Legend has it the city became hooked on offal after its patriotic citizens handed over all their meat to Prince Henry the Navigator in the 15th century to feed his army on its way to invade Morocco, leaving just the offcuts.
Lately Porto has undergone a culinary revolution. You can still find plenty of great traditional joints serving monster portions of tripas and other old favorites like deep-fried octopus or wonderful francesinha sandwiches, but a new generation of innovative chefs is updating traditional north-Portuguese cooking to make Porto a hot destination for gourmet travelers.
Trying Port In and Around Porto
Port is one of the world's great wines. But unlike Burgundy, Bordeaux or Chianti, it isn't a table wine meant to be quaffed over a meal. Port is made by fortifying regular wine (mostly red, sometimes white) with aguardente, or brandy. The result is a warm, silkily intense sweet wine. Traditionally, ports are taken after dinner with cheese, chocolatey desserts or a good cigar.
The variety of port types can be confusing, they range from cheap and cheerful whites often used as mixers, to wonderfully complex vintages that can be stored for generations and cost a fortune.
TYPES: Dry Whites are the lightest ports, made with white grapes. They are usually served as an aperitif—great with toasted almonds or smoked ham—and are also used to make cocktails. They are popular in Portugal as a summer refresher mixed with tonic, on ice and a slice of lemon.
Beside the grape types, it's the aging process that makes the different styles of port. They break down into those aged in wooden barrels and those that age mostly in the bottle. Rubys are the entry level red ports. As the name indicates they have a gem like reddish hue, fruity flavor and are usually drunk young, after just a couple of years barrel aging. They go well with blue cheese and red-fruit desserts.
Tawny ports are darker, richer blends. Kept longer under oak, sometimes for decades they develop the sticky sweetness of dried figs or dates. Great with caramelized fruits, chocolate or mature hard cheeses. Colheitas are tawny's made from grapes harvested in a single year and matured for at least seven years in the barrel.
Vintage ports are the top of the range. They are only made in particularly good years and spend just two years in the wood before being left to age for at least 10 years in their bottles. The best are left for several decades, even centuries, and can cost thousands of dollars. Sipped on their own like a fine cognac, or sublime with dark chocolate or Stilton cheese. Single Quinta Vintages are produced with grapes from a single estate, or quinta, rather than the traditional blending of several made in the port lodges by the riverside in Vila Nova de Gaia. Late-Bottled Vintage, or LBV, is a style developed since the 1970s. It uses grapes from a single exceptional year's harvest like a vintage, but the wine is kept in barrels longer, for four to five years, and is usually ready to drink rather than be kept in the bottle. Unlike true vintages, LBG can also be poured straight from the bottle, rather than needing to be decanted to remove the natural sediment and allow the wine to "breathe".
HISTORY: Legend has it that Port wine took off due to a 17th-century war between England and France. Cut off from their traditional supplies of Bordeaux, the Brits increased imports from Portugal and found that adding small amounts of brandy helped the wines weather the long sea journey from Porto. From there, the technique of fortifying the wine developed, leading to Port's special character. Rules over where and how true port wine should be produced were first laid down in 1757 by the Marquis of Pombal, the statesman who oversaw the rebuilding of Lisbon after the great earthquake of 1755. The historic role played by the British producing and shipping port is stil reflected in leading names today like Croft, Cockburn's and Taylor's, although shippers from Germany and the Low Countries also took up the trade.
TASTING: The best way to plunge into the flavors and history of port is to visit one of the historic port lodges on the south bank of the Douro, in Vila Nova de Gaia. Over a dozen of these old red-tiled warehouses spread back from the quayside, offering tours and tastings. They also keep a few of the narrow, flat-bottomed sailing boats known as barcos rabelos moored in the river, although they are no longer used to ship barrels of wine down from the vineyards of the upper Douro.
Among the best port lodge experiences, Graham's 1890 lodge up the hill in Rua Rei Ramiro (www.grahams-port.com, tel. 223 776 484) holds over 2,000 pipas (oak casks) within its cool granite caves. Its tasting rooms and award-winning restaurant offer wonderful views over the Douro and the river beyond. The basic tour and a tasting of three wines starts at 12€, but there are several options up to 100€ to sip on rare vintages in the club-like private tasting room. Visits only with advance booking. Apr–Oct 9:30am–5:30pm; Nov–Mar 9:30–5pm.
A visit to the Caves Ferreira, Av. Ramos Pinto, 70, (http://eng.sograpevinhos.com, tel. 223 746 106) is a chance to discover a Portuguese-run port house dating back to 1751. As well as the cellars and tasting rooms, there's a museum behind the white-washed walls of the warehouses. It's dominated by the story of Dona Antónia Ferreira, a legendary figure in the Port world, who battled to preserve the quality of the wines at a time when the region was hit by an attack of the vine destroying phylloxera blight. Among the vintage bottles stored here are some from 1815, believed to be the oldest in the world. Tastings are held under a splendid wooden ceiling in the lodge shop, or the tile-decorated sala dos azulejos. Tours start from 6€, with a tasting of two wines.
Not a port lodge, but one of the most enjoyable places along the quay to try port is the Espaço Porto Cruz, Largo Miguel Bombarda, 23, (www.myportocruz.com, tel. 220 925 401) an exhibition, multimedia and leisure space opened in 2012 by the French-owned Cruz label. Occupying an 18th-century riverside building, it's a flashy combination of old and new with neon mixing with azulejos to brighten up the nighttime facade. Inside there are art shows, films and digital displays tracing the story of port, a tasting room, restaurant run by star chef Miguel Castro e Silva and a rooftop bar ideal for sipping cocktails while gazing out over the river and the twinkling lights of Porto on the far bank. Tasting options include port pairings with cheese or chocolate and prices range from 7.5€ to 45€ depending on the number and quality of the wines you sip on. The wine shop is open from Tues–Sun 11am–7pm.
Be aware that while most of the port lodges have shops where you can buy the wines you've tried, the prices are not necessarily cheaper than in stores in town.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.