Porto’s rich history dates back thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the 17th century that the city became known for its fortified wines. Legend has it that British merchants were visiting a monastery in the town of Lamego on the Douro River in 1678 when they encountered an abbot who was making a fortified wine in a way entirely new to them.
- Learn more about the history of Port
- Find out about the different types of Port: Ruby, Tawny, White, Pink, Vintage and Crusted.
- Sample some delicious examples of each type in atmospheric surroundings.
Instead of adding the fortified grape spirit after fermentation, the Abbot of Lamego was fortifying his wine during fermentation, killing off the active yeast cells, and resulting in a much sweeter, strongly alcoholic wine. This found great favour with the merchants’ customers, and the already well-established wine trade with Britain and her colonies found a new Portuguese favourite.
How much truth there is to this story is unclear, but fortifying the wine has the additional advantage of making it more transportable and this advantage, combined with the wonderful sweet taste, ensured a thriving port trade.
A Long History
Merchants were already aging and storing Douro valley wines in vast warehouses or lodges along the banks of the Douro. From here, they could be easily shipped around Europe and beyond from Porto. The wines were shipped in casks marked Vinho do Porto or ‘Port Wine’; taking their name from the city from where they were shipped – despite the wine actually originating 80 kilometres inland in the Douro Valley.
The name of Porto itself dates back to before the 4th Century BC when the Romans named their settlement on the northern banks of the Douro River Portus Cale (or ‘Port of Cale’ after its original Celtic name of Callaici).
The Romans grew grapes and made wine here, continuing a history of viticulture that stretches back to the Tartessians, who planted vines in the Sado and Tagus valleys around 2,000 BC.
It wasn’t until 1756 that Porto gained an official appellation, when the then Portuguese Prime Minister, the Marquis of Pombal, established boundaries and regulations for the production of authentic Port from the Douro – making Port one of the world's first protected designation of origin, after Chianti (1716) and Tokaj (1730).
What to do
- Wander the pretty cobbled squares and streets of Vila Nova da Gaia between tours and tastings.
- Stop for lunch at a riverside terrace and enjoy a glass of chilled White Port in the sunshine.
- Stop for a sunset cocktail on the terrace of Espaço Porto Cruz before heading back over the river to Porto.
The Wine Lodges on the Douro
Today, the town of Vila Nova da Gaia, which lies just across the Douro River from Porto, on its southern bank, is home to the vast majority of the major port lodges. Looking up the steep hillside from the winding Douro river, the twinkling lights of the town are interspersed with the long roofs of the wine lodges and their whitewashed walls emblazoned with the names of the producers.
If you fancy taking a tour of one of the main producers, Gaia is the place to head. You can cross the Dom Luís I bridge from Porto to Gaia on foot, or hop on the little wooden river taxi that crosses the river from Cais de Ribeira, then take your pick of the many Port producers that offer tours and tastings at their lodges.
Cálem is the leading brand in Portugal, selling more than 2.6 million bottles of Port annually. Its warehouses occupy a prime spot on the banks of the Douro, its name stretches in giant letters above its roof, clearly visible from the Porto side. This scenic spot and historic building provide an atmospheric backdrop to a very professional tour which includes a guided tour of the cellars, self-guided museum tour, port tasting and, if you like, a Fado performance.
Espaço Porto Cruz
Just along the Gaia riverfront, the historic warehouses of Espaço Porto Cruz were renovated in 2012 to include an auditorium, exhibition rooms, audio-visual guides, restaurant and a tasting room. On the upper floor is a terrace and cocktail bar where, as well as sampling the company’s delicious range of ports, you can enjoy an al fresco lunch with scenic riverside views during the summer months.
Ferreira is one of the oldest port wine cellars in Portugal, established in the nineteenth century by Antónia Ferreira. This tour is notable because it offers an insight into the achievements of this extraordinary woman operating in this male-dominated industry, in addition to the usual history of port wine and its various different types, followed by a tasting of some of Ferreira’s wonderful ports.
You will like
- Sampling the ports!
- The views from the top tier of the Dom Luís I bridge.
- Taking the little river taxi boat from Porto over to Vila Nova da Gaia.
The Offley brand is also owned Sogrape Vinhos Portugal, the same group that owns the Ferreira and Sandeman brands. Dating back to 1737, it was established by William Offley, and flourished under the leadership of another influential Brit, Joseph James Forrester, an influential personality in the history of Porto. Discover more of the brand’s history and tradition on a tour and tasting at its Gaia port lodge.
The Sandeman brand is known for both its sherry and port; the figure on its labelling and branding was first painted in 1928 by George Massiot Brown to combine both Portuguese and Spanish influences, incorporating the Portuguese black student's cape, the Coimbra, and the typical Jerez sombrero hat. At its port warehouses on the banks of the Douro, you can hear more about the company’s history, the evolution of its port business, the history of port production, and sample some port. The wide terrace outside overlooking the river is a wonderful spot to stop for lunch on a sunny day.
Possibly the most well-known name on this list for visitors to Porto from outside Portugal, Taylors offers a self-guided audio tour at its Gaia port lodge. If you want to go at your own pace, this can be a great option. There is lots of information to dive into if you wish, and the obligatory tasting at the end, which you can choose to enjoy in the lodge’s garden if you wish. If you prefer your tours to be a little more interactive, you can book in advance to arrange a private tour and tasting.
What you need to know
- Check opening times before you go, especially if you are visiting between September and May.
- Most tours can be booked in advance – check individual websites for details.
- If you are travelling in a large group, booking in advance is essential.
Ramos Pinto Cellars
Discover the history of this company and of the Douro Demarcated Region itself and find out why this nectar is said to be "divine". Ramos Pinto possesses a vast heritage to discover with its iconic brand legacy, museum spaces, wine cellars tours and other programs. Book your visit at the visitor centre in Gaia.
Graham’s is still a working cellar. No visit to the Lodge will pass without hearing the sounds of the Coopers’ hammers or seeing the lodgemen collecting samples for the tasting room. W & J Graham’s magnificent 1890 Lodge is situated on a commanding ridge in Vila Nova de Gaia across the Douro River from Porto and only a few hundred metres from the river’s south bank. It affords spectacular views of Porto’s historic city centre and the iconic two-tier bridge that connects the two cities of Oporto and Gaia. The entire Lodge has been recently renovated by the Symington family and all its original features restored. Visitors to the Graham’s Lodge can experience the best of three centuries of craftsmanship and heritage. Please note: Visits by reservation only. Book your visit here.