Cross to the south side of the Douro River, over the Ponte Dom Luís I, and you leave the city of Porto for the separate town of Vila Nova de Gaia (or just Gaia), though the distinction is irrelevant to visitors. The riverfront here – facing Porto’s Ribeira – also has a long line of cafés, bars and restaurants; cruise boats dock along the esplanade, while the wooden craft with sails are known as barcos rabelos, the traditional boats once used to transport wine casks downriver from the Douro port estates. The views are, if anything, better from Gaia than from the Porto side, looking back across to a largely eighteenth-century cityscape, with few modern buildings intruding in the panoramic sweep from Palácio de Cristal gardens to cathedral towers.
Gaia, of course, is completely dominated by the port wine trade, whose company lodges and warehouses spell out their names in huge letters across the roofs. Although most have long since been bought by multinationals they still try hard to push a cosy, family-owned image, bolstered by tastings and tours, conducted in English, with a view to enticing you to buy. Most lodges are open daily between May and October; some close at weekends in winter, or are only open then by appointment; where there’s an entrance fee, usually just a couple of euros, the amount is deducted from anything you buy. Tours of the smaller, lesser-known companies tend to be more personal than those of larger producers, but they are all pretty informative and you’ll soon know the difference between a tawny and a ruby, and which vintages are best. The best single place for information about opening hours is the Vila Nova de Gaia turismo.
Cálem wwww.calem.pt. One of the best visitor centres, especially informative about the wine’s history and the port-production process.
Graham’s wwww.grahams-port.com. A lodge originally founded by a Scottish family, and with a splendid tasting terrace overlooking the river.
Ramos Pinto wwww.ramospinto.pt. The famous advertising posters of this Portuguese company did much to popularize port in the 1900s – there’s a really good museum housed in the 1930s period offices.
Sandeman wwww.sandeman.eu. The black-hat-and-cape cut-out provides the most recognizable of company logos and the lengthy tour includes an explanatory film and a good museum.
Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman wwww.taylor.pt. Founded in 1692, and still an independent family firm, Taylor’s has panoramic views from its salon, terrace and restaurant.