Porto, Portugal: Fortified wine gets a makeover in Vila Nova de Gaia

There's much talk these days about the filter bubble on social media, which disregards alternative views and feeds you only what you want to hear. It leaves you isolated in an ideological space that conforms to your expectations. In Porto, I'm struck with the thought that travel can get like that, too. You see what you want to see, follow your particular interests and, in doing so, reconfirm your prejudices.

It's good, therefore, that I'm on an escorted journey around Spain and Portugal, because there are experiences on this itinerary I'd never have considered myself. Certainly, I'd never have visited a port winery. Isn't port the horribly sweet post-dinner drink of some retired colonel bludgeoned in an Agatha Christie novel? A drink about as trendy as cloche hats and the Queen's Christmas Message?

But my bubble is popped in Porto. Or, technically speaking, in Vila Nova de Gaia just across the Douro River, where they've been creating port since the Douro became the world's first demarcated wine region in 1756.

Here a new generation of young winemakers has blown the cobwebs off the barrels and is changing the once dowdy reputation of fortified wine. Port has become lighter and less sweet. White port is fashionable in cocktails, and rose port is appealing to a younger demographic.

This prejudice-wrecking information is imparted by Jose Luis, our guide at prestigious port house Sandeman. He's too young to have heard of Agatha Christie and is wearing a dashing black cloak that makes him look like Harry Potter. No coincidence, since J.K. Rowling was once an English teacher in Porto, and Hogwart's school uniform is said to be inspired by the traditional attire of Portuguese university graduates, as is the cape worn by the figure on the Sandeman logo.

George Sandeman was a Scottish cabinetmaker who founded the port company in 1790. The British, shut out of the Burgundy wine market by the Napoleonic Wars, turned to Portuguese wines instead, and several prestigious port companies have English-sounding names. In the Sandeman cellar, we're shown a collection of handcrafted bottles used for the wine in the 18th century.

The company is proud of its history, but Jose Luis's patter – with its talk of hints of vanilla and cherry, and the ideal matching of light port with salty bar snacks – is made for the hipster era.

Our first tasting is Apitiv Reserve, a white port that matures mostly in stainless steel followed by oak, leaving it refreshing and slightly fruity, with a hint of spice. In contrast, the red port Imperial Reserve is aged for longer, leaving it with lots of body and a tawny hue.

"Still quite fruity, but jammier, and with more berry and ripe fruit flavours," says Jose Luis. He explains that tawny ports are matured in smaller barrels, where you get higher oxidation, more contact with the barrels' wood, and more condensed sugars. Indeed, where the Apitiv is floral and zesty, the Imperial seems more complex, filled with the rich flavours of dried fruit.


"Tawny port is a complex subject. You can argue over whether you should have it before or after a meal," says Jose Luis. "It's good paired with bitter nuts such as almonds and walnuts, or with chocolate desserts. Or my personal favourite, enjoyed with coffee and a Portuguese custard tart. Try it and you'll be delighted."

Generally, I'd be wary of recommendations from a post-Millennial. Sometimes, though, it's good to stray beyond your comfort zone. Later, I follow Jose Luis's suggestion and am indeed delighted. Miss Marple has been put to rest, and a bottle of port is wedged in my suitcase.


Brian Johnston was a guest of Insight Vacations.





Insight Vacations' 15-day Best of Spain and Portugal itinerary, between Madrid and Barcelona (or the reverse), runs weekly from April to October visiting Porto and other destinations including Salamanca, Lisbon, Seville, Gibraltar and Granada. Prices from $4199 a person twin share including some meals and experiences such as the port tasting. See insightvacations.com/au