OPORTO, Portugal — As you cross the scenic bridge from Oporto to Vila Nova do Gaia, you see the famous port wine lodges, pretty as a picture post card among pastel houses and storefronts, along the opposite river bank.
Some of the low stone and brick lodge buildings display in large letters the names Sandeman, Croft, Taylor, Warre, Cockburn, Dow, Graham, Borges, Barros, Fonseca, Ferreira, Ramos Pinto, Calem and others famous for producing fine port wine.
Wine connoisseurs around the world appreciate a rich, full-bodied port, but the best place to savor the flavor of this sweet wine is here in the famous port wine lodges. Vintners age the ruby-colored liquid in huge casks and vats, carefully supervising it while it matures, and then blend several vintages to a perfect taste.
Fraction of the Price
In Oporto and Vila Nova do Gaia, port wine costs a fraction of its price in the United States. The savings are spectacular on vintage ports, those produced during the years when the grapes were so sweet, so superior that the wines were aged in individual bottles instead of in casks for later blending.
You need not restrict your tastings to the port wine lodges. Restaurants in both Oporto and Vila Nova do Gaia have extensive wine lists, and every spirits specialty shop and most groceries display selected blends and vintage bottles.
You'll see unusual labels you've never heard of, but even these are usually good. Port wine is subjected to strict quality controls. And at $1 or $2 a bottle, you might as well sample the odd bottle.
Or if you prefer, play it safe with a known quantity. Even highly recognized labels and sought-after vintages are bargains here. For example, a bottle of Sandeman Fine Ruby or Fine Tawny that costs $8 in the States sells for about $2.50 at the Sandeman wine lodge in Vila Nova do Gaia or at wine shops in Oporto. (There's a good one next door to the Grand Hotel Batalha on Praca de Batalha, but any wine shop or grocery in Oporto will do.)
You can find a bottle of Sandeman '75 for $15 to $20 in Oporto. In the States, Sandeman '75 sells for $45 or more. Similarly, Graham, Cockburn and Warre '63s are $20 to $25 in Oporto, as opposed to the $60 and up that they draw in the United States. You'll even find rare vintages dating from 100 years ago or more, and they're sold here for about half of what they would cost in the States.
In fairness to American importers and merchants, it must be said that shipping costs of vintage ports are high. Bottles must be handled gently so as not to disturb the "crust," a sediment that forms as wine matures in the bottle.
Some of the wine shops and grocery stores in Oporto may sell wine for slightly less than lodge prices. That's because the lodges' primary business is production and treating visitors to tastings, and they don't want to detract from the sales of local retailers.
But begin your port spree at the lodges anyway. About 80 of them are concentrated within a small area. Many welcome visitors into charming salons for free and generous tastings of selected ports, served with cheese and crackers. Sandeman and Ferreira are among the best and most hospitable for tastings and tours, and they have excellent shops for wine and souvenirs.
At Harvest Time
The lodges have exhibitions about the time of the September grape harvest, when the quiet mountain slopes in the growing region suddenly become busy. The growing region is many square miles, up the Duoro River all the way to the Spanish border.
Women huddle over vines picking grapes and carefully placing them in baskets. The men trail down the hills single file, toting baskets weighing 100 pounds or more suspended from straps held taut against their foreheads.
In olden days, grapes were mashed by foot and sent down the Duoro, treacherous with rapids, on barcos rabelos, flat-bottomed, high-pooped boats with colorful square sails. Today the young wine arrives in Vila Nova do Gaia by truck, and boats are used for ceremonial races. Similarly, machines have replaced foot power for mashing, but the new technology does not crush the pips, which would add an astringent quality to the wine.
A vintage port is "declared" after two years of aging in casks. The liquid is transferred to dark, heavy bottles and stored in dark, cool cellars until it matures in 15 or 20 years. Vintage years vary from winery to winery, but some years produce a good all-around crop. For example, some wineries "declared" for '63. You can get a list of vintage years (going back to the 1700s) from each of the wine lodges.
In addition, there are late bottled vintages where the crop from a single year is bottled after five years in casks and allowed to mature. These are of superior quality, but are not as rare or special as vintage wines. Both vintage and late bottled vintages are for an occasion. The former, it is said, are for planned events, the latter are for the unexpected.