SO...there we were on the banks of the Douro River in Porto, looking across at all of the port lodges. Most of them had British names emblazoned in lights--Graham, Taylor, Sandeman... Wait a minute. I thought port was Portuguese. Well, it is, but with some interesting history. Rick Steves to the rescue.
In his book Portugal, Rick explains why so many ports have British names--many were originally British owned or transported by British ships. During the 18th century, when Britain was at war with France and when the duty for importing Portuguese wine was low, the British turned to Portugal for its wine. In order to preserve the wine during the sea transport, they introduced aguardente, a grape brandy, to the wine after only a few days of fermentation. Voila-- their fortified, sweeter, 20% alcohol-content, wine was preserved during the journey; port was born.
We wanted to visit a port lodge, but which one of the many available? The logo that grabbed us was the one for Sandeman. It's a Don, in a Portuguese university student's black graduate cape, with a wide-brimmed hat, holding a glass of ruby red port, against a vibrant yellow background. We saw a lot of these images on the Sandeman vineyards on the banks of the Douro.
We walked across the pedestrian bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia, home of all the port lodges, bought our tour tickets for an hour later, and then wandered the streets to spy all of the other lodges we were missing.
When we returned, our tour guide, dressed as the Sandeman icon, was awaiting us and about thirty other English-speaking folks. On our tour, we learned that Sandeman was founded in 1790 by a Scottish man named George Sandeman and is still run by a seventh generation George Sandeman. Quite amazing.
We walked through dark caves filled with large vats and barrels of aging port, saw very expensive bottles of port from the early 1900's, and watched a film about the Douro grape area and harvesting history. All Portuguese port is made on the Douro, one of the oldest designated wine regions in Europe, and stored in Porto.
And then we had our port tasting. The first was a white port called Apitiv White, a blend of wines 2-5 years of age, which is often served chilled as an aperitif. In fact, at a harbor restaurant the next day, we were offered it with a spritzer of tonic water and a slice of lemon over ice; it was a perfect beginning for a summer evening's meal. I now want to find this here!
The second port was the Imperial Reserve, a blend of 4 to 12 year old wines, which, our guide told us, is wonderful with apple pie. We'll remember that, in case we run into a good apple pie maker, though even without the apple pie, we were sold on it as a rich sweet after dinner drink.
You might want to check out the Sandeman website to learn more on the making of port, the need to decant (or not), and the time port stays fresh after the bottle is opened.
And remember the advice we saw on a boat on the Douro River, "Set sail to a good port." We think you'll enjoy it.