Porto's lifeblood: Port wine
Just as Bordeaux is celebrated for claret and Champagne is known for sparkling wine, Porto was made famous by port--now labeled "Porto" on bottles of the genuine product, thanks to misappropriation of the name "port" by wine factories in the U.S., South Africa, Australia, and other countries where lawmakers have little respect for geography or wine.
Port is a wine whose origins are lost in history. Like sherry and madeira, it's a fortified wine, which means that neutral brandy is added during fermentation to stop the conversion of sugars into alcohol. The result is a semi-sweet or sweet wine with an intense fruit flavor that's best served as an apéritif, with dessert or cheeses, or after a meal. (To learn about the different types of port, see the "About Port Wines" page of my Cálem Port Wine Lodge) article.
Experts disagree on whether port was invented by Portuguese or British winemakers, although one story holds that the British discovered port when two English merchants tasted an unfamiliar wine in a Lamego monastery in 1678. (A Wikipedia article has more tidbits about Porto's favorite tipple.)
What is certain is that the British made Porto's fortified wine into a major export industry. Traders from the British Isles established wine lodges in, on the sunny side of the Douro River opposite Porto's historic center. Boats called barcos rabelos brought newly-made wines from upriver to the wine lodges for blending and aging, and ships carried the finished product to Britain for distribution throughout the Empire.
Today, tanker trucks bring wine to the port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia, and the barcos rabelos exist solely for advertising, nostalgia, and the occasional race. But port is still blended and aged in much the same way as it was 300 years ago, and the dozen and a half port lodges continue to bear English and Scottish names such as Cockburn, Taylors, Graham's, and Sandeman (along with Portuguese brands such as Cálem and Ferreira that are prized by connoisseurs in the domestic market).
Cálem Port Wine Lodge for a description of one such lodge. Pick up a free visitors' guide at the tourist-information pavilion in the riverfront park of Vila Nova de Gaia, which you can reach by walking across the Dom Luis I bridge from downtown Porto.You can tour many of the port wine lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia. (There's often a small admission fee, which may be refunded if you purchase a bottle.) See our
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