Porto Douro Heaven’s Gate

The Douro Valley, known for its ancient terraced slopes, never fails to impress and is well worth a visit

Raymond Blake is in love with the Douro Valley for its vinous treasures and more

There is no place like the Douro Valley, no place at all. I have written that sentence, in various versions, on many occasions over the years and I am certain to write it again. If any wine region must be visited to be fully appreciated then it is the Douro with its ancient, terraced slopes that always set jaws dropping.

I first visited the Douro, and of course Porto, the city that gives the wine its name, in the latter years of the last century and my most recent visit was in May 2023. The passage of time has done nothing but enhance the visitor’s welcome. Previously, it was a chore, a struggle with basic accommodation and humdrum food, made tolerable only by the marvellous wine. Today it ranks as a premier destination, to be put on all travellers’ bucket lists, wine lovers’ particularly.

Porto on the northern bank of the Douro River has been transformed: where once it was down-at-heel and dowdy, today it is vibrant and spruced-up. The greatest transformation, however, is seen across the river on the southern bank in what is the city of Vila Nova de Gaia. (Like many others I plead guilty to the lazy use of ‘Porto’ when referring to both cities).

Glass drinking vessels that date back thousands of years displayed at World of Wine museum

This is the heart of the Port business, where most of the shippers have their ‘lodges’ — vast warehouses that are home to countless litres of maturing wine. They appear timeless yet huge change has been affected in recent years, most notably by Taylor’s, who moved their storage facilities upriver to create space for World of Wine, a visitor centre like no other, with numerous museums, restaurants and bars. Among its myriad attractions, the most impressive is the museum that houses many hundreds of drinking vessels, some of which date back thousands of years. If you ever get to World of Wine (WOW) and time is short, eschew all the other attractions so as to take in as many of these displays as possible — making the 18th century glasses your first priority.

If Porto’s entire visitor experience bears no relation to what was once on offer — the Douro Valley is far more welcoming than heretofore — what of the wine itself? There are no issues with Port’s quality but there are many with image. It is barely possible to talk of Port without slipping into cliché, for it comes with a surfeit of excess baggage that do nothing to enhance its image. Port has long been caricatured as a fuddy-duddy drink.

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I once wrote: “Port is often cast as the court-jester of the wine world… Mention vintage Port and watch the tired caricature of the Port drinker totter onstage… There’s more to Port than that.” There certainly is and I suggest a two-pronged approach to put the old-fogey image to bed, once and for all.

Fresh and zesty ‘Port-Tonic’ is a variation of Gin & Tonic with the spirit replaced by Port

One. The world has fallen in love with cocktails, leaving Port producers well placed to cash in on this current craze, thanks to the fresh and zesty ‘Port-Tonic’. I first encountered this delight while enjoying a languid boat trip on the Douro, hosted by George Sandeman. The Port in this case was, as expected, Sandeman, and as we moved away from the dock George filled two tall
glasses with ice, added a generous measure of white Port and about twice that of tonic. Garnishing it with mint he handed it to me saying, “We call it a Sandeman Splash.”

Essentially, it is a Gin & Tonic, with the spirit replaced by the Port, and it transforms the wine into something special. Serve this to your friends accompanied by an extravagant supply of toasted almonds and then watch as they revel in the salty tang of the almonds cut by the sharp cool of the cocktail. That’s the first prong.

The second is more serious and noteworthy: Tawny Port. For many years this was the shippers’ well-kept secret, a vinous delight that they were slow to tell the world about, so fond of it were they themselves. In brief, Tawny Port is aged in barrel for an extended period (unlike vintage which is aged in bottle) and is released ready to drink — the ageing has been done for you. It is a marvellous drink, lighter than vintage, relying on finesse rather than richness to make an impression.

Just how good age-dated Tawny can be was brought home in the most pleasant fashion on my recent visit when I tasted across the Taylor’s range after a tour in Vila Nova de Gaia. It was one of the highlights of the visit. ‘Port-Tonic’ may not be for you but whatever you do, do not ignore Tawny.