Located on the far western edge of Europe, Portugal is a land where the Carthaginians, ancient Greeks and then the Romans (who named the land Lusitania) built important trading and military outposts. It was at the edge of the known world at the time, isolated from Spain by mountains and rivers and enveloped by the vast, mysterious Atlantic Ocean to the west. Much later, the Portuguese were key players in the Age of Exploration– namely the 15th and 16th centuries and for a time, Portuguese ships ruled the world. Famed Portuguese explorer captains such as Vasco de Gama, Pedro Álvares Cabral and Ferdinand Magellan were among the first Europeans to “discover” unknown lands and trade routes, seeking and finding riches in Africa, India, China and South America. Portugal’s wealth vastly increased as a result of these and other voyages, bringing back massive amounts of gold, silver, exotic spices as well as slaves plundered or traded from around the world.

Visiting Portugal today is about history, great explorations, sunshine, the sea, cork production, wine and port. And don’t forget the cuisine. Diners will experience incredible fresh sea bass, prawns, huge snappers and mammoth octopi. Black pig (pork) and potatoes is another tasty Portuguese specialty served throughout the country. I recently enjoyed sampling some marvelous slow-cooked Bisaro pork with beet root and melon at the smart Rui Paula Restaurant in Oporto.

Though Lisbon is the country’s capital and center for government, tourism and culture, Portugal’s second largest city, Oporto, has been a leading commercial center for centuries, particularly in the wine and Port trades. Located at the mouth of the Douro River, and declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, this picturesque city was (and remains) the transit point for port wines heading by ship to consumers around the world. Looked down upon by those from Lisbon, people from Oporto were called the pejorative term “Tripeiros,” or tripe eaters. Today, FC Porto, the major Oporto soccer team, and its fans proudly call themselves the “Tripeiros.”

Since the mid 1600’s, the port houses in Oporto produced and shipped port wines around the world, mostly through English companies. (England and Portugal have alliances that go back centuries.) One reason these fortified wines became popular was that the relatively high alcohol content (20%) prevented spoilage and also helped ocean going sailors avoid the scourges of scurvy. Plus the Brits love them! Many of the original British port companies located on the Gaia side of the town, such as Taylor-Fladgate, Grahams, Warres, Dows, Sandeman, Delaforce, Fonseca, Croft, Cockburn's and Offley are still in business and can be visited. All port houses try to maintain a “house style” for their ports year after year.

True port wines differ from other still wine production in a few important areas. First of all, ports are fortified wines meaning a grain alcohol product is added during fermentation to kill the process, raise the alcohol content to 20% and, as a byproduct, a great deal of the grape’s sugar content remain in the wine. This is why ports are sweet and unctuous. Second, port wines come from “field blends,” where many different varieties of grapes are co-fermented, or crushed together, simultaneously. Port winemakers across the board agree that this method produces more interesting, complex wines than by using single varietals.

Next, the best Vintage ports are all made from foot-trodden grapes produced in large granite or concrete lagars. That’s right, the old fashioned, human powered gentle crush produces just the right delicate, nuanced qualities in the very best ports. This foot treading occurs in only about 2% of all ports. “The foot is the perfect tool for maceration of the grape,” said Natasha Bridge, head winemaker for Taylor-Fladgate partnership. This method is expensive. Indeed I tried foot treading which was actually very hard, like stepping though a swimming pool filled with thick preserves. But with the music playing and the people singing, it became a fabulous party. The harvest time in the Douro is a unique, festive moment and a way to experience the Portuguese social system.

The vineyards of the Douro Valley, about two hours east of Oporto are truly stunning, steep and tiered with ancient schist terraces. Some vineyards have 35 degree slopes running down to the Douro River. The semi-arid Mediterranean climate keeps the grapes struggling, which leads to evocative, powerful wines. Lastly, true ports only come from grapes grown in the Douro Valley and are made into port in Oporto. Wines labeled as ports from Australia, California or elsewhere may be similarly styled fortified wines, but do not possess the unique qualities of the real thing.

If visiting the region, the opulent Yeatman Hotel, opened in August 2010, is the place to stay. Overlooking the entire city of Oporto, this elegant property is a wine-centric gem, holding the largest selection of Portuguese wines in the world.

Vintage & Tawny Port

Ports can generally be dividedinto two types: Vintage ports and tawny ports. vintage ports are the most sought after and expensive. These are the famous wines where a “vintage” year has been declared, and after production, the bottles are sold but meant to sit for twenty years or more before opening. Of course, people may enjoy the fresh young flavors of a new “vintage,” but the true expression of vintage port occurs after many, many years. Tawny ports are a different breed altogether. They are expertly blended in giant vats for 10, 20, 30 or 40 years within the port houses. Upon release, golden tawny ports are ready to be enjoyed. (I love the bright and luscious Taylor-Fladgate 20 year old tawny, slightly chilled— delicious!) These wines are perfect for sipping with desserts like crème brulee, or simply on their own.