River of Gold and Wine; Portugal's Oporto Nurtures Its Port, Arts and History

Article excerpt

Byline: Harvey Hagman, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

OPORTO, Portugal - We're in this ancient port city, set to sail into the finest ports in the world - white, ruby, tawny and vintage port wines. Oporto gave the nation (Portugal) and the wine their names.

These famed fortified wines come from the rugged, steeply terraced Douro River vineyards. But it is in Oporto, the ancient city at the mouth of the Douro, where the wine is nurtured to maturity before it is shipped to the world. Here, in the cool, humid cellars of port houses, called lodges, the character of the young port is shaped as it ages in bottles, casks and vats.

Portugal's second-largest city, a bustling, hardworking commercial center, is the gateway to the north. Known as the "Ancient, Most Noble, Always Loyal and Unvanquished City of Oporto," the town is more like a village than a city; one easily can walk everywhere.

We dodge cars in the steep, narrow streets as we descend to the Douro. Our goal is the lodges of 18 port shippers that offer tours and a glass of port.

We cross the iron spans of the Dom Luis Bridge and enter the old Vila Nova de Gaia quarter. In 2001, Oporto was named the Cultural Capital of Europe, a designation that led to transforming the city and this quarter. Riverside parks, fine restaurants, vibrant outdoor cafes and busy shops give the old warehouse district a festive air.

The quarter offers the finest panorama of Oporto, a town of gray granite, blue-and-white azulejo tiles and orange terra-cotta roofs, home to people since the Bronze Age.

Prince Henry the Navigator, who inspired Portugal's voyages of discovery, was born here in 1394. The prince adopted the Douro craft, the sleek barco rabelo, for some of his voyages. Today, the boats slumber before the port lodges, touting Graham, Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, Dow, Croft, Warre, Sandeman, Cockburn and Ferreira, some of the leading port houses. For 200 years, these flat-bottomed boats loaded with cargoes of port braved the Douro's dangerous, once rapids-filled waters. Today, trucks and trains transport the wines.

We make our way to the house of Ferreira, the best-selling port wine in Portugal, which is best known for its old tawnies. It has a large stock of older wines, including vintage-dated tawnies that few houses can match.

This lodge has survived since its founding by the pint-size Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, who was widowed at 33, found she had a flair for business and bought vineyards throughout the Douro. She financed roads, schools, hospitals and nurseries with her wealth, so her 19th-century contemporaries called her by the affectionate diminutive "Ferreirinha." Her memory is still cherished today.

A 400-year-old monastery building houses the medieval tasting rooms, with their granite arches, beamed ceilings and cobbled floors. Beyond lie the dim, musty warehouses containing giant casks, vats and rows of bottles of aging port. The 26-gallon casks hold the wine for several years before it is decanted into more porous 140-gallon wood barrels. The oldest port in barrels is dated 1910.

Our guide at Caves Ferreira tells this portly tale: Two young shippers from Liverpool added grape brandy to this unexceptional table wine in 1678 to stabilize it on its journey to England. By fortifying it so, they created port. Gradually, the port wines we know today evolved.

That same year, the first export of "vinho do Porto" was recorded in the Oporto Customs House. Since then, all port has been exported through Oporto.

Port has a long heritage. The winegrowing region was demarcated by the Marquis de Pombal in 1756, almost 100 years before the classification of Bordeaux wines. By 1798, port had become the favorite drink of London. The Times of London reported that "they drink the same quality of port in all the universities." Port became synonymous with royal toasts. …