A weekend in Oporto
A weekend in Oporto
By Gary White
The city of Porto (O Porto = the port) in north west Portugal is the country’s second city and famous for its historic connections with Britain and association with the port wine industry. The city is popular as a short-break destination for Brits, especially wine appreciators who like to indulge in something a little stronger than every day table wine! It is also rightly famous for its cuisine and a very indulgent and reasonably priced weekend may be had for those wine lovers seeking a wine and food experience close to home but away from northern Europe. It is possible to fly to Oporto very cheaply using any of several carriers operating from the London airports. And to work off the excesses of all the alcohol and calories, the city is a great place to walk and to do some sightseeing too, with some beautiful cityscapes to admire. There is a wonderful café culture and with art and architecture that in Portugal is second only to Évora.
The history of port and its production are covered exhaustively both in print and on the web and I do not intend to reproduce that information here. If you have 48 hours in Porto and wish to optimise your time – taking in a selection of the port lodges – my intention here is to provide you with a little orientation based on my experience of many visits to the city. I am working on the assumption that you are not part of an organised wine tour but merely undertaking your own exploring……I have provided a short guide to seven of the port lodges, visits to which could be spread across a couple of days at a weekend.
Oporto is situated close to the estuary of the Douro river, on the north-western Atlantic seaboard of Portugal (left). The most extensive and densely built up area of Oporto is on the north bank of the river, where as a visitor you will find most of the shops and restaurants concentrated around the Rua Santa Catarina, north of the ancient Baixa. The river is very wide through central Porto and is crossed by some quite spectacular bridges, notably the Ponte Dom Luis 1st (a road, foot and metro bridge) which is a remarkable iron girder cantilever design which dates from 1886. It bisects the river in the downtown area of the city, across the touristy Cais de Ribeira waterfront, south of the medieval Baixa. The port lodges (armazéns) are actually located on the south bank of the river, opposite the Ribeira in the suburb of Vila Nova de Gaia. If, as most tourists do, you are staying in the centre of Porto, the easiest way to reach Gaia is to walk along the Ribeira waterfront and cross on foot to the south bank across the Dom Luis 1st bridge (right).
Vila Nova de Gaia
Almost immediately, a large sign ‘welcomes’ you to the port lodges (left) and provides some orientation. The Avenue Diogo Leite runs to the right from the end of the bridge, along the river’s edge, where you will be offered boat trips, portrait painting, trinkets and so on by many local entrepreneurs. Most of the port lodges may be accessed from here along the steep roads that run to the south. However, for those that don’t want a steep climb, I’ll start with three lodges offering tours that can be entered from the riverside, without need to leave the gentle Avenue Diogo Leite. These three could easily be taken in during a relaxed morning, as they are just a few hundred metres apart.
First up as you walk from the bridge is Cálem (Caves Cálem, 26-42 Av. Diogo Leite). At the time of writing, tours cost a snip at €2 per head! Tours are available in Portuguese or English and leave every 30 minutes or so. This is an old port house that had a fine reputation which seems to have faded somewhat. It is less well known in Britain but for that reason is worth a tour. On my last visit, the tour ended with a tasting of a white port, a tawny and a ruby (right)) and there is a well-stocked and reasonably priced shop. The colheitas are particularly good value for money. This style of port is less common. They are vintage ports from a single year that have spent at least 7 years in wood – effectively a vintage tawny (most lodges’ tawny ports are blended from various years).
Not far from Cálem is Sandeman, also along the waterfront just back from the Av. Diogo Leite (Caves Sandeman, 3 Lg. Miguel Bombarda). Some might say that Sandeman’s best days are behind it but you certainly will get a full tourist experience if nothing else, with your host dressed in the famous Sandeman cape and hat (left). €5 buys you a short tour, again available in Portuguese or English. Due to the lodge’s proximity to various tour boat jetties, Sandeman does get a lot of visitors so you may have to wait a short while at busy times. However, their port museum is an attractive part of the tour and the final tasting takes place on a long refectory table, always a jolly, multinational affair. My last tasting was of a tawny and a blended ruby. What a shame you can’t taste some of the superlative old vintages from the last century that you get tantalising glimpses of when you tour the deepest part of the cellars!
The third and final stop along the water’s edge lodges is Ramos Pinto (400 Av. Ramos Pinto – a continuation of the Av. Diogo Leite), just along from Sandeman. This is in my opinion the most interesting and best of these ‘lower level’ port houses next to the river. As Hugh Johnson says of Ramos Pinto: ‘dynamic, small port house specialising in single-quinta tawnies of style and elegance, vintages often on the light side, now owned by champagne house Louis Roederer’. There is a beautiful reception area as you enter though the colonial-style frontage dating from 1880. €3 buys you a long and interesting tour (again a choice of English or Portuguese), taking in the fascinating museum, reminding us of the work of Adriano Ramos-Pinto who helped to put port on the map in the late 19th Century.
There is a well-informed talk in the company’s cellars, detailing the process of viticulture (left) and the story of the famous ‘kissing couple’ Art Nouveau Ramos Pinto poster. My most recent tasting included a beautiful 10 year old tawny. My notes say ‘red-brown colour, reminiscent of old claret. Beautiful raisins and a hint of burnt sugar on the nose, butterscotch on the palate, long finish’. Their shop is well stocked and is excellent value for money, especially if you want to buy the tawnies or RP’s under-rated vintages.
Now might be time for a late lunch. The Presuntaria Transmontana very close to Ramos Pinto, along the quayside of the river, is a very pleasant bistro despite its somewhat rushed tourist atmosphere. Prices are very reasonable, they sell good local cuisine and Ramos Pinto vintage ports by the glass!
Exploring the remaining lodges on foot requires sensible shoes and strong legs, as the roads running south from the quay rise steeply up the hillside. If you take the road that runs to the left alongside Ramos Pinto, this takes you to a small road junction with signposts indicating the way to most of the lodges (e.g. Croft, Taylor’s, Graham’s). Alternatively, you can walk to the end of the quayside (Av. Ramos Pinto), turn left (Rua Rei Ramiro) and you will climb steeply first to Ferreira and then Grahams. All these lodges are within a 500 metre or so radius and so may be easily explored. They are also at a higher elevation, so there are wonderful vistas of the city to be taken in. For those driving, free parking is available along the quayside and in the roads off to the south and some of the large lodges (e.g. Taylor’s, Graham’s) have their own car parks for visitor use.
Ferreira is a wholly Portuguese-owned port lodge dating back to the 1750s. It is very well known in Portugal, far less so in the UK, which is a shame. Their vintage ports tend to be rather sweet and lighter in style and their aged tawnies are often superb. Tawny ports are very popular in their native country and the most commonly consumed fortified tipple. Caves Ferreira (19-105 Rua da Carvalhosa) provides an interesting tour for about €4. Ferreira seems to attract a lot of Portuguese coach parties at busy times (maybe due to the interest in the legendary Portuguese woman Antónia Ferreirinha who ran the company in the 19th Century), so you may have to wait 10 minutes or so for an English tour, unless you want to practise your Portuguese listening skills. The tasting room is a splendid tiled affair and the tawnies are well worth the wait.
Grahams is part of the Symington group and a very large commercial enterprise. Their wines tend to be softer and sweeter than their Symington stable mates, Dow and Warre. Graham’s stellar reputation is well deserved and they arguably represent the best value ports of the big producers. Their cellars at Rua Rei Ramiro have an imposing entrance and the terrace and vaulted tasting room provide a wonderful panorama of Oporto. Graham’s is probably the best tour of the lot, being a real steal at €5. The many tourist groups and coach parties that turn up shouldn’t deter you, as the customer service side is slick and well organised and you can take your pick from regular cellar tours in Portuguese, French, German or English! There is an interesting introduction to the production and aging of port and a display analysing the different styles, with a large map of the Douro valley, etc.
You’ll probably get three wines to taste at the end, probably a white port, a tawny and a ruby (left). There are two shops and for those wishing to stock-up and buy direct from the producer, prices for single bottles of LBV or vintage port are very good, possible half to two-thirds of the UK retail price. For those buying a vintage, the Quinta dos Malvedos is almost king of the mountain (perhaps only bettered by one or two from the Taylor’s house). It is absolutely sublime and very long lived in good years. The 1992, 1995 and 1998 are excellent investments at the moment.
Croft is now part of the Taylor’s group but is actually the oldest port house, having shipped port since 1678. Caves Croft is at 23 Lg. Joaquim de Magalhaes. Tours are available in Portuguese or English (the Spanish never seem to be catered for – it is a myth that the two languages are similar, very few Spanish understand Portuguese – but that’s another tale!) and cost €3. The cellars themselves are very interesting and the tasting most convivial, in a vaulted room with enormous tables, surrounded by bottles of port, presentation glasses, decanters and other items for sale. Uniquely, Croft take you into the very ‘inner sanctum’ where some vintage ports dating back 150 years are stored (right) and your guide will give you an interesting explanation of how to open and serve vintage port. Tastings usually consist of a white port and a tawny.
Finally, Taylors at Rua do Choupelo is perhaps the Holy Grail of port. The second oldest port house, ‘Taylor, Yeatman and Fladgate’ to give it its original name, was founded in 1692 (picture 9). Their vintage ports are second-to-none and they claim to have invented the LBV style. The full, rich and long-lived vintages (drier in style than Graham’s) command high prices and even in lesser years, the single quinta Vargellas and Terra Feita may be superb. The tour costs ca. €5, starts with a glass of ruby or tawny port, served in opulent surroundings and a viewing of a video (choice of English or Portuguese). There is also a wonderful restaurant (Barão de Fladgate, Tel +35 223 772 967) serving food at lunchtimes and evenings. It’s a tad expensive but the food is very good and specialises in high quality regional cuisine. The view from the terrace is fantastic and there is a resident peacock as well! The tour is quite erudite and enjoyable and ends with a tasting of the tawny and ruby. You can pay more to ‘upgrade’ your tasting to more expensive wines. The shop is very well stocked and has some superb vintage wines, if you are feeling wealthy.
Opening times of all the lodges vary throughout the week and season, so you might wish to telephone first (English is invariably spoken), though all the lodges are open at weekends and most weekdays, except for a few days at Christmas / New Year and Easter. Many take a lunch break. All the companies have websites where the contact details may be found.
Whilst in Oporto, you must try some Portuguese cuisine. The national dish is bacalhau (salted cod fish) which can be prepared in hundreds of different ways. It is very different in texture and style to that which we eat in Britain, being much firmer and meatier (and may be enjoyed with red wine). If you see Baclahau a braga (from Braga) or no forno (from the oven), it will be a cod steak roasted in the oven with onions, olive oil and garlic (lots). Many other bacalhau dishes involve variations on mixing the codfish with eggs and breadcrumbs and roasting. A wide variety of fresh fish is available in Oporto and restaurants are incredibly good value – a meal for two with (good) wine can cost less than €30 and rarely more than €60. It is worth noting that the Portuguese tend to eat dinner late by British standards. If you go to a restaurant at 8pm (or even 9pm) you will certainly get attentive service from the staff but you might well be dining alone! Many restaurants are not in full swing until 11pm, or later in the summer.
Portuguese table wines are becoming popular in Britain and the quality is improving all the time. Some of the reds from the Douro valley and Alentejo are superb. Except in the most expensive restaurants in Oporto, you won’t have the services of a sommelier but ask the waiters – they are very wine-aware. And €15 buys a very good bottle of wine in a Portuguese restaurant.
O Tripeiro (‘The Oportan’ – tripe eaters being slang for residents of Oporto), Rua Passos Manuel, close to the Baixa (Tel +35 222 005 886). Large and popular with tourists but the food is undeniably good. Try the Bacalhau à Zé do Pipo – which means cryptically ‘from Joseph’s pipe’ – roasted with peppers in reality.
Capa Negra (‘Black Cape’ – a reference to its academic location near the university), 191 Rua Campo Alegre (Tel +35 22 607 83 83). Though not posh by any means, this brasserie is rightly popular. You’ll find a good range of simple dishes, generous portions and a solid wine list, as you dine with the locals. The local ‘snack’ of choice is fransischina, a ‘calorie bomb’ of a fried meat and cheese sandwich about 10 cm thick, covered in a cheese and cream sauce. It is often served with fries too!
Casa Agricola (‘Farm House’) 241 – 243 Rua do bom Sucesso (Tel +35 22 605 33 50) is close to Capa Negra. More upmarket, the surroundings are very tasteful and the wine list is extensive and superb. A small menu but the dishes are all commendable. One of my favourite places to eat in Portugal.