Focus on Portugal: Vila Nova de Gaia, the Douro and other tasty aspects of Port wine.

Vila Nova de Gaia (photo credit).

Port’s longstanding popularity as an after-dinner drink can be credited to its fortification: About halfway through the fermentation process, a dose of a neutral grape spirit known as aguardiente is added to the wine, both fortifying it and halting the fermentation before all the sugar has been converted to alcohol. The resulting wine is both stronger and sweeter than traditional table wine, and comes in several varietals.

If memory serves, it was my Danish buddy Kim Wiesener — intrepid and long-suffering tour guide for our 1987 fact-finding journey into the USSR and Poland — who introduced me to the considerable glories of Port wine.

I recall the two of us drinking Port together on several occasions, from Moscow to London and various points in between, during a time when he was known to be cellaring prime vintages and periodically pulling out a bottle just to make sure all was well.

Since then I’ve become passably fluent with the language of Port, and we used to have regular holiday gatherings at the Public House of the Pants Down Pot Luck Port Tasting Circle, or some such, which was great fun while it lasted. This past Christmas my friends Kira and Ed resurrected the idea, but I was unable to attend and surely will make amends in 11 months.

In 2000, I visited two or three of the “lodges” at Vila Nova de Gaia, where tours can be taken and samples of the “basics” nipped.

Vila Nova de Gaia is just across the Douro River from Porto (Oporto). This is the real Port Wine town; it’s where the lodges of the historic port wine producers are strung out along the “Ribeira” or water-front with their caves, aging tanks, and tasting rooms. Signs emblazoned with English names dominate the rooftops of lodges in the upper areas of the steep bank, while the home town producers’ modest lodges are more often found tucked into the lower slopes.

They’re all here because in 1225 King Alfonso gave Vila Nova de Gaia town status, then quickly handed it off to the aristocracy because the bishops of Oporto were charging unreasonable shipping charges on the wines. Despite the “new-sounding” name, Gaia sits on a pre-Roman hamlet. It has a longer history than you’d think when folks call it a “suburb” of Porto.

Later I traveled up the Douro River by train to the town of Pinhão, in the epicenter of vast tracts of vineyards. Pinhão historically functioned as a collection point for the wine being shipped downstream to Vila Nova de Gaia for aging and storage.

We’ll see what happens this time around. Diana likes 20-year Tawny, while I’m content with Ruby on a daily basis. But if an appropriate vintage presents itself, almost anything can happen.

Port Wine: Portugal’s Douro Valley, Making Port Wine & the History of Port

Port is a fortified wine from the remote vineyards in Portugal’s Douro Valley. Here, in the Douro Valley, time has almost stood still. You will not find the latest wine making techniques and fancy equipment. Instead, you will find a wine industry much the way it was over a hundred years ago. Yet, in spite of it, or because of it, vintage Port is one of the world’s greatest wines.

Port takes its name from the city of Porto that is situated at the mouth of the 560-mile long Rio Douro or River of Gold. Although many port-style wines are made around the world – most notably Australia, South Africa and the United States – the strict usage of the terms Port or Porto refer only to wines produced in Portugal. It is these wines that we will explore here.