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Trip to Oporto

Trip to Oporto

16 September 2019

An intrepid group of Phoenix and Firebirds embarked on an informative weekend learning about (and enjoying) Porto's most famous product

Trip to Oporto

By Rosemary Mahony (Plaisterers)

On Monday 16th September 2019 a group of 35 Phoenix Masters and Firebirds arrived at the Hotel Carris Porto Ribeira in Porto. Porto is Portugal’s second city and is sited on the steep banks of the River Douro at the point where it runs into the Atlantic Ocean. It is most famous for the many brands of Port wine that are produced on the terraced vineyards of the Douro.

The Ribeira Quarter where we stayed is a World Heritage site where multi-coloured houses tumble down to the river and a string of restaurants are scattered along the boat-lined quayside. Behind the waterfront lies a labyrinth of steep cobbled alleys and stairways with houses clinging together in a jumble of colour and decoration.

Our first trip took place on the Tuesday morning when we visited the world famous Graham’s Port Lodge, but before we set off we ‘mustered’ on level -2 of the hotel for a briefing. This proved to be a considerable challenge as the hotel is built on split levels and it required a number of different lifts and a keen sense of direction to actually turn up in the right place. Several of us visited the gym and a number of storage areas before we finally arrived. However, everyone was in good form and the majority opted to take a river taxi across the Douro to Vila Nova de Gaia and then to walk up a relatively steep hill to the Lodge where we were met by Alex, our guide for the tour.

He was an immensely knowledgeable young man who was able to answer the questions thrown at him by our Masters – many of whom already knew a thing or two about Port! Alex explained the whole production process from the growing and harvesting of the grapes through to the filtering and maturing. We walked through rooms full of the most enormous barrels, each one containing between 60,000 and 70,000 litres of Port and were told that the most expensive bottle would cost you €8,500. We learned that Vintage Port needs to be drunk quickly once it is opened, but Tawny Port can be enjoyed for a much longer period – the concept of enjoying a glass or two at Christmas over a number of years was met with incredulity by most of the group!

The lodge is now owned by the Symington Family and we visited their private collection of bottles of Port going back for over 80 years. Apparently, the best year ever for Port was 1945, but 2011 was also named as a classic Vintage year. There needs to be a very dry period during maturation and a spell of rain before harvesting to create the perfect conditions.

Following our tour we were invited to a tasting of four different Ports; a 10 year old Tawny, a 20 year- old Tawny, Graham’s Six Grapes and Graham’s Quinta Dos Malvedos Vintage. There was very little use of the Spittoons during this session as the Ports were all extremely good and we had worked up quite a thirst with all the talking about the making of the wine. At the end of the tasting we were asked as a group to vote for our favourite and the majority of the Firebirds and some of the Masters preferred the Tawny Port. As a result the Chair of the Phoenix Past Masters, Mark Chambers said that he would consider changing to this variety at future dinners - look out for this at forthcoming events!

We finished off this most enjoyable tour with an excellent lunch in the Vinum restaurant, the food was exceptional and, of course, there was plenty of Port wine to go with it.

Our time was our own for the rest of the day and we discovered lots of places to visit and things to do, including riding on the funicular railway and cable cars and visiting the many cultural sites within the city.

The following day we mustered in the same place again – a bit quicker this time – and then left for se. The weather was not great and some of us were caught out by the coolness of the wind and the fine mist that hung over the river but it was a spectacular trip with the many bridges that span the river looming up out of the gloom. This was a great way to find out about Porto and its heritage and to appreciate just how steep the Douro gorge is and how precariously the buildings cling to its sides.

In the afternoon the indefatigable John Nugée offered to lead a gentle walk to visit some of the local sites but my husband and I opted instead for a ‘tuk tuk’ ride around the town. Our driver was an enthusiastic guide who flouted all the traffic laws and took us to places which were notable for their isolation. However, we did see and learn a lot and returned to our hotel unscathed. Did you know that J.K Rowling lived in Porto for a while and used the university students’ formal dress as the template for the Hogwarts school uniform?

In the evening we had the privilege of dining at the Factory House. This is the home of the British Port merchants and has a long and interesting history. The current building was erected in 1806 and was used as a meeting place for British Port Merchants, known as ‘Factors’, to conduct their business and defend their interests. Its rather stern exterior, protected by wrought iron gates, belies the treasures that lie within. A very fine hall leads on to an open stair well, where every step is made from a single piece of granite and the landings are embedded in the wall with no supporting pillars.

We were given a guided tour of this magnificent building by Dominic Symington who represented the British Association of Port Shippers and was our guest. His cousin Charles is Treasurer (equivalent of Master) of The Factory House and gave the formal permission for us to dine there. Dominic took us through the Library which was filled with old and interesting books, the map room, with its unique cartographic collection and the ball room which was resplendent with its Wedgewood inspired walls and glittering chandeliers. Every Wednesday a lunch club meets at the Factory House and a copy of the Times newspaper dated exactly 100 years earlier is placed on show. There are displays of fine porcelain, silver and Chippendale furniture which remind us of the wealth that the exporting of Port to Britain created for the British Merchants.

The whole experience was similar to that of visiting an English stately home but the best was yet to come. We ate in the grand dining room which was redolent of a city livery hall with elegant candelabra casting a glow over the beautifully laid table and the very good meal that was provided. My favourite course was the Apricot and Camomile ice cream! Needless to say the wines were excellent - presumably they had been chosen from the 15,000 bottles that are stored in the building’s underground cellar.

As if we hadn’t had enough ‘wow factor’ for one night, we were then invited to participate in the custom of “Going Through” to the separate Dessert Room. In yet another splendid hall we were treated to dried fruit and nuts and Graham’s 2000 Vintage Port. This is a splendid tradition, the reason for which is that the aromas of food from the dining room should not affect the appreciation of the fine port! A splendid finale to an excellent dining experience.

As a token of the Phoenix Master’s thanks to the Board of the Factory House, the Phoenix Chairman, Mark Chambers, presented Dominic with a pewter water pitcher from a design used just by the Pewterers' Company. The piece was made by Sam Williams of AE Williams who is possibly the finest young pewter maker in the country.

This was a wonderful experience and provided a fitting end to an extremely well planned and stimulating trip to Porto. The Phoenix Committee and in particular John and Vicky Nugée and Mark and Angela Chambers put a great deal of time and effort into the planning of this expedition and I am sure that everyone who was lucky enough to be a part of the visit would want to thank them for a most memorable and enjoyable time.

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