After a few days in 100-degree Sevilla sight-seeing and tapas-hopping with husband, Frank, and our son who both joined me there, we sped off to Porto, Portugal to begin our wine explorations. Frank is an artisanal winemaker interested in crafting wine from grapes less common in California such as Torrantes, a white wine popular in Argentina, and Barbera, Italy’s favorite red table wine. He had heard that Portugal’s winemaking tradition is experiencing a renaissance, branching out into less traditional varieties he is curious to learn more about.
While we had anticipated driving into Portugal’s up-and-coming southern wine regions, the Alentejo and Ribatejo, heat and the inevitable realization that we can’t do it all in a few days drove us northward to cooler Porto on the sea. We made the roughly 1367 km, (850 mile) journey in about 6 hours in our rented car. The heat? Both the aforementioned summer solar wattage and our son’s Portuguese girlfriend awaiting him there added to the conflagration.
Recognize this iconic figure? It’s the world famous logo for Sandeman cellars, one of the oldest continuous producers of port in Portugal, established in 1790. While Scotsman George Sandeman’s base of trade originally centered in London, his product was the famous port wine of Porto, as well as sherry from Spain. Today, most of the large producers of port have cellars—or bodegas—just across the Douro River from Porto in Gaia. We decided to tour Sandeman’s.
Most readers have enjoyed sipping port I’m sure. From a winemaker’s perspective, port is known as a fortified wine. Fermentation, the process by which alcohol is produced while yeast feasts on the freshly crushed grapes’ natural sugars, is stopped early by the addition of brandy, a high alcohol spirit that effectively kills the yeast. This leaves both high residual sugar and high alcohol content. What creates the distinctive tawny, ruby, or vintage characteristics then occurs in the individual aging processes and the quality of grapes used.
Tours through the cellars at Sandeman are led by a guide wearing the familiar black scholar’s cloak of Portugal and broad cabellero’s hat, representing Spain and its sherry. Within the shadowed cellars, the guide first appears as a striking silhouette in the distance much as the logo does. However when our guide turned around to speak, all three of us were surprised to discover our mysterious “caballero” was also a beautiful pregnant woman who spoke with a German accent!
Grapes have been grown in the Douro River area since Roman times. The steep terraced hillsides along its banks are ideal for grape production, the prevalent “schist,” or stony soil providing the consistent heat needed by the vines. After harvest and fermentation, the barrels of port were traditionally shipped in flat bottomed boats down the river to the bodegas in Gaia. These boats are still used for tourist rides and seasonal races. However after the tastings, we re-crossed the graceful Luis I Iron Bridge by foot, savoring the view of Porto, our only race the ones necessary to avoid being hit by cars who do not share California’s sense of a pedestrian’s right of way, nor it seems any right at all.
The Douro River valley is also an important area for the production of Portugal’s many fine table wines. Next stop.