to the British who were willing to wait for science to catch up and fix the infestation. When that happened, winemaking resumed – by the Brits.

My research to find ‘the best’ wine lodge wasn’t conclusive so I booked Graham’s on a whim. Unlike many other cellars, you actually do need to book a slot as tastings are by reservation only. Yes, it does require a bit more organisation, but on the other hand you won’t be turned away if it happens to be a busy day.

Graham’s was a 45-minute stroll form the Porto riverside, where I was chilling before my port tasting slot. The lodge is in the neighbouring village – Vila Nova de Gaia, home to all the port. As I had plenty of time, I chose to take the top tier of the Dom Luíz I bridge to get across the river Douro – which required a bit of climbing – but the views didn’t disappoint.

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When I got to Gaia, I realised I picked one of the most remote cellars possible. By the time I reached the cool, posh-looking interior of the Graham’s Lodge, having hiked up a hill in the generous September sun, I felt like I had truly earned all the port in the world. Despite the heat and sweat, I loved the random hike Google Maps took me through. I got to explore Gaia a little – or a lot, since at one point I’m pretty sure I was in someone’s private garden – and I really liked its non-pretentious, homey feel.

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Porto citizens relentlessly claim that the best thing about Gaia is that you get a beautiful view of Porto. It’s true, the view is stunning, but so are the little streets and stairs, and markets of the port village.

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While waiting for the tour to begin, I walked around the reception room, learning more about the Graham family and how their adventure with wine making began. Graham’s, like most cellars in the area, was set up by a couple of British (or more specifically in this case – Scottish) port enthusiasts back in the 19th century and it’s flourished since. It’s still entirely family-owned and holds 2,000 pipes (that’s oak casks) and 40 tonels and balseiros (large oak vats) of ageing port.

The tour took us through the lodge, where satisfyingly bulky barrels of port rested in the cool, dark cellars. The guide explained all about the intricacies of port making and we watched a video about why, despite the seemingly harsh environment, the Douro valley is perfect for port grapes – and how they end up bottled.

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The best part of the tour was, of course, the tasting. The room where it takes place is very impressive – big spaces, high ceilings and huge windows with a fantastic view of the city spreading right in front of you. Quiet and elegant, it has a rather luxurious but fresh feel. Nothing is rushed at Graham’s. The guide chatted through all the varieties of port we had available to try and I got three glasses of different types: ruby, tawny and vintage, each one more delicious than the last. As we were told by the guide, Graham’s winemaker personally assists with the making of the wine at every stage – they taste, blend and select what goes in a bottle and what stays to mature. Needless to say, I found my dream job.

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I left Graham’s tipsy and happy, and with an appetite to expand my port horizons further next time I’m in Porto.

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