You’ve visited dozens of wineries in Napa Valley. You’ve tasted the ciders of England and France. You’ve trotted down Kentucky’s bourbon trail. And you’re just… tired. Want something new? Try Portugal’s port and Madeira tasting tours.
These two fortified wines are distinctly different. Port is red wine to which brandy has been added during the fermentation process, resulting in a sweet, strong wine. Madeira is wine mixed with grape spirits and then heated, producing a sometimes sweet, sometimes dry flavor. Both improve with age. Very old vintages can command up to $15,000, like the 1795 Companhia Vinicola da Madeira CVM Terrantez.1 Ready to taste a little history? Here’s your guide to port and Madeira tours.
Madeira is a small volcanic island some 370 miles west of Morocco that was claimed by Portugal in 1425. Its rich soil was used mainly to grow sugarcane, but the island became famous for its sweet wine. In the mid-18th century, Portuguese merchants and explorers carried Madeira wine on their journeys, fortified to preserve it. Upon their return, they found that the heat and time had actually improved the flavor.
Thus Madeira wine was created, sometimes called Vinho da Roda or Wine of the Round Trip. Aficionados believed that Madeira that had made a long sea journey actually held the character of the ship.2 Thanks to the spirits added, Madeira never loses its flavor. The Borges Pather Madeira from 1720, should you be lucky enough to taste it, “still carries a complex flavor of liquid toffee and molasses,” Eater rhapsodizes.
The best place to begin a Madeira wine tour is Blandy’s Wine Lodge in Funchal, which offers an in-depth introduction to the wine. You’ll learn about barrel-making and aging the wine, see the satinwood storage vats and visit the Madeira museum. Tours are followed by tastings, of course, and the on-site bistro offers dinners with thoughtful wine pairings. One recent menu concluded with passionfruit tiramisu and a 1999 Malmsey. Mmmm…
Madeira’s subtropical, mountainous terrain is a pleasure to explore. But don’t expect big wineries and lavish tasting rooms, as in Napa; most vineyards in Madeira are small, family-run operations. Discovering Madeira offers a single-day wine tour that takes you to visit a wine producer and a few vineyards on the north coast, with tastings not only of Madeira wine but also whites, reds and roses. For true connoisseurs, an intensive six-day tour includes the chance to taste 19th-century vintages.3 Or, if you enjoy pairing wine with exercise, spend a week on a walking tour of Madeira, seeing vineyards, wine cellars and historic hotels as you go.4
Begin your exploration of port wine in (where else?) Porto, the seaside city that made it famous. Porto charms its visitors with Art Deco architecture, traditional neighborhoods that resist gentrification, and a stunning modern art museum.
Porto wine tours visit the great port houses, where port is made and aged in wooden casks. Tour the fermentation cellar and barrel room of Porto Cálem, then, order a glass to sip at your leisure on the riverside terrace.5 Then, move on to Sandeman, a popular port maker known for its logo of a mysterious cloaked man. The basic tour includes a few tastings, while the 100 Year Old Tawnies tour lets guests taste 10, 20, 30 and 40 year-old vintages.6
The finest port is known as vintage port, which is made from a single harvest, aged in barrels for two to three years and then bottled. In time — ideally 15 years or more — vintage port matures into rich wine with notes of pepper and plum.7 Aged tawny port develops a brown color, along with nutty or oaky flavors. White and ruby ports are younger, but still delicious, varieties.
You can also taste great port the old-fashioned way: at a bar. Solar do Vinho Do Porto is a port-tasting bar in a magnificent setting: “an old mansion high above the river near the Palácio de Cristal, with a terrace giving onto a shady garden with box hedges and fountains,” as Conde Nast Traveler describes it. Portologia - La Maison des Porto is justly famous for its knowledgeable staff and its focus on small port producers.8
To round out your port wine tour, take a train or boat from Porto into the scenic Douro River Valley, where terraced vineyards line steep slopes. Stay at a wine hotel, drive the steep and winding roads, taste local sheep’s cheese and cured meats, and, of course, drink more port.9 Saude!
Before you jet off to Porto or Madeira, protect your vacation with travel insurance from Allianz Global Assistance. Our plans can cover common travel mishaps like travel delays, lost or damaged luggage, missed connections and medical emergencies overseas. Choose the best plan for your trip.
Richmond-based travel writer Muriel Barrett has a terrible sense of direction, and has spent many happy hours getting lost in Barcelona, Venice and Jerusalem. Her favorite travel memories all involve wildlife: watching sea turtles nest in Costa Rica, kayaking with seals in Vancouver and meeting a pink tarantula in Martinique.