I had one free day during my recent visit to Porto and as much as I wanted to go up the Douro to the vineyards, a torrential downpour kept me in the city. So I set out to see what sort of wine tourism experience Porto had to offer and I learned a lot. Here is my report.
Sign of The Don
There is much to see and do in Porto itself, but serious wine tourists need to cross the bridge spanning the Douro and enter Vila Nova de Gaia where the Port houses are found lined up along the river and up the hillside.
The riverside was brightly decorated — a welcome touch given the weather — and featured many of the small boats that traditionally transported the wines from the vineyard areas down to the city, where they are aged and blended and sent to market. The wines are moved by more modern means today, although there is still a gala race, with much honor to the Port house with the winning boat.
My first stop was Quinta do Noval, where I took refuge from the rain and tasted through the wines while drying out. I have to say that there cannot be a better way to warm up than this! No tour or museum or sophistical wine tourist presentation at this stop — just nice wines, friendly and well-informed staff.
My next stop was Sandeman, one of the oldest and best known Port houses. You see “The Don,” the famous Sandeman logo, everywhere in Porto. Founded in 1790 by George Sandeman, a Scottish wine merchant, Sandeman has interests both in Portugal (Port) and Spain (Sherry). The Don’s distinctive outfit pays tribute to both sides of the business — the Spanish hat paired with the cape worn by university students then and now in Porto (I saw them myself on exam day). If you thought the logo was a tribute to Zoro, think again.
Tree Ages of Port
The wine tourism experience at Sandeman begins as you enter the house, which feels and smells exactly like what it is — a great old warehouse where wines wait patiently in their barrels, often for decades, for the moment when they will be bottled and go to market. Very atmospheric, immediately communicating a sense of time and place (much like the vintage tv advertisement below).
The first stop once you’ve come through the great doors is a colorful museum dedicated to Sandeman’s great success in branding and marketing. The Don must be one of the most distinctive and instantly recognizable trademarks in wine and the museum tells the icon’s story from the first images in 1928 through the present day. It’s an art exhibit at heart, but with a commercial agenda and it is interesting to see how the images and messages evolved over the years.
Next came the tour through the big building. The young woman who guided us was dressed as The Don, of course, but she was more professor than student as she made sure, though example and strategic repetition, that we all understood the nature of the different types of Port — Vintage, LBV, Tawny and so on — how they are made and how they are best consumed. She was very skilled at bringing her students into the story.
Wine Tourism Keys
Walking through the barrel rooms was like walking back in history (which is what we were doing, I suppose), but this is a working operation not a museum and we would have seen the cellar hands going about their business if it hadn’t been Sunday. The tour ended with an opportunity to taste a couple of wines at long tables adjacent to the cellar door sales room and gift shop.
I spent some time talking with a family from Tokyo who were making a European tour and had spent three days in Porto, enjoying experiences like this. Each of the Port houses seems to tell its story in a different way, some focusing on their history, others on the production process. Many, like Sandeman and Graham’s, offer a variety of tasting experiences in addition to the basic tour. Port pairing seminars (cheese, chocolate) are popular, for example, as well as opportunities to taste Tawny Port blends of 10, 20 and 40 years or more. Something for everyone and a satisfying experience even on a sunny day, I’ll bet.
What should a wine tourism experience do? I think of wine as a relationship business and a winery or tasting room visit succeeds when it helps establish new relationships and deepen or renews existing ones. From the tourists’ point of view, it should be enjoyable and informative — and of course offer the opportunity to taste new wines or to share familiar ones with traveling companions and provide stories to tell the folks back home.
From a producer viewpoint, the goals are to get visitors to slow down and absorb the message and this of course requires that there actually be a coherent message presented (too often it seems the objective is simply to attract numbers of visitors). Cellar door sales and wine club memberships are obviously important, too, but only come if the first goals are met.
The Sandeman experience and others like it in Porto succeed from both standpoints. Certainly there was clear and coherent messaging on my tour — about both Port the category, Ports (the various types of Port wines) and the Sandeman brand in particular. (How can you miss that when your tour guide is costumed like the company logo?) When it works it really works. No wonder the major Port houses have invested so much in wine tourism as a way develop their international brands.
Little Frenchie: A Culinary Side-Trip
Soon it was lunchtime and I could not really expect to top the meal I had the day before at Vinum, the great restaurant up the hill at Graham’s, so instead I went for the distinctive meal of Porto: the Francesinha or “Little Frenchie” sandwich.
My Francesinha started with thin layers of cheese on the plate, which was topped with white bread and then roast pork, sliced ham, a bit of chorizo, more cheese, another slice of bread, more cheese, and then a thin reddish beer-based sauce (think enchilada sauce and you will be in the ballpark).
Because I apparently am not a very good judge of these things, I went over the top and ordered the deluxe version which added a fried egg and a plate of french fries. It was wonderful in the way that Canada’s famous poutaine (french fries, cheese curd, gravy) can be wonderful and I didn’t have room for anything else (except a little Port) for the rest of the day.
I had a great time, learned a lot, met some interesting people. I promise I will get to the Douro vineyards next time, but I wouldn’t miss touring the Port houses for anything. The variety of experiences available if you visit several houses provides something for everyone, from Port novice to seasoned connoisseur.
Thanks to George Sandeman for his hospitality while I was in Porto and his help with this project. I found this YouTube video that captures a bit of the Francesinha experience. Would I eat it again? Yes, but I’d choose the traditional beer to go with it rather than the red wine I enjoyed at my riverfront restaurant, which claimed to have the best Franceshina in town.