Graham’s 1890 Lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia bestrides a ridge with a view over the Douro, northern Portugal’s “River of Gold.” Porto’s historic Ribeira district tips into view across the river. The Douro flows center stage, boats chugging upriver and down beneath the iconic Dom Luis I bridge. The 17th-century Monastery of Serra do Pilar watches over the port lodges of Gaia at the bridge’s southern end.
Just below the lodge, the fields of a working farm stretch to a wooded hill, framing our view from the terrace bar. Seagulls swoop as a summer breeze riffles the grape vines overhead. My husband and I lift glasses of port wine in a toast to summer. We are enjoying Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve to the soft beat of Brazilian jazz. It’s a classy mix of urban and bucolic up here, with a little of the sea thrown in.
Six Grapes and Graham’s vintage ports are sourced from the same Douro vineyards. The wine, officially a reserve ruby, featured on menus for the maiden voyages of the luxury passenger liners “Queen Mary” in 1936 and “Queen Mary II” in 2004. An all-rounder, this port wine evokes black fruit for both aroma and palate. Six Grapes is meant to be drunk young.
The Symingtons of Graham’s
William and John Graham, Scottish “merchant princes” of Great Britain, founded W & J Graham’s in 1820. Through the 19th century, their port wines achieved recognition for consistent quality. Andrew Symington joined the firm in 1882, leaving a few years later to set up on his own as a port producer. In 1890, the Graham family purchased an estate in the heart of the Douro and built the company’s cellar in Gaia. Symington’s grandsons brought the family business full circle when they purchased W & J Graham’s in 1970. Today, five Symington cousins manage the vineyards and wine-making at Cockburn’s, Dow’s and Warre’s, as well as Graham’s. They produce port in all premium categories.
“We are…a mixture of Scottish rationality and hard work, English common sense and Portuguese flair, emotion and romanticism.”
Port Wine From Vineyard to Lodge
The grapes that go into port wine are grown in the Douro Valley, the world’s oldest demarcated and regulated AOC wine region. The wine ages in the lodges of port shippers in Vila Nova de Gaia, just a mile from the confluence of the Douro and the Atlantic. The granite walls of the lodges combine with a maritime climate to ensure the constant, cool temperatures needed for the slow aging of port wine. At latest count, the Graham’s cellar held more than 2,000 casks plus vintage ports in bottles nearby. The lodge welcomes over 50,000 visitors each year. Private tours for up to 20 guests finish with a tasting to suit individual tastes and budgets. At €100, a private tour can be a splurge or great value, depending on the number in your party.
Port Wine Tastings in the Vintage Room
When my husband and I were new to Porto and to port wine, we enjoyed a curated, premium tasting in the professional conditions of Graham’s Vintage Room. We found it to be excellent value, stepping our lodge experience up a notch from that of the main tasting room. The experience also enabled us to sample splendid wines across a range of styles and price points.
Tasting menus in the Vintage Room range from a sampler of three port styles at €30 to the eight-glass Symington Tasting for €100. A staff member guides the tastings and shares the backstory of the wines. A limited food menu offers almonds, a simple cheese plate, or dark chocolate truffles. Although the top tipple at Graham’s 1890 Lodge will set you back hundreds of Euros for a glass of the rarest vintages, the Vintage Room makes it possible to sample luxuriously without going to such extremes. The Symingtons reset the tasting menu each year, which gives us a reason to return!
Four Port Wine Menus
Six Grapes is an easygoing collaborator in The Graham’s Tasting, a sampler that includes Graham’s 30-year-old Tawny and Graham’s Vintage 2000 Port. The tawny displays dried fruits on the nose, a mellow concentration on the palate, and a long finish. Wine Spectator named Vintage 2000 one of the “Top 100 Wines of the World.”
Graham’s Super Premium Tawny Tasting features oak-aged tawnies, such as Graham’s 30-year-old Tawny Port. Then, there is the powerfully fragrant Graham’s 40-year-old Tawny—golden amber, the rim tinged with pale green, and flavors of fruit, toffee, and chocolate. This year, the tasting also includes Graham’s 1982 Single Harvest Tawny Port. The single-harvest tawny, called a Colheita, is a limited edition produced to celebrate the birth of HRH Prince George of Cambridge. All three ports are great with dark chocolate or on their own.
Intense and opulent, the vintage ports at Graham’s have concentrated fruit and floral aromas and flavors, as well as a strong backbone of tannins. This year’s Super Premium Vintage Port Tasting features 1983, an exceptional vintage, deeply hued and full-bodied. It also offers Graham’s 2000 Vintage Port and Graham’s 2007 Vintage Port. The award-winning 2007 vintage is lush, floral and aromatic with a bit of smoke and strong tannins. One critic called its lingering sweet finish a “peacock’s tail.”
The Symington Tasting offers guests an opportunity to sample Graham’s full range of blended tawnies (10-, 20-, 30- and 40-Year Old). It also presents selected vintage ports. On the 2017 menu: Graham’s 2007, Quinta do Vesuvio 1995, Dow’s 1985 and Warre’s 1980.
Port Wine: A Deliciously Confusing Category
A classic vintage port is a fortified wine blend made from the best grapes of a single outstanding vintage. Producers declare them in limited quantities upon approval of the IVDP (Port and Douro Wine Institute). Single-Quinta Vintage Port (SQVP) can be bottled in good harvest years between declared vintage years. Vintage port ages for two years in vats and completes maturation in bottle.
Tawny port is a blend of several vintages, aged in small casks. Controlled oxidation adds color and flavor, and each winemaker blends the producer’s tawnies to a house standard. Labeling indicates each bottle’s average age at the time of bottling: 10, 20, 30 and 40 years. Aged tawnies are “blends of blends,” while a Colheita, or single-harvest tawny, is a vintage tawny from a single outstanding year.
Ruby Port is a blend of port wines from more than one year, aged for up to three years (more for a ruby reserve).
Making Port Wine Memories
Porto is Europe’s top travel destination for 2017. A luxe port wine experience such as at Graham’s is part and parcel of the region’s reputation for great food and wine. Vinum Restaurant and Wine Bar features the market-fresh products of Northern Portugal and Atlantic waters and a stellar selection of wines and ports. The wine bar offers a variety of petiscos, as small portions are called in Portugal. Graham’s Lodge Shop sells wines produced by the various Symington brands, gift-packaged wines and wine accessories, estate-bottled olive oils and more.
It’s an uphill trek from the Douro’s riverboat landing in Vila Nova de Gaia to Graham’s 1890 Lodge. In fact, it’s a bit of a journey to Graham’s lodge from anywhere in town, but one well worth making. There are myriad ways and places to sample Porto’s eponymous wine in its ruby, tawny and vintage incarnations. To date, one of the most memorable we have experienced has been at Graham’s.