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Our weekend series “Favorite Places” features beloved travel destinations, attractions, restaurants, hotels and more from different members of the TPG team. TPG International Contributor Lori Zaino explains why winery-hopping along the Douro River in northern Portugal is such a delightful experience. (All photos are by author unless otherwise specified.)
I first went to Porto several years ago because it was only $30 round-trip on everyone’s favorite low-cost carrier, Ryanair, from my home base in Madrid. With low expectations, I landed in Porto ready to simply check the city off on my bucket list with a “been there, done that.” I was wholly unprepared for falling in love with both the city and its beloved Port wine. I’ve been back every year since this first visit and will be soon spending my Thanksgiving sipping Port at the wineries I’ll share with you below.
Though Lisbon typically gets more attention, its introverted sister city, Porto, has much to offer travelers. In addition to extremely cheap prices, you’ll find rich history and beautifully aged architecture — the whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. And rather than hordes of tourists, you’re likely to meet a lot of bonafide Portuguese locals. Beyond the sloping hills and gorgeous Douro River, though, the main attraction here is the truly delicious Port wine.
A Brief History Of Port Wine
The Port wine cellars aren’t actually in Porto — they’re dotted along the other side of the river in a town called Vila Nova de Gaia, accessible by six different bridges from the city of Porto. The wine isn’t actually cultivated in these wine cellars, but stored there in casks or vats. Up until the 1960s, Port wine was brought down the river from the vineyards to be stored in Gaia’s damp and cooler conditions instead of baking in the hot Portuguese sun out in the terraced countryside. You can still see some of the traditional Rabelo cargo boats (found only in Portugal) that are loaded with barrels, though now they’re simply used for show or the occasional river cruise. These days, the wine is brought down by truck from the vineyards and stored in the climate-controlled cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia.
A Crash Course in Port Wine
Port wine’s sweet flavor is thanks to the addition of a neutral grape spirit that stops fermentation, ensures sugar is left in the wine and amps up its alcohol content. While there are several types of Port, the most popular styles are white, tawny and ruby:
White Port is dryer and typically served before dinner as an apertif.
Ruby Port, named for its color, is a younger wine that does not typically improve with age and is stored in metal or concrete vats.
Tawny Port is typically housed in an oak wood barrel for at least two years, gathering a nutty or rich flavor. Vintage varieties are often left in the barrel or in bottle for many years, growing better with age.
A Walking Tour With Winery Visits
I recommend doing a circuit of at least four wineries while in Vila Gaia de Nova.
First, walk from Port across the top part of the iconic iron Dona Maria Pia Bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1877, before he built the Eiffel Tower. The terra cotta roofs and colorfully tiled buildings you’ll see on both sides of the river are a feast for the eyes. If you feel nervous about heights, know that you can also take the metro across the top of the bridge, which is a much less worrisome adventure — especially on a windy day.
Once on the other side, enjoy a ride in the téleferico, which is a cable car (adults, 5 euro/$5.70) over some of the wineries you’ll soon be touring with stunning panoramic views of Porto, the Douro River and Vila Nova de Gaia.
Hop off and head up the hill to start your tastings at Croft Winery, which dates back to 1588 — the oldest Port winery still producing. Here you can visit the wine cellars and enjoy three samples (which you’ll need after trekking up the cobblestone hill): Croft Pink, Reserve and Tawny 10 years. The Croft Pink is its specialty pink Port, and tasting it in its quaint wine lodge around the fireplace is truly lovely. Tours operate every 40 minutes and cost 5 euro/$5.70 per person. Fall/winter hours are 10am-6pm.
Next, stroll over to Taylor’s, another famous name in the world of Port wine. This tour includes a tour and tasting of three Ports: an Extra Dry White, a Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) and 10-year-old Tawny in the fancy Library Room. Weather-permitting, you can enjoy your drinks out on the balcony, which offers gorgeous views of Port. Tours leave every 30/40 minutes and cost 5 euro/$5.70 p/p. Hours are Monday-Friday: 10am to 6pm, Saturday-Sunday: 10am to 5pm.
Head back down the hill over to the main river-side street, Avenida Diogo Leite and pay a visit to Sandeman, which may just be the ultimate of all Port cellars thanks to its mini-museum, which includes a fun collection of its vintage advertisements for Port wine. A caped tour guide will lead you around the cellars and explain the history to you, followed by a tasting of the Sandeman Ruby and Tawny Ports in the elaborate wood-paneled tasting room. Fall/Winter tours operate from 9:30am–12:30pm and 2pm-5:30pm and start at 6 euro/$6.80 per person.
Walk over to the edge of the bridge and end your wine-tasting extravaganza with Calem. The tour starts in an interactive museum that explains why the Douro wine region is the best place to cultivate Port, followed by a cellar visit and a tasting of both a red and white Port. It also offers one special evening tour per day, which includes the classic tour followed by 45 minutes of live, traditional Portuguese fado ballads. Fall/Winter tours operate from 10am-6pm daily and start at 6 euro/$6.80 per person. The tour plus concert is 17.50 euro/$20 per person.
Once finished, you can float — or perhaps stumble — back across the bottom of the bridge until you reach the actual Port in Porto. Tourist-catering restaurants are set right along the river, but if you’d prefer a more local spot for lunch or dinner, head just a little ways up the hill from the Port to hotspot LSD, or Largo de São Domingos, which offers gourmet Portuguese cuisine. For a more traditional vibe, cozy up to a table at Arroz de Forno.
Arrive: TAP Portugal, a Star Alliance member, operates flights between Porto (OPO) and Newark (EWR). Ryanair and Easyjet also offer low-cost flights from several cities around Europe.
Stay: The IHG Palacio Das Cardosas is a renovated 18th century palace turned hotel set in the regal Dos Aliados Plaza. Rooms offer either one king or two twin beds, marble bathrooms and a free Wi-Fi connection. The hotel also offers a sauna and spa. Room rates start at 156 euro/$178 per night or 30,000 IHG Reward points.
Spend: Credit cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Citi Prestige don’t charge foreign transaction fees, making them ideal to use on a trip to visit the wineries of Portugal. To see more cards without these fees, check out, Top Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees.