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Port and Northern Portugal

Douro Valley, Portugal

This is a university report I wrote on our field trip in Northern Portugal…

On the 4th September we flew to Porto and were welcomed by warm sunny weather. We were taken to the youth hostel where we would spend most of our nights in Portugal. The hostel was of very high standard, or at least until we tried the breakfast the next morning! Our rooms had wonderful views of the end of the river Douro and its meeting with the sea. Some evenings we could watch banks of fog moving slowly in from the sea and up the the river valley.

Instito dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto
Our stay in Northern Portugal was to have quite a large focus on Port wine, and the Instito dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP) was a primary sponsor and were to guide us through much of our trip. So the next morning we travelled to the “Solar” run by the institute, a place for tasting and buying Ports. During the journey and on arrival we saw more of the city which is unusually beautiful with the river Douro in a deep valley splitting what looks like one city but is actually Porto to the North and Vila Nova de Gaia to the south, impressive bridges link the two.

First we had a brief introduction to the wine and port industries in Portugal. Portugal has the highest proportion of viticulture to agricultural land in Europe (around 9.6%). While port is named after the city of Porto the grapes come from much further inland, the middle and upper Douro Valley. This area is still reliant on very small-scale grape producers, with a viticultural area of 46,000 Hectares there are 33,000 producers and 104,000 parcels of land! Porto is the traditional home of the port wine shipping companies while the ageing and bottling is traditionally done across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia. Port is always made with a blend of grapes, mostly made up from 5 grape varieties, Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cão, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Touriga Francesa. Older vineyards are often planted with a mix of varieties meaning that the blending happens before reaching the winery.
Types of port
Port is made by fermenting crushed grapes but then halting the fermentation long before completion by adding a strong grape alcohol to the juice. This leaves much of the grape’s sugar unfermented leaving a sweet wine. There are two main types of port, ruby port is made keeping the deep, fresh colours and aromas of the young wine by bottling after a short period in barrels. Ruby port is subdivided into different categories, for the best vintages, vintage port is made. This spends 2 years in barrels before being bottled, unfiltered and can then be aged for at least 25 years. LBV stands for late bottled vintage and this port is kept longer in barrels before being bottled (this is to attempt to reproduce some of the benefits of longer ageing in the bottle without the costs of so doing). LBV is much cheaper than vintage port and is not suitable for long ageing in the bottle. Then there are standard ruby ports that are kept for a few years in (usually very large) barrels before being blended and bottled.

Tawny port is made by putting the same initial wine into medium size barrels and ageing for long periods. In this method the wine slowly oxidises, losing its fresh colours and aromas and ending up with gold to brown colours and with complex dried fruit and caramel aromas. There are three subdivisions, a colheita is a single vintage tawny. Then there are blends with ageing indications of 10, 20, 30, or 40 years ageing. There are also generic tawny ports that do not specify the ageing criteria.

A third type of port, white port was created relatively recently and is made in a similar way to ruby port but using white grapes.

After a tasting of all the main types of port with the institute’s head of tasting, Bento Amaral, we travelled to the institute’s beautiful headquarters in the centre of Porto to have lunch.
In the afternoon we met Natalia Ribeiro, head of the analysis laboratories of the institute and she showed us the laboratories and explained the various tests performed. 36 different tests are performed on test samples from any part of the port making process such as measurement of pH, carbon isotopes, residual sugar, ethanol and methanol content, volatile acidity, heavy metals, etc. They also run tests on the spirit used to fortify the wine, including to check that it is of grape origin as required by the regulations.
Legal protection
The next day we were at the institute again and met Alberto Ribeiro de Almeida, head of legal services at the institute told us about the legal protection and administration of port and Douro wines. The institute is a state institution and responsible for the protection of the appellation of origin for the wines. It is also responsible for promotion of the sector, market regulation, analysis and control. The making of port is highly regulated and there are controls and limits on many factors of production. For example, if a port trader wanted to cease trading, they would have to sell off their stock at a similar rate to normal operation – thereby preventing possible destabilisation of the market
Next Natàlia Fauvrelle gave us some historical background to port. The British were in a large way responsible for the port industry – in the 17th century they were at war with the French, preventing the normal import of wine from France. Portugal was on friendly terms with Britain and merchants started to import wine from Portugal. Initially, this was table wine, but in the 18th century it was found that fortification helped to prevent spoilage during the long transit to Britain. A large trade grew which was not wholly beneficial to Portugal, for instance, the trade brought a lot of British textiles in exchange which devastated the Portuguese textile industry. The demand for wine also stimulated abundant fraud both in Britain and in Portugal. This led to the Portuguese king setting up rules and laws to regulate the industry, creating the first wine region regulation in the world.

Around the turn of the 19th century the vine diseases affecting much of Europe arrived in Portugal causing production problems and forcing the modernization of vineyards, costing the industry greatly. They were also suffering from the competition of new fortified wines from places like Australia and California where costs were much lower due to the absence of the terracing needed in the Douro valley. The fascist dictatorship that lasted until the 1970’s oversaw a time of poverty, lack of investment and emigration of population. But in the 1980’s investment returned and the industry has returned to health. At one time in the 1980’s with the renewed investment the region had the highest concentration of Ferraris in the world.
Ana Cristina Melo, an economist at the institute gave us some statistics about the production. 2005 saw 10.4 million cases of port produced. France is the biggest market (3m cases) followed by Netherlands (1.7m), Portugal (1.5m) Benelux (1.3m) UK (1.2m), USA (0.4m). France, Netherlands and Benelux import low cost ports (average €3.5), UK and Portugal pay more (€5 average), and US/Canada mostly buy premium ports (ave €8-9). Premium ports have been expanding, now 18% of market and Buyer’s own brand ports (eg supermarkets) have increased to 30% of the market.
After lunch Marketing Director, Paulo Pinto explained his area. He explained that wine producers in general have less resources for marketing due to the high cost of their raw materials, especially for those in areas where mechanisation is difficult or impossible like the Douro valley. This means that most of the drink sector marketing is done by producers of drinks like vodka which have low production costs.

Different markets need different marketing strategies. France, mostly buying cheap tawny ports needs a different approach to the US where most port bought is premium. However, the institute itself only actively promotes premium ports. Obviously, port shippers, especially the large ones can run their own promotions.

Visit to Quintas
Late afternoon we left Porto for a journey inland, up the Douro valley, firstly heading for our overnight stop in Régua.

The next morning we were divided into 4 groups and were sent off for the day at different port-producing quintas. I believe I was very lucky to end up at Quinta de Napoles, part of the Niepoort operation along with Francesca, and Francesco. We arrived at the quinta which is up a side valley off the main Douro valley and were met by a busy Luis Seabra, head of wines and vineyards for Niepoort who was in the thick of the harvest and wine-making. He asked us if we could work and we said we could. He asked “who wants to pick grapes? Who wants to collect grape samples? And who wants to help in the winery?” Francesca, Francesco and I looked at each other briefly before Luis decided for us, sending Francesca to pick grapes with the mostly female pickers, Francesco went to the winery and I was to sample grapes.

I joined a few other people for the sampling including a student studying enology at the University of California, Davis who was spending the whole harvest working at the quinta. We were driven up into the steep, terraced vineyards on rough, precarious tracks in a well-worn four wheel drive truck. Our work in the vineyard was to spread out and pick sample grapes from every couple of vines, therefore taking a small sample of grapes from the whole vineyard for analysing back at the winery. This was really pleasant work, with the heat of the late summer sun, the wonderful views of the vineyards and valleys, and getting to see vines all over the vineyards, different varieties, different variations to terrain, climatic exposure, water retention etc. The grapes, being nearly ready for picking, were also wonderful to taste, mostly intensely sweet, with differing levels of tannins and aromatics.

Back at the winery, we delivered our samples to the small laboratory at the quinta and I found Francesco cleaning barrels. A little later Francesca returned from grape picking in the vineyards and we could see that she had had the hardest job, her back ached and she was covered in sweat and dirt. Luis, who had an incredible energy and enthusiasm for his operation gave us some white grape juice samples to taste from different vineyard parcels to show just how much the complexities and flavours can differ, it also showed how aromatic the juice is before vinification.

After a hearty lunch with all the workers and a tasting of Luis’s latest vintage of their top wine which had just come out of the barrel, we went back to work, this time all remaining in the winery. We helped wet the cap of a tank of recently fermented wine by transferring buckets of wine from the bottom to the top. Then some grapes started to arrive from the vineyards and we got involved with the weighing in and working on the sorting table removing imperfect bunches, leaves, etc. We were still doing this when our bus arrived to collect us at 4pm. I was more than a little disappointed to leave, there was something very compelling about the manual labour, the closeness to nature and the terrain, the history of wine-making, and the amount of work left to be done.

Having met the rest of the students, most of whom had drunk wine rather than helped make it at their quintas, we travelled by bus further inland until we got to Quinta do Barracão da Vilariça near Vila Flor in the Trás os Montes region. This was a dry area and produced olive oil, sheep, cork, and some wine.

The next day we visited a flock of the local sheep and a dairy producing cheese from their milk. Then we saw an olive oil mill where they processed olive oil with a de-stoning method. Then we had a long drive back to Porto.

Bolhão Market and Portuguese specialities
Saturday morning, we were taken to see the Bolhão market in Porto, an old semi-covered market in a specially built facility in the centre of the city selling food-stuffs. We then returned to the Solar of the institute where IVDP gave us a tasting of many of Portugal’s regional specialities, sausages, ham, cheeses and breads etc. A number of the Portuguese sausages are smoked and/or have spices added, making them more unique to Portugal. We also tasted one of Portugal’s finest hams, which, like the Spanish Pata negra, comes from indigenous, slow growing pigs living in woods and eating a natural diet.

Saturday afternoon and Sunday we were free to explore the city and Jonathon and I spent much of it visiting port houses in Vila Nova de Gaia, including Croft, Kopke, Krohn and Quinta do Noval.

More Port
On Monday we continued our port exploration with visits to Graham’s and Taylor’s. Being organised by the university, these visits were a cut above the standard tourist’s visit we had had when visiting at the weekend. We were given the chance to try some of their top wines, although we never did get to taste an aged vintage. The Graham’s Malvedos 1998 vintage port was probably the most interesting ruby port I tasted.

Vinho Verde
On Tuesday we headed north from Porto to the Minho region. The area was covered in lush green vegetation and enhanced by a crystal clear, deep blue sky. Our first stop was to have a look at the famous wine of this area, Vinho Verde, meaning green wine – a descriptor of the wine’s freshness rather than colour. We visited the producer Amandio Galbano who makes small batches of wines from experimental fruit varieties.

Corn bread
After lunch we visited a farm where an heirloom corn variety has been grown and processed in a traditional way. This corn is used to produce a historic corn bread, Broa de milho which has been included in Slow Food’s Ark of Taste.

Salt Production
The next day we had our first cloudy, cool weather and headed south to Aveiro. Here we saw the traditional salt pans that have been restored and kept functioning. Salt from this area was important for the production of salt cod, one of Portugal’s most important foods. Nearby Ílhavo was an important part of Portugal’s cod fishing history and this is where we travelled next to see the maritime museum there.

Cod and salt-cod
The Portuguese were one of the biggest cod fishing nations, fishing cod off Newfoundland as early as the 14th century. In the 16th century they lost their fishing fleet to the Spanish and did not resume the practice until the 19th century. In those times, salt was used to preserve the fish. In fact the Portuguese cod fishing industry was one of the last to modernise, the final voyage made by a traditional sail powered schooner, being as late as 1951. In the museum we saw a mock-up of one of these schooners.

For lunch we joined the Codfish Brotherhood, an organisation of cod fishermen and ate one of the most traditional salt cod meals, often eaten at Christmas, consisting of boiled salt cod steaks served with boiled eggs, potatoes and greens. In the afternoon we visited a salt cod factory. The salting is now done in Portugal, using frozen cod which is defrosted, salted, and dried.

The next morning we travelled to the Matosinhos which is like a northern suburb of Porto and the centre of the city’s fishing industry. Here we visited a sardine canning factory, Pinhais & Ca. Sardines were hand trimmed and placed in cans before sealing and sterilising.

Farewell from IVDP
For lunch IVDP treated us to a spectacular meal for our last full day in the country. They organised a five course meal paired with different ports at a 5 star hotel in Porto, the chef, they told us was also chef to the Portuguese football team. Obviously, pairing all courses with ports gave some difficulties in designing the meal, but in general it was very successful and the food was an excellent blending of Portuguese and haute cuisine.

In the afternoon we had our last session at the institute with information about wine and food tourism. But after the lunch we had just had, concentration was not so easy. However, the essence was that Portugal is rich as a destination due to the diversity of everything from climates, grapes, vegetables and animal breeds to history and culture. And we had just had 2 weeks exploring that incredible diversity in just a small proportion of the whole country.


Photos of our trip can be seen here.
All information for this report came from first hand experience and information given by the people we met


One Response

  1. It´s a shame that bolhão has been sold and will be transformed in offices, commercial galleries and a parking lot….it is a harsh cut in the city´s soul.
    Link to Online Petition

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