Porto or Oporto? Tasting Port in Portugal

May 10th, 2008 at 10:59 am (AST) by Jake Richter

On Wednesday, the day after we visited Lisbon we docked near Porto, Portugal. Porto is also known as Oporto as a result of linguistic mis-interpretation, as apparently when the Portuguese referred the city of Porto, they would precede it with an article “O”, and foreign traders therefore assumed the actually name of the city was Oporto.

A sure sign that we are in Porto, Portugal

The fame of Oporto, or at least the surrounding area, is that this is where the fortified wine known as Port is distributed from. According to our tour guide, there are 35 primary distributors of Port wine (all of whom are also producers of Port), and 35,000 total producers of Port. The large number of producers can be attributed to small mom and pop Port houses, many of whom sell their production to the larger Port distributors for blending into their larger productions. Until relatively recently, Port wine was shipping to London in casks and bottled there, but now Port is bottled primarily in Porto.

Before we docked in Porto, however, we spent the morning in the lounge of the Endeavour for a presentation by National Geographic photographer Massimo Bassano, a short and energetic Italian who has been a blast to travel with these last 10 days or so. Massimo shared some of his background and his storytelling approach to photography, as well as a video presentation on a long term stay with Curthusian monks in Italy. That was followed by photo critique by Massimo of both Krystyana’s and my photography. We both received kudos for our works and our sense of visual balance (i.e. “having an eye for composition”), as well as some suggestions for how to further improve our images. I hope to get some of our images up on this site when we have a faster (and cheaper) Internet connection.

After lunch we boarded a bus which took us around Porto and its environs, with the first stop being the Porto Cathedral, followed by a visit to the so-called Golden Church of St. Francis. The Church of St. Francis was built by the Franciscan monks after permission was granted in the 1300s from King John the First. We were told that John’s marriage to Phillipa of Lancaster resulted in the first official European agreement of cooperation between nations.

The inside of the St. Francis church is covered in gold, estimated to weigh be between 300 and 400 kilograms, which is a contradiction when considering that the Franciscans are an order of monks with a vow of poverty. However, it turns out that the funds for the ornate interior of the church came from wealthy patrons in the area around Porto in the form of donations in exchange for a promise that when such patrons and their families died, they would be buried in hallowed ground inside the church so that they would be “closer to heaven”.

The front of the St. Francis church in Porto, Portugal

During renovations in the 19th century, when laws in Portugal changed and started to forbid burials inside churches, the bones of those previously laid to rest within the floor of St. Francis were excavated and moved to the nearby consecrated grounds of the catacombs at St. Francis, where we were able to see the bones in person after we left the church.

Another thing that was interesting in the church was the rather graphic portrayal in the form of a three dimensional diorama of the beheading of Christian missionaries by Moors in Morocco and the crucifixion of others in Nagasaki, Japan. These missionaries were thus deemed martyred.
Once we had finished view the church and catacombs (sadly, we could not take photos without getting kicked out), we re-boarded the bus for our final destination, the House of Sandeman in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the Douro river from Porto (although arguably still considered part of Porto).

Sandeman’s extremely rare and old vintages are under lock and key

At Sandeman, we were given a tour of the facilities of Porto’s oldest Port house, started in 1790, and now one of the best known names in Port wine. Port wine is wine whose fermentation is stopped before all the sugars have been converted to alcohol, and then fortified with neutral wine spirits to maintain sweetness as well as boost the alcohol content of Port to about 20%. There are three basic types of Port: White, which is crisper and recommended as an aperitif; tawny, which is brownish red in color and aged in barrels before being bottled; and ruby, which has a dark red and burgundy color, and is used for bottle aged vintage Port. After our tour we were treated to a tasting of white and tawny ports. The kids tried them too but weren’t much enthralled. We ended up buying a vintage port “sampler” of three 375ml bottles, the oldest of which was from 1994 at the company store in the tasting area.

Linda and Krystyana are among those at the Port wine tasting at Sandeman in Porto

After a small bit of something sweet at the neighboring café, we hooked up with Massimo as well as new trip friends Gretchen (from Bermuda), and Natalie and Bruce (from Oahu, Hawaii) and went on a walking tour of Gaia to see the back streets and take pictures, finally ending up at Adega & Presuntaria Transmontana 2, a local restaurant recommended to us by several people.

As soon as we sat down we started being served a wide range of local Tapas, including a cold cut plate, local cheeses, olives, marinated pig’s ears, pickled white anchovies, and pork livers. We topped this off with the house red wine, a “vino tinto” of the Douro river area. While we were not particularly wild about the pig’s ears (too chewy), everything else was pretty good. We ended with a large dessert buffet and some more twilight photography before returning back to the Endeavour, sated in many ways.


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