Heading For Port — Full Steam Ahead

While our daughter sat through three days of orientation meetings, we took full advantage of her confinement and made the one-hour hop from Madrid to Porto for some relaxed education. A fortuitous website bargain landed us a stay at the Yeatman Hotel in Vila Nova de Gaia, a resort normally outside our comfort zone. We found out quickly after arriving, however, that the Yeatman is nothing but a comfort zone. Here are a few pics from our three days in Portugal.

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The Yeatman Hotel, owned by the port house Taylor Fladgate, is named for the family that still owns and operates three of the top port houses — Taylor, Croft, and Fonseca. The Yeatman is more than a hotel. It is also part museum, part educational center focused on port and the history of the port trade. The hallways are filled with art, collections, and displays detailing the industry from its 17th century origins to the present.

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Don’t know much about cork and its connection to the global wine industry? A five minute stop at this display and all your questions are answered.

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Built into a steep hill, the Yeatman Hotel has many elevators, all of which are designed with panoramic views of the region. Here you’ve just stepped into the Douro Valley, east of Porto, as it winds through hillsides terraced with vineyards.

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This elevator is designed to give the illusion of travel in a hot air ballon. That first jolt of the elevator moving is a bit of unexpected fun.

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Do you think wine is a prominent theme here in Porto? How many hotel pools do you know that are shaped like a decanter?

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In the end, everything comes back to the blessings of Bacchus. This statue and its pedestal dominate the hotel’s main staircase and atrium. If you’d like to see the statue up close but can’t get over to Portugal, there’s a replica in the courtyard at Jordan Vineyard and Winery in Sonoma.

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The weather was beautiful during our three days in Porto. Of course we drank rosé.

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As far as I’m concerned, the best ham in Europe comes from Spain, followed closely by Italy. The Portuguese don’t need to be modest about their own cured pork delicacies, however. This appetizer, with loads of tomato and olive oil, stands with the best from either of the other two countries. I could have done without the leaves. Color and all that jazz, yeah, I know. But, really, ditch the leaves.

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The photo doesn’t come close to capturing the actual grade of this cobblestone alley leading down to the wharf. Steep going down, very steep coming back up.

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The walkway along the river is studded with the names of the local port houses, which are the lifeblood of the region. Portuguese light wines (unfortified) from other regions are finally making their way into the mainstream wine markets globally, but for now, port remains the country’s dominant brand.

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A great way to end a great day. Late afternoon bubbles as the sun begins to set over the Atlantic.

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Our first night in Gaia we had no solid dinner plans so we ended up at the hotel’s poolside cafe. And, yes, that’s a hefty batch of foie gras to get things started. Oh, look, more leaves.

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Some fresh seafood. Looked great. Tasted way better.

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The wine program at the Yeatman, no surprise, is smart, and the hotel’s cellar is possibly the finest and deepest in the country. Hard to call it a night without a stop at Dick’s Bar for something special.

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Day Two found us, bright and early, next door at the Taylor Fladgate tasting room. The design on the barrel is the brand that founder Job Bearsley, a British merchant, would stamp on his wool bales as they went to market. Nothing sheepish about the design of this tasting room, that’s for sure.

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My lineup was a bit of a snack-pack. From left to right, a 10 year tawny, a 20 year tawny, an LBV, and a vintage. I’ve really come to prefer the tawny ports over the ruby style. But I’m open to more persuasion.

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Our next stop was Sandeman, another top producer. There we did a tasting flight of tawny ports, from 10 year to 40 year. It was a close call between the 20 and the 30, but I think the 30 won the day. The 10 year lacked complexity and the 40 had a bit too much heat on the finish. An educational, and delicious, stop in our day of exploring.

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Had I not been distracted by the wonderful wines in front of me, I might have taken more notes. The little box/shelf set-up was cute but made writing difficult.

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A stroll through Gaia’s side streets, away from the throngs of tourists, gave us a truer sense of life in the region.

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Our Day Two exploration took a culinary turn later in the day when we decided to splurge on the Chef’s tasting menu at the Yeatman’s Michelin-starred dining room. Before we even got up to speed with the evening’s menu, we were treated to several amuse-bouches. We got underway with these little treats, lollipops of foie gras covered in savory white chocolate.

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Just like the 82 rooms at the hotel which are all situated to face the river and Porto, the dining room is set up so all diners have a similar view.

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In all we had about 14 plates presented to us, and those were matched with six or seven Portuguese wines. All were good, some were excellent. Our only disappointment was a pinot noir that seemed to lack any real typicity. If it was pinot, it was nothing like any iteration of the grape we’d ever had. Otherwise, an unblemished score card.

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This is a classic blend of Portuguese varieties and it was a perfect match for the heart of the menu.

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An almost perfect accompaniment to our desserts. If only it hadn’t been a bit hot on the finish.

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A decadent ending to a decadent meal. Each of these little nibbles held their own surprise. I think the white chocolate balls had some frozen fruit or ice cream inside. The entire meal kept your taste buds on full alert at al times.

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On Day Three I arranged a private tour of the hotel’s cellar, which holds 27,000 bottles and 1,300 labels at any given time, one of the most extensive collections of Portuguese wine in the world.

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The hotel’s shop manager, Marco Myhre, spent more than an hour with me, giving me a detailed view of the cellar along with a brief history of the Portuguese wine trade, and the role of the Yeatman family over the centuries. Myhre works closely with Beatriz Machado, the wine director, on restaurant lists, bar menus, and shop offerings. When the staff at the Yeatman says the hotel is all about wine, they mean what they say.

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Adeus, Porto. Until next time. And, yes, there will be a next time. I have a lengthy, vine-covered river valley to explore.

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