When you think of Porto, Portugal’s second city, the first things that probably come to mind are the azulejos adorning every street, the impressive bridges crossing the Douro River, the pasteis de nata and – of course – the port.
But for too long, one of Porto’s main cultural exports has been overlooked – although regions like the Douro Valley are often cited as global heavyweights. What we are talking about, of course, is wine – or more precisely, wine that is not Port.
It’s no secret that Europe produces some of the best wines in the world. From the rolling vineyards of Bordeaux to the picturesque plateaus of Piedmont, winemaking is a key part of European history. He played a big role in putting certain destinations on the map. Porto – and its proximity to the Douro Valley – is firmly on this map.
So why do Portuguese exports still represent only around 3% of the world market share?
I visited the city for 72 hours with the sole ambition of learning as much as possible about Portuguese wine (don’t worry, I haven’t tasted the 340 varieties produced across the country during this time).
The mission directed me towards the major development which is World of Wine, located in the Vila Nova de Gaia area of the city. Going forward, we’ll call it WOW because – well, it is.
Owned by the Fladgate Partnership – a scion of the Taylor’s Port dynasty – this hub of quality restaurants, suave bars and engaging, interactive museums is a game-changer when it comes to educating visitors about Portuguese wine.
Here is what I learned.
Portuguese wine is a matter of community values
Just like the rest of this diverse country, the community is at the heart of Portugal’s wine production. The attitude is very strong: we are competitors on the supermarket shelves, but how can we share our knowledge and learn together?
During a session at WOW’s in-house wine school dedicated to “demystifying wine”, our teacher of the day and master craftsman, Jose, said simply:
“What distinguishes Portuguese wine is its culture. We are globally competitive in terms of our history, our know-how built up over generations, and the quality and character of our wine.
It is this idea of “know-how” that piqued my curiosity.
Thinking about the concept in terms of geography, Portugal is a relatively small country, but its overall area of vineyards is the fourth largest in Europe. There are 340 grape varieties grown across the country. 240 of them are native (all things I learned in our two hour course). That’s a lot of overlap between growers organizing their harvest – especially when the majority of them are neighbors operating in the Douro Valley.
What makes this particular region so perfect for viticulture are two things. The climate of the valley and its floor.
Dry and hot by nature, the “continental” temperatures of the Douro Valley can reach 40 to 50°C during the day and drop to 10°C at night. The vineyards are protected from unpredictable coastal weather and wind by the Serra do Marão, an ideally located mountain that literally acts as a natural barrier between the valley and the sea.
Meanwhile, the ground is largely slate-based. While this arguably renders it devoid of nutrients, it heats up during the day, traps heat and releases it at night, keeping the vines toasty warm. It also naturally absorbs a lot of water and – like all regional soils – contributes to the overall flavor of the wine.
The art of growing grapes under these conditions has been perfected through conversation, proven methods, and sharing what works over years of winemaking in the region.
During my stay, I was a guest at the Yeatman – a luxury hotel that almost mimics a vineyard in its layered structure – and offers some of the best views in town. It has been designed so that each room overlooks the river, giving guests THE view of Porto. Literally the postcard.
The Yeatman and WOW are closely linked to several of the best producers in the Douro Valley. And a touch that, again, really brought home the sense of community spirit – was that each room was named after their partners in wine.
Not only that, but the winemakers, whose names adorn the doors, have put a few of their personal possessions into each. Whether it’s a bottle or two from their vineyard, their favorite books or works of art.
I left my trip feeling warmed by this knowledge.
There’s so much more to wine than what’s in the bottle
Experiences at WOW go beyond just the liquid in the bottle.
One of the WOWs museums is entirely dedicated to cork. Portugal is actually the largest cork producer in the world, with the world’s largest concentration of quercus suber forests located in the south.
Another highlight is certainly the collection of drinking vessels belonging to Adrian Bridge, CEO of WOW. Dating back 9,000 years, from clay to ceramics to modern glass, it houses nearly 2,000 pieces in total.
But one thing that particularly interested me was the part of the palatial site dedicated to chocolate. The Chocolate Story museum is the closest thing I’ve seen to an actual Willy Wonka factory. Admittedly, there is no chocolate river, but I wouldn’t pass up the visionaries behind the WOW project to explore that possibility.
Now sit me in a room with five glasses of wine and five different types of chocolate and tell me we’re doing a tasting for the next few hours, and you have a delighted travel writer on your hands. Especially when our host, Pedro Martins Araújo, turns the conversation into a debate about consumer responsibility versus corporate responsibility as it relates to the production chain.
Pedro’s brand, Vinte Vinte, is the result of years of research, relationship building and industry expertise. He told us stories about the people he had met in VenezuelaMadagascar, Peru and Uganda.
“The best chocolate,” he says, “should have no more than two ingredients.”
I don’t argue with anyone who fundamentally believes that wine and chocolate are the perfect combination.
What else to do in Porto?
Porto is a vibrant coastal city home to almost a quarter of a million people. Small but mighty, the locals take great pride in the fact that the city has not been conquered since the 1300s, despite France’s best efforts.
Wandering the colorful streets, filled with buildings that seem almost crooked, could take an entire day alone.
Porto is also a fast-growing foodie hub – two must-try dishes include pasteis de natas with your morning coffee and the iconic francesinha, a sandwich stuffed with meat and wrapped in cheese, to be enjoyed with a cold bottle of Superbok. For the more adventurous, dobrada is a traditional stew made with tripe (cow’s stomach) and white beans.
Must-sees include the Ponte de Dom Luís I (not that you can miss it) – a colossal feat of construction spanning 172 meters across two levels.
A world heritage site and located in the historic district of the city, Igreja de São Francisco is a must-see for its intricate interiors. The unimposing facade hides a labyrinth of Baroque design which is often cited as the most beautiful in the country.
The climbable Clérigos Tower is one of the best views of Porto. Taking you 75 meters above the town, it’s worth planning the climb of 240 steps before sinking into a hearty francesinha. First – helps you feel like you’ve earned it. But more importantly, there’s no medical evidence to say exactly what the cheese, carb, and meat feast does to your arteries, so vigorous exercise directly after consumption is best avoided.
In the historical district of Ribeira, you can discover the heritage of Porto as a city of the estuary. The clue is literally in the name. As one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, it’s the best place to find quiet cobbled streets dotted with hidden restaurants and bars that serve up local specialties like sardines and seabass.
The majestic Sé Cathedral is a Roman Catholic church and one of the oldest buildings in the city. It is also known simply as Porto Cathedral.
I could go on for hours but my final recommendation for a visit is the Bolsa Palace. A dominating presence on the Porto skyline, it has a room made entirely of gold leaf. One of the youngest buildings in the city, it was born in the 19th century – “bolsa” means stock exchange.
Today it is open to visitors and is often used to welcome dignitaries and heads of state to the city.
Even though I only spent 72 hours in this portuguese city, I learned more about its culture and community than I ever thought I would. One of my biggest takeaways will be how overlooked this country is as a world-class wine producer.