Optimistically, we're reviving our Travel Tips section, in this case with James Mayor's look at what the port houses are doing to revive tourism.
Close your eyes and begin to dream…
For now travel restrictions may be frustratingly widespread, but let’s think ahead a little. A gentle wine-tourism revolution is underway in Oporto, Portugal, home to the king of fortified wines, port. Three wine companies are using stay-at-or-near-home pandemic time to prepare for a more fluid travel future.
Niepoort Vinhos, Symington Family Estates and The Fladgate Partnership are important historic port shippers. For the last few decades, the Symingtons and Niepoort have also made dry wines, drawing on the Douro’s versatile terroirs and Portugal’s extraordinary array of grape varieties, year by year narrowing the gap between them and the world’s finest non-fortified wines. The lifespan of these table wines is a mere blink on their venerable timelines (Warre’s, owned by the Symingtons, was founded in 1670, for example), but has been long enough for them to prove they know their stuff. The Fladgate Partnership, owners of port brands Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft, have not diversified into dry wines, preferring to build a small collection of luxury hotels, with the highly successful Yeatman wine hotel the jewel in this particular crown.
Although competing on the same patch, all three companies are in different ways reflecting a single wine-tourism objective: to build Oporto, Porto in Portuguese, located between the Atlantic Ocean and the mountainous Douro wine region, as a leading international wine-tourism destination, with their brands as prime attractions. Vila Nova de Gaia, the ‘port district’ of Oporto, currently has 16 port lodges where port lovers can admire huge vats and taste different styles of port. In the belief not everyone wants more of the same, Niepoort, the Symingtons and The Fladgate Partnership decided to innovate.
On Rua Serpa Pinto, a steep street in Vila Nova de Gaia, there is a grey steel door so discreet the passer-by might easily miss it. No company name, only the number 1842, the year in which Niepoort, the Dutch-owned family firm of port shippers, was founded.
Behind this door lies the Niepoort port lodge, another place few people get to visit. The July day is baking hot, the kind that can send an Englishman like me into meltdown. Beatriz Machado, Niepoort’s new marketing and tourism director, looks air-conditioned, energetic. Machado comes to Niepoort with a reputation. After studying under Roger Bolton on the oenology course at UC Davis, California, she became wine director of The Yeatman. At Niepoort, arguably Portugal’s most discussed wine brand, attention to detail is everything: viticulture, winemaking, marketing. For the first time, Dirk is turning his creative hand to premium wine tourism.
The cool, dark cellar has been renamed ‘the temple’. We are in the presence of two gods: tradition and innovation, cheeky and daring. When Machado arrived, Dirk Niepoort asked her not to touch the hallowed cobwebs. Sitting at a long table, close to the vault that contains the famed demijohns of Niepoort port, Machado let me in on their plans.
Niepoort’s most favoured followers are being offered a privileged opportunity to deepen their connection with the company. This month Niepoort launches a limited-membership wine society with a maximum of 842 members. The first one hundred, the founding members, are known as ‘Rolfs’, in homage to Dirk’s father who died last year. The other 742 members are ‘N Collectors’.
The Serpa Pinto cellar, above, is the headquarters to this exclusive wine society. The dramatic vaulted room we are in is reserved for Rolfs and N Collectors, with bespoke tastings and meals for up to 24 friends or family. Collectors can enjoy, by appointment only, wine or tea tastings and masterclasses.
An online wine shop is being launched in September specifically for Rolfs and N Collectors, who will benefit from discounts on all Niepoort wines, including en primeur launches, with the possibility to buy Niepoort wines not normally available on the market.
Niepoort is also launching what they say will be a once-in-a-lifetime three-day wine travel experience, with Oporto as its hub.
Day 1 – indulge in an exclusive wine tasting and lunch in the Douro at Quinta de Napoles, the Niepoort winery that makes some of Portugal’s most exceptional wines.
Day 2 – visit and experience a tea tasting at Niepoort’s Chá Camélia tea plantation at Fornelo, 30 minutes north of Oporto. Inspired by Japanese tea production, this organic tea plantation is a passion project created by Dirk and his wife Nina Gruntkowski (see What’s brewing at Niepoort).
Day 3 – concludes the experience with lunch or dinner and a wine tasting at the Serpa Pinto port lodge. ‘Expect warm hospitality, unexpected insights and memorable wines throughout your three days’, they say.
Symington Family Estates
Fifth-generation family member, Rob Symington, a driving force for the company’s rigorous B Corporation sustainability commitment, filled me in on his family’s latest wine-tourism initiatives.
The visitor centre at Quinta do Bomfim, one of 26 wine estates owned by Symingtons in the Douro and one of the most engaging in the region, has justifiably swept up tourism awards. Last year a pop-up restaurant was created among the estate’s vineyards at Casa dos Ecos (Echo House), presided over by Michelin-starred Oporto chef Pedro Lemos. Despite the pandemic, it was an instant success. I’m not sure what you call a pop-up that ‘pops up’ two years running, but anyway the restaurant is back again this year – see below. On a ridge a couple of hundred metres (over 600 ft) above the River Douro, Casa dos Ecos is a deliciously chilled location for lunch, where Lemos rises with brio to the steep challenge of the Symingtons wines, notably with his tender roasted kid (cabrito).
In early 2022 the Symingtons will open a new ‘permanent’ restaurant at Quinta do Bomfim, to be called 1896, referencing the year in which the estate’s old lodge was built. I’m looking forward to visiting, as besides Cozinha da Clara at Quinta de la Rosa and LBV 79 on the banks of the Douro, Pinhão is a little short on mouth-watering eateries [though see this review of DOC in Folgosa – JR].
There are places in the Douro most people never get to visit: too remote, secret or private. Quinta do Vesúvio (see picture here), in the Douro Superior on the south side of the river, is one of these special places, possibly the most splendid wine estate in the entire region. Visitors can now spend an exclusive, private day at this magical, secluded property, known as the ‘Queen of the Douro’. A glimpse-behind-the-scenes day includes a tour of the historic winery, where at harvest time grapes are still trodden by foot in granite lagares, a tutored tasting of some of the estate’s liquid marvels – exceptional still wines and single-estate ports – a 4x4 ride around vineyards that spread majestically over seven hills, topped off with a languorous lunch overlooking the river. Limited to a maximum of six people, visits are by reservation only.
In 2017 the Symingtons acquired their first wine estate outside their beloved Douro, Quinta da Fonte Souto, in the Alto Alentejo subregion of Portalegre. It too will soon be open to visitors.
Vinum restaurant and wine bar at the family’s Graham’s visitor centre in Vila Nova de Gaia has been such a hit that the terrace is being extended to provide additional seating. Lunch or dinner gazing across the river to Oporto is one of the best Instagram experiences imaginable.
Rob Symington confided that the family are working on a ‘top secret’ wine-tourism project, to be launched in 2023. I can only say it sounds incredibly exciting, for Rob swore me to secrecy! Indiscretion can be tempting, but not even a JancisRobinson.com reader will be able to drag the details out of me … for now.
World of Wine
Any writer would be hard put to describe World of Wine in a single image, so broad is its scope. In one location in Vila Nova de Gaia (it's in the foreground of our main picture above), wine lovers can learn about and taste wine through museum experiences, and it’s open year-round. Fun and informative, World of Wine appeals to different levels of wine knowledge, a diverting city-centre complement to visiting the Vinho Verde, Douro, Bairrada or Dão wine regions, all within an hour’s drive of Oporto.
Adrian Bridge is CEO of The Fladgate Partnership, owners of Taylor’s port. In creating World of Wine, Bridge’s ambition ‘to put the WOW in the destination’ of Oporto has succeeded. This is arguably the first time, anywhere in the world, so many aspects of the sometimes daunting subject of wine have been explained in a museum setting with such lightness and clarity. A stimulating addition to Oporto’s azulejos baroque churches, World of Wine has something for almost everyone. In August, Richard Bowden, World of Wine’s marketing director, and Ana Maria Lourenço, responsible for public relations, brought me up to speed on the latest developments.
World of Wine is far more than its seven museums (there’s even a COVID-19 testing centre there at the moment). An entire district of repurposed ancient port cellars house a temporary exhibition space, wine school, shops and, grouped around a central plaza, nine wine bars, cafes and restaurants. A fabulous spot to linger, the view from the plaza across the River Douro to the UNESCO World Heritage district of Oporto is awesome.
For a wine enthusiast in search of a little wine demystification, The Wine Experience is the perfect place to jump in. An overview of viticulture and winemaking brings to life the bottle’s contents through the lens of Portugal’s diverse wines. You are given the chance to ‘test your palate’ as you go round…
Time possibly to raise a glass? Adrian Bridge’s extensive personal collection of drinking vessels is displayed in The Bridge Collection, an evocative journey through civilisations across 9,000 years of craftsmanship.
At the exhibition of Francis Bacon prints (until 26 September) Bridge explained World of Wine will host annual exhibitions of international art. With the Serralves Foundation, just outside the city centre, this is designed to make Oporto a tempting destination for modern-art lovers.
History enthusiasts will wish to drink deep in Porto Region Across The Ages. Oporto, the city which gave its name to a nation, was eponymously associated with port fortified wine, occupied by the French and British during the Peninsular Wars and tossed back and forth on the turbulent seas of liberalism and conservatism. Enthralling stories all!
There’s also Planet Cork and the Porto Fashion & Fabric Museum. The first evokes Portugal’s iconic cork oaks and explains that cork’s surprising uses are not limited to the stoppers we pull out of our bottles… The second offers a window onto Portuguese design talent and production know-how, attracting hot international fashion designers.
I particularly enjoyed two more museums, one about chocolate, the other coloured very determinedly pink.
The Chocolate Story dynamically explores ‘bean to bar’. We discover terroir is just as important for the production of premium chocolate as it is for fine wine, and watch chocolate being made before our eyes in a small factory. The brand, called Vinte Vinte, Portuguese for 2020, is produced from a single harvest of cacao variety Porcelana Blanca Rioja, from the famous Finca La Rioja plantation in Mexico.
I was tickled pink by The Pink Palace, an exuberant, at times hilarious, celebration of rosé wine. Between tastings of pink wines from various wine regions around the globe, I collided with a life-size Bacchus, and only just resisted the temptation to either turn the ignition key of an enormous pink vintage Cadillac or leap into an ocean of pink balls! Who said wine was a serious affair?
A proven and powerful lever for rural development, wine tourism not only generates sustainable jobs at wineries, but also at restaurants and hotels. Like other southern Mediterranean countries Portugal is heavily dependent on tourism. These latest wine-tourism ventures by Niepoort, the Symingtons and The Fladgate Partnership play an important part in Portugal’s ‘build back better’ plans.
Keep that bag packed, and don’t forget where you put your passport!