Porto, Portugal: Learning about port wine

Wooden barrels containing Sandeman Port


We love “how-it’s-made” tours, especially when the trip includes free samples of, say, alcohol.  We’ve taken a bourbon tour in Kentucky and craft beer and whiskey distillery tours in Seattle, and we’ve learned the insider info on making hard cider in Virginia.  It’s an enlightening way to increase your knowledge about the history and production of your favorite products while also getting the hands-on experience of trying the goods.

Our trip to the city of Porto would not have been complete without touring at least one of its iconic port houses, the companies that produce and distribute port.  It turned out to be quite educational, as neither of knew a thing about port.  Personally, I thought it was a beverage that only aristocratic Europeans drank.  Or maybe pirates.  I’m not sure.  But we were soon to learn why port is a favorite of many.

We took a tour at the House of Sandeman, established in 1790 and one of the older and larger port houses.  Its label is, according to the company, one of the most iconic for an alcoholic beverage, depicting a silhouette of a man known only as “The Don,” a caped character swathed in swashbuckling mystery.  According to the Sandeman’s website, the artist’s inspiration for creating the The Don is not fully known.   The cape and hat are symbolic of traditional costumes–The Don wears a cape typical of Portuguese students and a wide-brimmed Spanish hat similar to ones worn by caballeros de Jerez (the latter being a tribute to the Spanish region where Sherry is produced–Sandeman is involved in Sherry production as well).  The artist may also have been inspired by Zorro, whose movies were popular at the time.

“The Don”

The tour was entertaining and informative.  Our guide was an attractive woman with a strong Portuguese accent and near-perfect English.  She was dressed as the The Don and wore a long cape and black boots, and her long black hair flowed from under a dashing hat, contributing to the dramatic effect.  She did a nice job of introducing us to the basics of port, and here is some of what we learned:

Port wine (Vinho do Porto or just porto in Portuguese) is a fortified wine–wine that has been mixed with a distilled spirit, such as brandy.  Other examples of fortified wine include Sherry and vermouth.  The British were largely responsible for port’s initial popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries; they loved their French wine but couldn’t purchase it during periods of conflict with France, which were frequent.  During these boycotts, the Brits had to get their wine from somewhere, so they turned to their ally Portugal, who had been producing wine for centuries.  The special process of making port developed during this time, and port houses, all of which are located in the suburb of Vila Nova de Gaia, across the Douro River from Porto, were born.  Names such as Sandeman, Graham, Taylor’s, and Cockburn, among others, reflect the British involvement in the port industry.

What makes port different from other wines?

  • Port is exclusively produced from grapes indigenous to Portugal and grown only in the Douro Valley near Porto.  Other countries, such as Australia, France, and the United States, make fortified wine using the same process as port, but the Douro Valley has one of the oldest appellations of any wine region in the world, and in Europe, the label is protected, so only products from the Douro region of Portugal can be designated as port.  (In the US there is no such distinction, and wines labelled as port may come from anywhere in the world.)
  • Port production starts following the same process as with any wine, with fermentation of the grapes, but producers interrupt the fermentation process much sooner than is typical by adding a neutral grape spirit similar to brandy called aguardente.  This results in more residual sugar and a higher alcohol content.  The outcome is a sweet beverage with alcohol content that ranges from 16 to 21% (depending upon which source you read) , much higher then typical wine, which ranges from 8 to 14%.
  • Port is then stored for aging in either bottles or in stainless steel or wooden tanks or barrels.  These are stored in caves, or wine cellars.  We toured one of Sandeman’s enormous caves, where long rows of barrels were stacked one atop the other.  The air was cool and filled with a rich, woody aroma, a scent of age and alcohol.
Part of the House of Sandeman cavo
Enormous tanks that store thousands of liters of tawny port
The floor of the cave is covered with wooden bricks that protect the barrels from damage when they are rolled.

For hundreds of years, port was transported down the Douro River from the vineyards in the Douro Valley to the wine cellars in Porto using barcos rabelos, traditional Portuguese cargo boats.  Their use was discontinued in the mid-20th century, and Port is now transported via tanker trucks, but the boats still line the river and are used for display, ceremonies, and annual boat races.

Barcos rabelos, similar to the ones that used to transport port on the Douro River. On the left in the distance you can see some of the port houses and storage buildings. On the right is Porto’s colorful, historic city center.

Because most varieties are sweet, port is typically considered a dessert wine, but it is also sometimes used as an aperitif (an alcoholic drink served before a meal to stimulate the appetite).  It ranges widely in quality and cost and there are many different varieties, but the most common are ruby, tawny, and white.

  • Ruby port is the most extensively produced of the three.  It is deep red (hence the name), young, sweet and fruity, and cheap, and from what I read it enjoys considerable popularity in the US.
  • Tawny port is made from red grapes and aged in wooden barrels for longer periods of time so that it develops a golden brown color and a flavor of nuts.  Many of the valuable vintage ports are tawny.
  • White port is made with white grapes, and its flavors range from dry to very sweet.

After the tour, we sampled a white and a tawny port.

Our samples of white and tawny port

Neither of us really care for sweet or sappy alcoholic drinks, but the port was different.  Maybe it was just the exotic novelty of drinking port wine in Porto, Portugal, but we loved it.  Both varieties were sweet (the tawny was sweeter), and they had a dense, syrup-like consistency that was pleasant on the tongue.  We liked it enough that after the tour we bought a bottle of the white port and enjoyed it later with some cheese and chocolate.


I’ve only covered the basics of what makes port unique.  Below is an entertaining video that succinctly sums up the history and loveliness of port, but I encourage you to try port for yourselves.  Just make sure you get the real thing, made in Portugal!