We skittered through the rain to the entryway—a moody spring day in Porto makes for an excellent excuse to spend the afternoon at one of its many monuments to vinho do porto: the port lodges across the Douro River in Vila Nova de Gaia.
If you didn’t already know the history of port wine, and the process by which it’s made, Graham’s Port Lodge offers a small but elegant museum to wander, and a well-thought-out tour to take you through their way of winemaking. Up the Douro River lie the quintas (including Quinta do Tua, Quinta dos Malvedos, and Bomfim) that supply the grapes and resulting base wine that will be crafted into the marvel that is port.
The Graham brothers were Scottish exporters based in Portugal, when the first member of the Symington family arrived there in 1882. He worked for Graham’s, and after the passing of several generations, the Symingtons bought Graham’s in 1970. Symington now encompasses five brands of port, including Graham’s, and four brands of Douro DOC table wines.
The traditional way of producing port starts in the fields of grapes, usually a mix of several castas, that come into the winery at harvest—Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Sousão, Tinta Barroca, Alicante Bouschet, and Touriga França. Many quintas still use stone lagares to hold the grapes as they’re crushed by treading feet for some of their wine—though at Graham’s, the lagares are now stainless steel, and the silicone crushing pads driven by mechanical “feet.”
Fermentation is stopped on the second or third day with the addition of a 77% abv aguardente (brandy), to achieve a final abv of 19 to 22%. The wine stays up in the valley for the first winter to rest, then the wine goes into pipas or large containers to move down the river (now by truck or train rather than by boat), in the spring, as it’s the right temperature for the wine to travel. Once in Gaia, it is stored and aged appropriately to its type in the large tonels and barrels within the port lodges.
For Graham’s, the metrics are thus: 24 to 25 people pick enough grapes to fill a lagar (which holds a volume equal to 14 pipas). People or machines tread the grapes overnight, and the resutling juice fills one tonel.
Those tonels loom large within the main barrel room at Graham’s, where 7 million liters currently age—the brand’s only aging facility. A fountain drips a constant stream of water in the midst of the room, to maintain the right humidity within.
The ruby-style port ages in the large tonels for two to seven years, the youngest port, with the least amount of oxygen contact—lending it a fresh, fruity style and color akin to red wine.
When the wine is transferred to 500-liter barriques, it’s destined to become tawny, and gain amber or brown tones as it ages and maintains contact with the wood. The resulting caramel, dried fruits, nuts, coffee, and sometimes tobacco of the tawnies mark their deeper complexity. They age for a minimum of two years—but there is no maximum limit. A 30- or 40-year-old tawny is a marvelous thing. Tawnies come with an age indication (like 10 years) or a single vintage, known as a colheita. All are filtered to stop their aging, so once you have a bottle, and open it, drink it, and don’t bother hanging on to it.
Finally, the vintage port ages in the bottle, after spending two years in the tonel. Because it is not filtered, it will continue to transform for years—decades—and gain depth and unique characteristics. Port houses do not produce vintage port each year—only samples from the best years are sent to the institute for evaluation. The recent vintages in 2016 and 2017 saw many houses applying for a declaration, and it’s rare indeed to have two great vintages in a row.
As a trio taking the tour, we were able to select our individual tastings—and here’s where strategy can help. First, we each chose a different tasting, so we could compare with each other. Second, the tastings are divided between the Tasting Room (a light-filled modern area with high tables for various groups) and the Vintage Room, a library-like room, with leather chairs, and books and maps lining the walls.
By choosing the Classic (€17) or Premium Port or Tawny Tasting (€25), you will taste in the Tasting Room. By choosing any other premium tasting, including the one I chose—the Graham’s Tasting (€35)—you and your group will be hosted in the Vintage Room. We appreciated the quiet, unhurried atmosphere that the Vintage Room offered, and particularly for those with a professional or enthusiast interest in port, the extra euros you spend to taste here is worth it.
We sat back and enjoyed our port selections over the course of an hour. We could order food, or make a reservation for the lodge’s acclaimed restaurant, but we chose instead to focus on the wines. Graham’s runs to a sweeter palate, among the Symington brands, and after our collective tasting I agree. I also took home a bottle of the 30-year tawny, my favorite of all of the ports on the table.
Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal
+351 22 3776490 or 22 3776492
Tasting Notes: April 24, 2019
Graham’s Six Grapes Ruby Port NV
From a reserve blend of grapes, aged three to four years. Deep garnet color, moderate legs. Aromas of dark plums, hint of cedar, and clove. Morello cherries and red-skinned plums on the palate. Finishes quickly. 20% abv.
Vintage & Producer: NV Graham’s
From: DOC Douro
Style: Ruby port
Varieties: Field reserve blend
Price: €15.95 retail at the loja (750 ml)
Graham’s 30-Year Tawny
From a field blend of grapes. Brown core with a golden rim. No visible legs on the swirl but a long streak from where I’d sipped. Honey, hazelnut, caramel, dried apricots for aromas. Golden currants, caramel on the palate, with the fruit still brighter than expected. Acidity remains for a very balanced finish. 20% abv.
Vintage & Producer: 30-Year Graham’s
From: DOC Douro
Style: Aged tawny port
Varieties: Field blend
Price: €41 retail at the loja (375 ml)
Graham’s 2000 Vintage Port
From a blend of grapes. A “hugely concentrated” year. Aged in the bottle since 2002, and still needs more time. Deep garnet, more opaque than the others. Nice, distinct legs. Cherry jam, bay leaf, herbal aromas. Still fairly fruity, with a whiff of smoke as it opens. Cherry jam again on the palate, with a shorter finish to begin. A touch of smoked oyster. 20% abv.
Vintage & Producer: 2000 Graham’s
From: DOC Douro
Style: Vintage port
Varieties: Field blend
Price: €121 retail at the loja (750 ml)