In July, Cockburn’s, the largest of the port wine lodges, opened its new visitor’s centre, creating probably Porto’s most exciting wine experience.
Founded just over two hundred years ago, in the same year as Waterloo - 1815 - the venerable port firm of Cockburn’s has opened a spectacular visitor’s centre in its warehouses in Vila Nova da Gaia, the Porto suburb home to the port industry’s lodges.
If you only ever get the chance to visit a single port lodge, I truly hope that this will be the one. The hour-long Cockburn’s tour not only explains most of what you need to know about the making of this prince of fortified wines, it also provides the visitor with visual drama and a glimpse of the workings of an extraordinary artisan process that includes the timeless craft of cooperage.
Cockburn’s was bought by Symington Family Estates in 2010 and has since been energetically relaunched alongside the other brands in the Symington’s port portfolio – Dow’s, Warre’s and Graham’s.
Before you begin your tour, I would suggest paying a visit to the ‘rest room’. This is not only for the usual reasons, but because here you will find a video of a deliciously hilarious 70s ad for Cockburn’s, the ‘Shipwreck’.* I won’t say any more here, this ad has to be seen!
Times have changed since the '70s, and today port is an aspirational drink drunk by cool wine lovers from Montreal to Berlin. Several of my more hipster friends have recently taken to drinking white port with tonic as an aperitif.
Our charming and impeccably trained guide, Inês, explained that the ports spend the first two years of their lives in the Douro Valley, before being transported for ageing to Cockburn’s warehouses in Vila Nova da Gaia, where the climate is cooler. Although we are in an environment that is essentially pre-industrial, some of these breathtakingly beautiful warehouses have the scale of a car factory.
Row upon row of oak casks, sometimes piled four-high, vanish into the distance beneath ‘cathedral’ roofs. Rounding a corner, we encounter a group of huge, squat vats, the largest of which, we are informed by Inês, can contain a mind boggling 150,000 litres of wine.
The wood ‘drinks’ between 1 and 2% of this wine each year, a loss which has to be topped up. As they age, the casks begin to seep and the olfactory senses of the visitor trailing his finger across this sticky, sweet leakage, are stimulated before tasting.
But I’m racing ahead … we are not yet at the tasting! I must tell you about one of the most poetic moments of the tour: cooperage, the ancient craft of cask making and repair. Cockburn’s are the only port firm to still maintain an in-house cooperage, which also supplies the needs of the other Symington Family Estates port brands. In a video, Paul Symington explains that cooperage expertise is a key factor in the quality of the port itself, providing the ‘envelope’ within which the wine will age and develop it specific characteristics.
All the casks used by Cockburn’s are old – the oldest nearly a century - so unfortunately we no longer witness their making. Senhor Antonio, the Master Cooper, presides over his team of seven coopers, each of whom has undergone four years training. Their work is to maintain the stock of casks in optimum condition, an extremely physical task which requires much skilled hammering and levering.
This memorable visit ends, as I said, with a tasting. Among the various options proposed, we went for the Classic tasting which included an excellent dry Ruby Reserva made with grapes from Quinta dos Canais, a property in the equally dry Douro Superior.
On your way out, don’t forget to take a look at the drawings by James Forrester, the Scotsman who, in the 19th century, was made a Portuguese baron for his pioneering cartography of the Douro Valley.
The author, James Mayor, is the founder of Grape Discoveries, a wine and culture boutique travel company
See the 'Grape Discoveries' website
* and the classic Shipwreck ad: "Did anyone bring the 'petit four'?"