On Monday 16th September a group of 35 Phoenix masters and Firebirds arrived at the Hotel Carris Porto Ribeira prior to the start of a short break in the historic and fascinating city of Porto
Porto is Portugal’s second city and is sited on the steep banks of the River Douro at the point where it runs into the Atlantic Ocean. It is most famous for the many brands of Port wine that are produced on the terraced vineyards of the Douro (several of which the group was privileged to sample!)
The Ribeira Quarter where we stayed is a World Heritage site where multi-coloured houses tumble down to the river and a string of restaurants are scattered along the boat-lined quayside. Behind the waterfront lies a labyrinth of steep cobbled alleys and stairways.
On the Tuesday morning we visited the world-famous Graham’s Port Lodge where we were met by Alex, our guide for the tour. He was an immensely knowledgeable young man who was able to answer the questions thrown at him by the Phoenixes – many of whom already knew a thing or two about Port!
He explained the whole production process from the growing and harvesting of the grapes through to the filtering and maturing. We walked through rooms full of the most enormous barrels, each one containing between 60,000 and 70,000 litres of Port and were told that the most expensive bottle would cost you €8,500. We learned that Vintage Port needs to be drunk quickly once it is opened, but Tawny Port can be enjoyed for a much longer period – the concept of enjoying a glass or two at Christmas over a number of years was met with incredulity!
The lodge is owned by the Symington Family and we visited their private collection of bottles of Port going back for over 80 years. Apparently, the best year ever for their Port was 1945 but 2011 was also named as a classic Vintage. There needs to be a very dry period during maturation and a spell of rain before harvesting to create the perfect conditions.
Following the tour we were invited to a tasting of four different Ports: a 10 year old Tawny, a 20 year old Tawny, Graham’s six grapes and Graham’s Quinta Dos Malvedos Vintage. One noticed minimal use of the Spittoons during this session as the Ports were all extremely good and we had worked up quite a thirst with all the talking about the making of the wine. At the end of the tasting we were asked as a group to vote for our favourite and most of the Firebirds and some of the Phoenixes preferred the Tawny Port. As a result Mark Chambers said that he would consider changing to this variety at future dinners.
We finished off this most enjoyable tour with an excellent lunch in the Vinum restaurant; the food was exceptional and, of course, there was plenty of Port wine to go with it.
On Wednesday we took a river cruise. The weather was not great and some were caught out by the coolness of the wind and the fine mist that hung over the river but it was a spectacular trip with the many bridges that span the river looming up out of the gloom. This was a great way to find out about Porto and its heritage and to appreciate just how steep the Douro gorge is and how precariously the buildings cling to its sides.
In the afternoon the indefatigable John Nugée led some on a walk to see the railway station and cathedral while others took a ‘tuc tuc’ ride around the town. We learnt that J.K Rowling lived in Porto for a while and used the university students’ formal dress as the template for the Hogwarts school uniform.
In the evening we had the special privilege of dining at the Factory House. This is the home of the British Port merchants and has a long and interesting history. The current building was erected in 1806 and was used as a meeting place for British Port Merchants, known as ‘Factors’, to conduct their business and defend their interests. Its rather stern exterior, protected by wrought iron gates, belies the treasures that lie within. A very fine hall leads on to an open stair well, where every step is made from a single piece of granite and the landings are embedded in the wall with no supporting pillars. We were given a guided tour of this magnificent building by Dominic Symington who represented the British Association of Port Shippers and was our guest. His cousin Charles is Treasurer (equivalent of Master) of the Factory House and gave the formal permission for us to dine there.
Dominic took us through the Library which was filled with old and interesting books; the map room, with its unique cartographic collection; and the ball room which was resplendent with its Wedgwood inspired walls and glittering chandeliers. Every Wednesday a lunch club meets at the Factory House and a copy of the Times newspaper dated exactly 100 years earlier is placed on show. There are displays of fine porcelain, silver and Chippendale furniture which remind us of the wealth that the exporting of Port to Britain created for the British Merchants.
But the best was yet to come. We ate in the grand Dining Room which was redolent of a City livery hall with elegant candelabra casting a glow over the beautifully laid table and the very good meal that was provided. Needless to say the wines were excellent – chosen from the 15,000 bottles that are stored in the cellar.
As if we hadn’t had enough ‘wow factor’ for one night we were then invited to participate in the custom of “Going Through” to the separate Dessert Room. In yet another splendid hall we were treated to dried fruit and nuts and Graham’s 2000 Vintage Port; a splendid finale to an excellent dining experience.
As a token of the Phoenix Masters’ thanks to the Board of the Factory House Mark Chambers presented Dominic with a pewter water pitcher from a design used exclusively by the Pewterers’ Company. The piece was made by Sam Williams of AE Williams who is possibly the finest young pewter maker in the country.
This was a wonderful experience and provided a fitting end to an extremely well planned and stimulating trip to Porto.
The next morning, 25 of the group travelled by coach further up the Duoro Valley to visit Quinta do Noval, near Pinhão. We were welcomed by Patricia who was able to show us around around the house, some of the vineyard terraces and the the winery where treading was taking place, albeit using their “robot” to keep the grapes moving in the lagares (granite fermenting vessels) after the initial treading, which is always done by foot. Once again, our enthusiastic and knowledgable guide was able to explain all about the grape varieties, and the growing, harvesting, winemaking, fortification, and storage processes. From the winery we made our way to the tasting room where we learned more about the differences between tawny and vintage style ports with a tasting of four of the Quinta’s port wines.
The group then enjoyed a drink – white port and tonic, of course – under a huge cedar tree overlooking the Douro Valley. This was followed by lunch in the family dining room. A pewter quaich was presented to Patricia as a thank you for her warm welcome, engaging tour and port tasting.
Leaving Quinta do Noval we travelled a short distance to Quinta do Silval where they run a winery and hotel next door to each other. Sadly we were not able to tread grapes as planned, as the winemaker had decided that the quantity of grapes available that day was small and had already begun to ferment. We were consoled with a dip in the lovely pool amid fabulous views of the vineyard terraces around us. That evening we ate at the hotel and after a very nice dinner we were treated to the Hotel Manager opening bottles of their vintage port using port tongs. Quite a memorable spectacle!
The Phoenix Committee and in particular John and Vicky Nugée and Mark and Angela Chambers put a great deal of time and effort into the planning of this expedition and those who were lucky enough to be a part of the visit would want to thank them for a most memorable and enjoyable time.
(Thanks to Firebird Rose Mahony for most of this piece.)