June 2, 2011
The Portuguese have a saying about their cities: “Lisbon shows off, Braga prays, Coimbra studies, and Porto works.” On our recent trip to Portugal, we absorbed the beauty of Lisbon, skipped the praying and the studying, and took a fast train north to Porto to work very hard at sampling as vast amounts of port wine.
Northern Portugal is known for its lush river valleys, forested hillsides, and the world’s oldest demarcated wine region. Its greatest landmark, the Douro River, runs some 900 miles from deep within northern Spain, across Portugal, and into the Atlantic. And it is there, at the mouth of the Douro, that people from around the world gather to sample Portugal’s famous fortified wine.
The river divides Porto from the town of Vila Nova de Gaia, home to about 30 port-house tasting rooms and cellars (“caves,” pronounced cavesh). From our rented apartment in Porto’s old town, a quick stroll over the Ponte Dom Luis I, a bridge designed by a student of A. Gustave Eiffel – which happens to look a lot like the Eiffel tower tipped on its side, brought us to “Gaia.” Dow, Graham’s, Taylor Fladgate, Kopke — all the famous brands beckon the thirsty traveler with free samples of their inexpensive white and ruby ports, and then charge anywhere from $10 to $100 and beyond for a mere taste of their finer tawnies and vintages.
Trekking up and down the cobbled streets, we sampled our way from tasting room to tasting room, making sure to soak up the alcohol with a Porto specialty – la Francesinha (little French thing) – a layered concoction vaguely reminiscent of lasagna that packs a year’s worth of cholesterol in a single bowl. Strata of bread and melted cheese are piled with cured luncheon meats, a slab each of pork and steak and halved sausages, which are topped with more bread and another layer of cheese. It’s all bathed in a peppery tomato sauce, topped with an egg, and baked just long enough to set the white of the egg. And as if that weren’t enough, they spread a helping of French fries around the centerpiece to soak up the extra sauce. I imagine the French are horrified that this dish is named after them, but my husband and I enjoyed it so much that we ate it two days in a row.
Our highlight of Vila Nova de Gaia was touring the Sandeman caves, a centuries-old building on the river’s edge, where the cobbled floor is made from wooden blocks so the oaken barrels aren’t damaged when they’re rolled around.
Hundreds of years of port wine production have stained the floors and infused the stone walls with the musty aroma of fermenting grapes. We heard more information than we could absorb about the differences
between whites, rubies, tawnies, late-bottled vintages, vau vintages, and true vintage ports. And all the while, I couldn’t keep my eyes from settling on the barred and locked cellar that stored crates upon hundreds of crates of vintage port – a single bottle of 1906 recently sold for 3000 euro – nearly $4500 dollaresh!
On our last day in the “port zone,” we traveled by train a couple of hours up river along the Douro to the town of Peso di Regua, the historic home of the port wine trade and home of the port wine museum. The hills are comprised or schist, the rocky “soil” imperative, we’ve learned, to producing perfect port. Terraces rise from river to sky, and most of the vineyards are too steep and narrow for modern machinery to navigate—their entire bounty must be cultivated and gathered by hand, as it has been done for hundreds of years.
And there in Regua, in a back-alley-hole-in-the-wall café, we ate the next best thing to a home-cooked meal, ordered with bit of Portuguese, backed up with Italian, hand signals, and peeks in boiling pots. For a mere 13 euro (less than half of what an average meal-for-two has run), we had a bowl of locally-cured olives; bread; cheese; two full plates of meat, veggies, and rice (plus an extra dish of “grellush,” the broccoli-raab like greens sautéed in olive oil and doused with lemon juice that I’ve come to love; a full liter of house vinho tinto (house red); topped off with to-the-brim glass of “illegal,” unlabeled port from a dusty keg in the corner. The lunch and the port—especially the port—is some of the best we’ve yet enjoyed.
After all our hard work tasting port, it was time to fly south to Portugal’s southwestern tip for some rest and relaxation. The sandy coves and rocky cliffs of the western Algarve were once considered the edge of the world and are the former home of Prince Henry the Navigator’s famous navigational school (Magellan studied there). With the sweet taste of her wine still on our lips, we left Porto longing for the days before a precious collection of 3-ounce containers of liquid had to fit inside a quart Ziplock bag, when it was still okay to carry-on a stash of a favorite liqueur to share with family and friends back home.