Porto Journal: A true slogging tour of port wineries

Calem winery in Porto.
Calem winery in Porto.

Now I know why Porto takes like grape juice but wallops like grappa. It’s filled with brandy! The fucking Brits used to put brandy in their wine to preserve it for shipping. The brandy they use is 78 percent alcohol. That’s just one of the little tidbits of information I heard on two terrific winery tours yesterday.

Porto has the most convenient wine culture in the world. With Britain at war with France in the 17th century, the Brits came in to establish a wine business in Portugal, its old ally. They built the wineries right across the river from town for easy export. They’re still there with British names like Calem and Burmeister and Taylor’s. Walking down the steep, narrow staircase through the poor neighborhood down from Rua Santa Catarina, you can see the names in giant block letters on the roofs of warehouses.

My first one was Calem, right on the main drag. I walked into a big glass showroom where a short, skinny, bespectacled tour guide gave us a rundown on port wine. Essentially there are three types of port: white, tawny and ruby. The whites are more of an aperitif before dinner, the ruby is more of a sweet after-dinner drink while the tawny is for something less sweet and can be drunk with meals or mild cheeses.

The big difference is how long they last. Open a tawny and it can be good for another 6-8 months. In one month the ruby turns to vinegar. That would be a challenge since two drinks turn your legs into vinegar.

I wasn’t crazy about the tawny. It’s fairly bland and non-descript. Even the French tourists next to me turned their noses to it at the tasting table. But the information was great. He took us to the football-field size warehouse which was lined with giant barrels holding up to 60,000 liters. We looked like mice in a bowling ball factory. He also gave me a great drink idea: add a little tonic water and mint into white port for the perfect before-dinner drink.

Taylor’s, however, is the king port of Porto. It’s at the top of a windy, cobblestone road which makes the beautiful garden setting and overstuffed couches all that more welcoming. Taylor’s overlooks the city with an outdoor restaurant with white tablecloths and a stern wait staff. I didn’t get seduced by the scene. My scruffy appearance of cargo pants and floppy purple TravelSmith short-sleeve shirt insured I didn’t fit in. But the tour was fabulous.

The guide was a tall, elegant gent with a small moustache, like he dropped in from the 1800s. His English was the best I’d heard in Portugal. He explained that the vineyards for port are 150 kilometers east of here in a valley that reaches 115 degrees in the summer. Mountains block the cool Atlantic winds which singe the grapes into growing extra fast. It takes only 100 days for the grapes to mature. Then, in what I always thought was something out of cartoons or bad satires on Italy, they actually do stomp them with their feet. A picture shows these handsome villagers with their pants and dresses pulled up and their legs stained with juice up to their knees, stomping and stamping on the grapes with their arms around their shoulders like a conga line.

He also provided some great taste ideas: dark chocolates with ruby, roasted almonds with white. He also gave me the best sip of port I’ve had here. It’s called LBV, Late Bottle Vintage. Created in the 1970s, it doesn’t age in the bottle and is absolutely incredible. I had an LBV 2005 that was fantastic. It was just sweet enough to want more yet subtle enough where you didn’t get full.

One thing about drinking port: It’s exhausting. I turned in at 8:30 but not before I stopped by Santa Cachaca Bar, an off-beat bar the size of a telephone booth and named for the TNT-potent Brazilian sugar cane liquor. It seems more crowded since it’s packed with 50 different cachacas, including one with a guy with a four-foot prick on the label. The place is draped with tropical plants and liquors from all over the world. The bartender, Holson, flits around the place with questionable sexual preference. I decided I wouldn’t make a return visit when he charged me 3.80 for a caiparinha the size of a shot glass.