Vila Nova de Gaia is just across the Duoro River from Porto (Oporto). This is the real Port Wine town; it's where the lodges of the historic port wine producers are strung out along the "ribeira" or waterfront with their caves, aging tanks and tasting rooms. Signs emblazoned with English names dominate the rooftops of lodges on the upper areas of the steep bank, while the home town producers' modest lodges are more often found tucked into the lower slopes.
They're all here because in 1225 King Alfonso gave Vila Nova de Gaia town status, then quickly handed it off to the aristocracy because the bishops of Oporto were charging unreasonable shipping charges on the wines. Despite the "new-sounding" name, Gaia sits on a pre-Roman hamlet. It has a longer history than you'd think when folks call it a "suburb" of Porto.
It's a place you should visit, especially if you have a taste for the fortified wine called Port, which undergoes a fascinating voyage itself as it gets transformed from grapes grown on the steep terraces upriver in the warm Alto Douro region until the juice arrives in Vila Nova de Gaia to be transformed into fortified wine and slowly aged in the temperate maritime climate before being tasted and shipped around the world.
The most dramatic way to approach Vila Nova de Gaia--if you're bedded down in Porto--is to make your way to the upper level of the Dom Luis Bridge, Porto's famous bridge across the Duoro opened in 1886 and designed by Teófilo Seyrig, a pupil of Gustave Eiffel.
You can get to the bridge easily from Porto's San Bento Station (where you should take a few minutes to view the history of transport in Portugal, a story told by artist Jorge Colaço using some 20,000 tiles).
From the bridge you can look down on the waterfront, home to a few rabelos, the traditional boats once used to get the wine from quintas (wine estates) of the Alto Douro to Porto.
Due to the addition of a couple of dams to the river, these days just about the only time you're likely to see them in full sail is at the festival of Sao Joao (Saint John) on June 23rd or 24th, when, wind permitting, they race from the mouth of the Douro to the Ponte Dom Luis.
Next is a list of recommended port wine lodges to visit, followed by a bit on where the grapes for the wine comes from (and trips you can take to see the Alto Douro) as well as some lodging recommendations.
Where to Go to Taste Port Wines and Get Cellar Tours
Everyone has their favorite port lodge. Some give extensive tours, others do not. Some tastings are free for a limited number of current vintages, and some charge a nominal fee for tasting. Here is a select list of some favorites.
Smaller and Lesser-Known Port Wine Producers
Av. Ramos Pinto, 400 - Vila Nova de Gaia
Tel. +351 223 707 000
Fax. +351 223 775 099
Open Monday-Friday except for Pubic holidays.
Wiese & Krohn, Sucrs.,Lda.
Rua Serpa Pinto,149
4400-307 V. N. Gaia
Open every day in the summer season, June-September
Kopke - likely the oldest porto wine. Quinta de S. Luiz near Pinhao. Established in 1638 by Chrisiiano Kopke, a German. Pay for samples.
Rua Serpa Pinto, 183-191, 4400-307 Vila Nova de Gaia
Cálem Port Wine Lodges. The company was founded in 1859 by Mr António Alves Cálem. It's the first of the lodges you'll see when you come off the Dom Luiz bridge from Porto.
Avenida Diogo Leite, 344 Vila Nova de Gaia
Larger Port Wine Producers
Rua do Choupelo nº 250
4400-088 Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal
GPS Coordinates: 41.13394, -8.61435
Tel. +351 223 742 800
Fax. +351 223 742 899
Monday to Friday: 10am to 6pm, Saturday-Sunday: 10am to 5pm.
Also operates: Restaurant "Barão de Fladgate"
Rua Rei Ramiro 514 - 4400 Vila Nova de Gaia
Tel: +351 22 377 64 84/85 • Fax: +351 22 377 64 80
Rua Barao de Forrester, 412, Vila Nova de Gaia 4400-088, Portugal
Tours take place all year round, seven days a week, from 10 am to 6 pm
Sandeman (link is a PDF with visiting information)
At the Sandeman Lodges visitors will find an interesting display of 60 very old bottles at the Sandeman Port Wine Museum.
Largo Miguel Bombarda 3 Vila Nova de Gaia
How Port is Different (And Where the Wine You're Tasting Comes From)
There are many wine regions you can visit in Europe. Each of them has an historic component, and most of them a rather romantic one as well. People labor at what they love to do, ultimately in some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet. But the production of port on the hillside terraces on the banks of the Douro river in the Alto Douro region has some interesting variations on the age-old theme of making wine.
Port is a sweet, fortified wine. Bitterness, a touch of which isn't undesirable in robust, dry table wines, just doesn't fit the lush and sweet Port wine. Grape seeds rupturing during machine pressing can add noticeable bitterness to wine. That's where Lagares come in. These traditional granite tanks found on many estates (in the Alto Douro, upriver from Vila Nova de Gaia) are about 75 meters high and open on the top. Inside is where the grapes are/were "stomped" by a line of shoeless humans; it turns out that soft, human feet are far more gentle on the grapes and have less tendency to rupture the seeds--thus the gentle action makes a better port wine. The sloshing about also gets some air into the mix, which makes fermentation more certain. Today they've managed to replicate the action using a clever robotic lagar to take purple-stained stomping humans out of the equation, although traditional foot-stomping demonstrations are sometimes given at the quintas.
A good explanation of the production of port wine is found in the Graham's Port Blog.
Portugal still has a tradition of foot stomping grapes for premium wines, especially in the Alentejo. See: Not Putting Their Feet In Your Mouth (Foot-Treading Winemaking Goodness In Alentejo)
The Alto Douro has been has been recognized as a "cultural landscape of outstanding beauty that reflects its technological, social and economic evolution" by UNESCO, citing the 2000 years of production of the region. "The components of the Alto Douro landscape are representative of the full range of activities association with winemaking - terraces, quintas (wine-producing farm complexes), villages, chapels, and roads."
Many travelers recommend a boat trip in the Alto Douro. Many recommend the boats of Pipadouro, although the web site is in Portuguese. Viator offers a day trip to the Alto Douro from Porto (book direct).
The origins of Port wine are intermingled with the British, of course, and Elaine Lemm, the About.com Guide to British Food, has some history and information on Port styles and food pairings: Port Wine
If you can afford it, the consensus choice for completing your port wine experience is a stay at The Yeatman. It's a spa hotel that partners with many quality Portuguese wines. Each of its 82 rooms has a view of Porto. There are themed packages combing food, wine, spa treatments and more. This being Portugal, prices might suprise you--in a good way.
There are many chain hotels in Vila Nova de Gaia, many offering free parking. The Cliphotel Gaia Porto, a three star hotel with great user ratings, is near the cruise ship terminal. The reasonable four star Novotel Porto Gaia is also recommended, especially if you're traveling with children.
Visitors who wish to stay a while might be better off in a vacation rental like the highly rated River Place Apartments in Porto or other Vila Nova de Gaia vacation rentals (book direct).
Besides the wonderful view you can get from the Dom Luis Bridge, when you reach the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the bridge, just uphill you'll see the Monastery Serra do Pilar, a 17th century former Augustinian monastery known for its circular form. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that took 72 years to complete on account of a shortage of funds. In front of the church there are impressive views of Oporto and the river Douro.