Today was spent in “Porto”, or, more specifically, in Vila Nova de Gaia, the mirror of Porto from where you can appreciate the grace and beauty of this Portuguese city more than from within the city itself.
Like Buda and Pest smiling at each other over the wide expanse of the Danube, Porto looks lovingly across to its little known friend, a treasure whose name is lost in Porto’s fame, yet holds within her cellars, liquid gold.
Her name is appropriate. Gaia, the goddess of Earth. This hillside village overlooking the Douro River, the “new home of Gaia,” is where Port lovers will find cool dirt-floored cellars and tasting rooms serving up Earth’s blood, Port wine, the sweet liquid that blurs judgment when facing French oak barrels of finest reserve. The tiny streets are difficult if not impossible to navigate, tiny, winding lanes with stone walls on either side allowing no room for driver error, so a larger car will boast “battle scars” from a trip well taken. Better to park below and walk. It took us a few tries to get to Graham’s today, one of many Port producers whose tasting rooms and cellars are nearly stacked on top of each other all over the steep hills of the town.
Grahams is owned and run by the Symington family, and is, according to our tour-guide, the only family run Port producer in Portugal. Tomorrows trip will prove them wrong, but ok, it’s still nice to be among family and I do have a soft spot in my wallet for a family run business.
In contrast to our well wine-traveled friends, I had never actually been inside a wine cave before. Tasting in fancy tasting rooms, yes, but exploring dank cellars, not at all, so it was a real treat to walk among the stacks of barrels laid out on their side marked with white chalk the type and the year and to look up in awe at the large casks that nearly reached the ceiling where the port sat and waited to be ready for the bottle.
We walked through the family’s private collection, thousands of bottles of reserve ports dating back to the early 20th century. Ports from the 1920’s. Truly liquid gold, it may be worth more per ounce.
The tasting. Dangerous. I really like this stuff. Wine is nice and sensible. It’s elegant and sophisticated. It goes well with a myriad of foods. But port. Intense, bold, dangerous, yet debonair, suave, illustrious. It’s an intensely flavored wine mixed with brandy. 20% alcohol, a burst of complex flavor that will knock your socks off. I love that. It’s a sipping wine. Sit, relax, breathe it in. Take slow calculated sips. Let it linger so that you really get that full flavor of each drop. Just a couple ounces is enough. I love that a bottle of port will last a bit longer – that it takes more than 2 friends and a good dinner to “kill it.” Just swirling it in the glass and watching it pane is beautifully hypnotic.
Yes, we got a few bottles here. Reserves to save for another 10-15 years. Special ports we’ll open when each of our girls gets married.
And yes, the girls were with us and it was wonderful. I don’t know that we’d get quite this response in the stuffier wine tastings along the west coast. Oregon wine rooms are beautiful, but carry a bit more snobbery, I think, where I wouldn’t dream of taking children. Here, in Portugal, we didn’t have the luxury of leaving the girls behind and the staff didn’t even hint that they wouldn’t be welcome. Children were free to tour. The staff brought them their own little plate of crackers while we sampled the ports and gave each of them a poster of the vineyards. It was so nice. They were included. Tiara, too. Here, in Europe, she’s treated as an adult. Some restaurants will automatically serve her an aperatif before a meal. At the port tastings, the ladies encouraged her to try them too.
From Grahams we looped in endless circles up and down and up and down and up and around and down again getting lost and turned around and back tracking until we found Taylor’s where we tasted a little and sat down at the restaurant there for an absolutely delicious lunch outside on the patio with a view of both Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia and the beautiful river running between. I had duck in port sauce with a delicious spinach and garbanzo bean puree (Magret de Pato con molho de frutas vermelhos e Vinho do Porto, quenelles de grao de bico e espinafe). Really flavorful and delicious.
Stuffed from lunch, we all enjoyed a walk on the waterfront looking across at Porto. The view is intoxicating, even more than the wine, the river’s edge on Gaia’s side lined with traditional dark wood boats used to haul barrels of port from the Quinta’s upriver here where it meets the Atlantic. Every view is like a painting, full of life and color and depth. We saw one wine boat full of barrels actually coming in to dock where we stood. All the other boats sat docked already with flags from their port makers – advertisements more than utilitarian devices.
The girls played at a playground near the river while Tiara and Kristi visited there. I walked up the narrow roads to narrower ones and down a steep flight of stairs between old homes with tattered lace curtains. Most of the buildings here have the signs of port makers on them. Warre’s, Burmester, Cockburns, Sandeman. The Quintas where the grapes are grown can be hours up the river – a week by boat years ago, but the tasting rooms are here, many cellars. Here, not at the quintas, is where much of the port is made.
Such a beautiful day. The drive home was nice. It had been a full day of sights, smells, and flavors. We all wanted to go back. There is too much there to see… and taste.