Visiting the Port Lodges

Since it is getting towards high season for holidays, I thought this might be a good moment to pull together my notes from visits to the various makers’ lodges on the Gaia waterfront for your travel-planning benefit.

If you know little or nothing about port, or have never visited a lodge, then any maker’s tour will give you a basic introduction.  If you’re familiar with the basics and want to see the most scenic lodges, or have the best tasting options, then you want to  pick and choose a bit.  Tours are offered in a variety of languages, and policies vary – some will run the tour in the language of the first to book in, others go with the majority rule.  Occasionally you may have to return later to join a tour in your preferred language.  And finally, forget about waiting till the sun is over the yardarm, go in the morning before lunch (13:00 in Portugal, and the lodges open at 10:00, a few at 9:30) when you have the best chance of a small and unhurried group, or even a private tour if no one else turns up.

The basic tour at all the lodges will at least consist of a walk through the storage areas while the guide tells you a bit about the maker’s history in the business, the unique terroir and challenges of the Douro vineyards, how port is made and how that is different from the making of table wines, and how the wine is then aged in these lodges (pause to marvel at all those casks while they tell you how many millions of litres surround you).  Your guide will also explain the various types of port made by that producer and how they should be served.  The tour will end in a tasting room, and there will be a shop where you can purchase the wines and possibly other wine related or branded merchandise.

Some tours include a video or slide show which will feature scenes of the Douro landscape and the harvest and wine making, and perhaps expand a bit on the history of the house.  Some lodges have little museums or displays of memorabilia which may be included in the tour or may be accessible whilst you wait or during the tasting.

And finally, some charge little (€3 to 5)  or nothing with usually two glasses of entry level port to taste afterwards, and some will offer a more detailed tour and / or a broader tasting at a higher price, or offer their other wines to taste at a per glass price.  Some will offer private tastings or special flights of wines – ask about their services if you have something special in mind.

Most of the lodges are on the waterfront, a few are up the hill a bit if you don’t mind walking or taking a bus (it’s worth it, trust me).

Now for more details of the ones I’ve visited so far.

Cálem

Cálem is the first big lodge as you walk along the waterfront from the Dom Luis I bridge; they have won awards for their tourist experience, and it is a good one.  The tour begins with a walk through a small museum which has well designed displays of photos with texts to explain about the vineyards and harvest and a load of schist (the stone which is the basis for the Douro terroir) on the floor.  My tour guide talked us through the museum and then we moved on to the armazen (store-house where the wines are aged in barrels).  I was sorry not to have had more time to look more closely and read the full texts in the museum and there didn’t seem to be another opportunity to re-visit that (to be fair, I didn’t ask, either).  The tasting room is spacious and handsome, I was offered a ruby reserva and a white port, and the server presented the wines and explained a bit more about them.  If you are raking your memory, Cálem is marketed primarily within Portugal, so it may be less familiar to my readers.  The Cálem website is pretty good, including a virtual tour, and available in Portuguese, English or French.

Sandeman’s

Next of the lodges I’ve visited, skipping a bit along the waterfront, is Sandeman’s.  If you look back at my blog from late July 2009, “Turista,” there is a photo of the entrance to the lodge, with all the flood lines marked, up to a good 15 feet or more deep.  During the tour, I noticed the flood lines were also marked inside the armazem.

This one I visited with my teacher and fellow students from the language school one evening in December, and our tour was in Portuguese.   My notes indicate first of all how gratified I was that after only two or three weeks’ tuition I could already understand quite a bit (only because it was about wine – even now I still have trouble with day to day expressions, but if it’s wine related I understand most of what I hear, remarkably enough!).  They have a nice museum near the entrance, which we were free to visit whilst we waited for our tour to begin.  The focus here was on the history, branding and marketing – Sandeman’s Don being one of the earliest, and still most well known brand images.

That is not the waterfront in Gaia, it’s the south bank of the Douro at Regua, but Sandeman’s have sprinkled the Don’s image up and down the Douro, not just in Porto and Gaia.  Our tour began with a film shown in a special theatre space, and then our guide, clad in the cape and hat of the Don, walked us through the handsome armazem and provided one of the more detailed explanations I have heard about the winemaking.  The tasting was presented in a rather perfunctory manner, but then it was almost 6:00 pm on a cold winter’s night just before Christmas.  We tasted a sweet white and a reserva ruby, which were both quite pleasant.

Sandeman’s website is good, and they are also covered on the Sogrape site under Sandeman.  They also have a Facebook page – it’s The Sandeman Don.  Now and again they post recipes for cocktails using their ports and sherries, if you like that sort of thing.

Ramos Pinto

Ramos Pinto pipasNext is Ramos Pinto, their buildings distinctive for being painted a sulphur colour.  Their tour is rather special, as they take you up to the old offices of Adriano Ramos Pinto, the founder.  I won’t spoil it for you, you must visit, but I was fascinated by the 19th century “xerox machine” for lack of a better word.  Also, I dimly remember reading once about a bit of a catfight between Helena Rubinstein and Estée Lauder over who originated the concept of gift with purchase – they both lose, it was Adriano in the late 19th century, long before either of those birds.  There is a display of the many and varied gifts offered, according to how much wine was purchased, and some intended specifically for women, as they courted the female market.  The armazem you visit contains only the pipas, the 550 litre barrels used for aging tawnies.

Handsome things.  There is another storage facility where they age the rubies, not open to the public.  As it happened I walked past it later in the day, up the hill.

Ramos PintoIf you can see the crest in the middle – the Latin motto is “In hoc signo vinces” surrounding something like a crusader’s cross.  Adriano unashamedly set out to conquer the Brazilian market, which he did, thoroughly.  One thing you will appreciate as you are talked through the museum is what a brilliant marketing man he was.

From the armazem we returned to the tasting room, where, I am sorry to say, I felt a little let down.  I was presented with two glasses of port, and the woman walked away without even telling me what they were, I had to follow her and ask.  They were a branco and a ruby reserva, which were pleasant, but it seemed a shame not to offer one of their tawnies, when those are the real strength of the firm.  For an additional price you could have a wider tasting, there were several ranges offered, but tastings of the vintage ports and table wines (which are excellent) are only available to groups of six or more.

On the other hand, all their wines (port and table) are for sale, as well as a range of other items – my favourites being the postcards and posters reproducing the advertising images, which I’ve written about previously, fabulously risqué, I keep meaning to ask someone if they are even allowed in the USA, as the concept of “tentação” (temptation) features prominently (you’ll see what I mean!).

Ramos Pinto is one of my favourite sites, the tasting notes are wonderful.  Available in Portuguese, English or French.

Taylor’s

From either side of Ramos Pinto there are roads leading up the hill, signposted for, among others, Taylor’s.  I visited last summer (again, see my blog from last July) and was ushered in to join a tour already in progress, which sadly was nearly complete, so didn’t learn much.  Just this morning I went back, and got very lucky – I had a tour by myself.  In the tasting room beforehand I watched a video about the Douro and the wine making, and then enjoyed an excellent tour, the highlight for me being one of the more detailed explanations of the distinctions between and aging regimes for each of the various types of ports.  The tasting offered as part of the tour (which is free, by the way) is of a white and an LBV.

They offer their tawnies priced by the glass, and I decided to treat myself to their 40 year old (€9.75 and worth it).  The most gorgeous colours, ranging from a deep honey gold at the rim to a deep caramel tawny at the heart, a glorious nose of wood and nuts among other things, and wonderful complex palate, I’m not even going to try to describe.  My note says it tastes like it looks.  Also remarkably fresh acidity, all the way through the finish.

The tasting room is handsome, there’s a good display of antique bottles, the sort that were used when the port left Gaia in barrel and was bottled by or for the client at destination, for example there was a bottle from one of the Oxford colleges.  There is also an extensive display of press cuttings, menus from state dinners featuring their wines, etc.  My favourite was the front page of the Evening Standard from 1st August 1966, celebrating England’s World Cup, with an advert for Taylor’s in the corner of the page.

You can also have a port and chocolate tasting (may have to return for that one).  With an LBV they recommend a chocolate with a strawberry fondant centre, with an aged tawny they recommend one with hazelnuts.

Their shop has the full range of wines (you can still buy a bottle of the 1963 vintage for a cool €450) and the usual branded paraphernalia.  But what really caught my eye… you can buy a pair of port tongs.  For those not familiar, the really best way to open a very old bottle, one where you fear the cork may crumble, it to heat up to red hot an extremely evil looking pair of iron pincers, which you then clasp around the neck of the bottle below the cork.  After a minute or two, you remove the tongs and douse the bottle with ice cold water – the glass will crack cleanly, no splinters, no crumbled cork, and bob’s yer uncle.  I asked if this was really safe to do at home… I guess so, though heating the things in the oven seems rather a let down, I imagine you really ought to have a raging fire in an immense inglenook fireplace for the purpose.

Taylor’s website is a pretty good resource for general information about Port as well as their own branded content.

Ferreira

If you walk back down to the waterfront and continue to where the river takes a bend, you will find Ferreira’s lodge.  This is another one which has won prizes for their facility and tour, with good reason.  They offer a basic tour with tasting of two wines, a more detailed tour with a flight of five wines, and they also sell a ticket which includes a visit to one of their quintas near Pinhão.  I asked about this, but I think the girl was new, she couldn’t tell me quite where the quinta was, or how to get there.  I wanted to do the premium tour, but it includes a video and either the video or the showing room was out of order, so I settled for the standard tour.

Despite that rather inauspicious start, I liked the tour very much, and may yet return for the premium tour and to ask again about the quinta visit.  Also my camera died once and for all that day, so I lost my photos, and would like to take some of those again.  Our guide was very good, explained the wine types and making very concisely, and the armazens are extensive and immaculate, though we had to re-route our tour slightly from the usual path, as they were preparing for a bottling.  It’s easy to forget these lodges are for real, not just time warp showpieces, and there is serious work to be done.  There was a museum, also beautifully presented.  Rather uniquely it featured some tools and information about the making and maintenance of the barrels.  Ferreira are one of the few who still have their own cooperage, all the barrels are made in Portugal of French oak.  We exited the armazens well up the hill, then crossed into another building for the tasting of two  wines – their white which was a really lovely balanced one, and the Dona Antonia Reserva which is a nice full satisfying ruby, with an average age in the blend of about 7 years.  The wines were well presented by our guide, and  the tasting room and shop are pleasant.  One nice thing at all of these places – you are never rushed out, once you have been served, they leave you in peace and you can relax and enjoy every drop.

One thing that fascinated me, as we stood in the classic armazen scene of balseiros (the huge upright barrels that hold tens of thousands of litres, for aging rubies) and pipas (the 550 litre barrels for tawnies), I saw a row of … could those be???  Inox (stainless steel) tanks?  Our guide confirmed, there is a row of stainless steel tanks behind facades painted white and black to blend in with the surroundings.  Their vintage ports are aged two years in stainless steel before bottling – they never see wood.  Must try some.  They also make an aged white, a 10 year old, which I would like to try.  Their wines are more gentle than others I’ve tasted, don’t have the weight or power of some others, but I liked the style, and it may appeal to those who think ports can be heavy for their taste.

Website:  they are part of the Sogrape portfolio, so Porto Ferreira for the Ports and Casa Ferreirinha for the table wines.  Annoyingly, the top half the page is locked for a static image, and the brand specific information squeezed into the lower half the page, so it’s a pain to try to read.  But persevere, the information is good – the Curiosities page was fun, and the tasting notes at least can also be viewed in PDF format.

Graham’s

Finally, at the end of the main drag on the waterfront, go up the hill, the Rua Rei Ramiro, to reach Graham’s.  The walk is not for the faint hearted – not only is the hill very steep and winding, the road is narrow and embraced by sheer stone walls most of the way, with no pedestrian pavements.  The traffic is one way up the hill, except for the public transit buses which come hurtling down at full tilt (tilt being a very deliberate word choice), horn blaring.  The first time I walked up there was a quiet Sunday in December, and the first downhill bus scared the daylights out of me, I pretty well scaled one of those walls to save my life.  For the more prudent, Graham’s runs its own shuttle bus from the waterfront up to the lodge, or you can catch any of the public transit buses (901 or 906 – stop at Agros and walk from there, clearly signposted).  Make the trip one way or another, it’s worth it.

Graham libraryThe lodge is beautiful – you enter through double glass doors and as they swung open the scent of port wafted out – possibly the nicest welcome I’ve had to any lodge.  Their staff were hands down the best – all very helpful, knowledgeable and friendly.  It was the only visit in which I was asked about my own interest in wine, and really conversed with my guide, as well as having the usual tour script.

I discovered one reason for this enthusiasm and dedication:  when my guide was showing me the archive of the oldest vintage bottles, he mentioned that as part of his training they had a tasting – and he has tasted an 1882 vintage Graham’s.  I imagine most wine critics haven’t been that lucky.

The tour is excellent – I actually went twice, the first time in English, and then returned just to practice my Portuguese listening comprehension (well, not just – I also returned for another tasting – more in a minute about that).  There is a very good film about the Douro estates and wine making, do not miss it.  Two things I liked particularly, one was a clip from a film made of one of the last deliveries of port from the vineyard region to Gaia by barco rabelo (traditional sail boat) in 1965, and the other was some footage about the tonnellerie – Graham’s still make and maintain their own barrels, on site there in Gaia (unfortunately, it is not possible to visit that).   After the film, I enjoyed the usual walk through the armazem while discussing the wines and wine making with my guide.  One of the last photos before my camera died is a good shot of both balseiros and pipas:

Graham lodgeI like the cute little mini balseiro there, forgot to ask what that one was for.  Gosh, I’ll have to visit again.

Actually, visiting their lodge could become a habit – they really have the tastings right.  When you buy your ticket, you choose your tasting and the price varies slightly accordingly, but the tour is the same for all.   When you exit the armazem, you find a seat already designated for you, with the glasses laid out, the bottles standing ready to pour, and a small bowl of plain biscuits – the only producer to offer that, for which I was very grateful.

On my first visit I opted for the Ruby tour – so my tasting consisted of three generous servings of each their Six Grapes (ruby), 2003 LBV and the Quinta dos Malvedos 1998 Vintage.   My guide, Herminio, did a very professional job of serving, first presenting the wines to me, pouring, and explaining a bit more about the specific wine than had already been covered during the tour.   When I returned to do the tour in Portuguese, I chose the Tawny flight – and tasted the 10, 20 and 30 year olds side by side.  What a wonderful crescendo of flavour, complexity and intensity that was!  Tickets for these were €10.  A bottle of each wine in the ruby flight would be a total of almost €70, a bottle of each of the three tawnies together would set me back about €150, so well worth the premium ticket price.

There are other tastings on offer of vintages and single quintas, and they also have the Vintage Bar where you can taste any of the Graham’s or Quinta dos Malvedos vintage ports, or other Symington family branded ports and DOC Douro wines.  In fact, for some reason my guide and I got into a discussion about Smith Woodhouse, and I was able to taste the 2007 vintage from that brand – my notes say this was like silk to the velvet of the Graham’s wines.

Finally, there is a good shop, and they will ship anywhere in the world for you.

Graham displayTo whet your appetite (if I could possibly have so far failed… ) along one side of the tasting room is a display of bottles for (I think) every vintage declared since 1870, but best of all, accompanied by notes of conditions for that year, as recorded by one of the Graham family or since 1970 one of the Symington family.

Graham’s website  Also on Facebook as Graham’s Port Wine.  They have the Graham’s Port Blog that was begun with the 2009 harvest and finally, Symington’s have a good site about Vintage Port.  The blog includes one of my favourite reads, the Douro Insider Report, a monthly summary of conditions and vineyard activity for the Symington estates in the heart of the Douro, written by one of their viticulturists.  (Full disclosure:  though I did not work for them at the time I wrote this post, from July 2010 to June 2013 I worked for Symington and was responsible for the blog and Vintage Port Site.  For more information see my Portfolio page.)

Overall, any of these lodges is worth visiting for a novice, but I think the best combination of well-presented and detailed how’s-it-made and why’s-it-special information during the tour and a tasting of approachable wines, especially if you are new to port, might be Ferreira, or else Taylor’s.  For the connoisseur who already knows the basics but wants to see a working armazem and is more focussed on the tasting experience, Graham’s is not just my first pick, it is my you-must-not-miss-this-one, I’ll-drag-you-up-there-myself, with Taylor’s  also an option – choose your preferred wine style.  But I would hate for you to miss the Ramos Pinto museum, so I would recommend a visit to them too, but arrange a premium tasting (go for the tawnies).

But there are still lodges I have not yet visited, so stay tuned…

For a second opinion, accompanied by expert tasting notes and overviews of the house styles and histories, do look at Charles Metcalfe’s Wine and Food Lover’s Guide to Portugal.  I know I’ve mentioned this several times in my blog, it really is just a fabulous reference.  Heck, I’m living here now, and I swot up on the local cheeses and sausages in his book before I go to the grocery store.