PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANDRÉ VIEIRA
Port has intrigued me for as long as I could legally procure it—and perhaps, if I’m honest, even a bit longer. I remember sneaking that first sip from my parents’ unlocked liquor cabinet in the predawn hours of a rebellious youth. The bottle emitted a mysterious allure; opaque onyx, caked in a light layer of dust. I needed to know why it had been relegated to the back of the shelf. And that one oversize swig only deepened the intrigue. This was everything I adored about dark fruit: condensed, unabridged, and in liquid form. A love affair was born.
The tryst extended into my university days, an odd obsession that threatened to alienate me from my more traditionally minded drinking buddies. When they were playing beer pong, I was in the corner, furtively swigging fortified wine out of a dark bottle, hoping to elude their judgment. Soon thereafter, I made the discovery that the drink pairs perfectly with cheap delivery pizza. I had a rough go convincing my roommates of the connection.
Yet for all my longstanding devotion, a deeper understanding of port has escaped me. Beyond its basic categorization as a fortified wine and its Portuguese provenance, I know very little about it.
This is what I’ve come to Portugal to learn, and there’s no person better suited to teach me than Cristiano van Zeller. His family has been crafting port since 1780, which makes him steward to one of the oldest continuously run operations in the industry. He graciously welcomes me into his home and vineyard (or quinta), Quinta Vale Dona Maria, terraced high into the steep slopes that form a sharp valley on either side of the Douro River. He offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the chance to try a port that’s been aged more than a century. All that separates me from the bottle is a winding two-hour drive from seaside Porto up into the heart of Portugal’s UNESCO World Heritage–listed wine country. Along the way, the hills climb on either side, and manicured vines rise from the river in a mosaic that dominates the billowing landscape.
Van Zeller greets me outside an unmarked facility; the size of a basketball court with a white stucco facade, it is where his grapes are pressed, by foot, after each autumn harvest. He is a towering presence, well over 6 feet tall, rounded in his features, with a trim beard and a firm handshake. He wears a sport coat, but his wide smile and inviting manner undercut any sense of self-seriousness. After exchanging formalities, we head uphill through a dozen rows of old-growth vines, breathing heavily by the time we approach his front door. The ranch-style house sits on an outcropping, obscured by intermittent vines, amid a patch of olive trees. I peer in the window, anxious to quench more than just my thirst for knowledge.
Inside, van Zeller’s wife is busy preparing lunch in a cozy kitchen that resembles a hobbit’s den. His daughter, Francisca, opens several vintages of vinho verde—another of the region’s esteemed viticultural offerings. “Port is about family,” van Zeller says in stately English. “Nobody can be making the decisions alone.” Francisca fills our glasses on a trellised patio, overlooking a seemingly endless expanse of vineyard, as her father sits me down to explain the basics of production.
Port begins its life much the same as other wines. A half dozen varietals of grape indigenous to the Douro Valley are crushed and fermented, but while the yeasts are still converting sugars from the fruit into alcohol, a high-proof brandy is added. This suspends fermentation, leaving behind a fair amount of natural residual sugar. This is what gives port its sweetness and primes it for extended maturation in oak.
There are three primary expressions: ruby, the entry-level juice, not built for lengthy aging; tawny, premium expressions of fruit that can stand upward of 40 years in wood; and late-bottled vintage, a harvest of grapes so singularly meaningful that the winemaker deems it fit to evolve over decades in the bottle. How the liquid eventually lands in these categories involves far more subjectivity than just about any other form of alcohol production. It’s what makes port so unique—and so beguiling.
The best van Zeller can provide me is the assurance that a finely tuned palate will immediately recognize the plots and harvests exceptional enough to rate as a late-bottled vintage. Yet they are always in search of external validation. “When there is a vintage port declaration, all the companies send samples to all the other companies so that everybody can taste what everybody is launching,” he explains.
Almost on cue, van Zeller pauses to reveal an unmarked bottle that had been hiding beneath the table. He pulls out the cork and empties some of its contents—a rare vintage port from the family’s private reserve— into my goblet. “Even more important than teamwork is the experience that is passed on from generation to generation,” van Zeller says in between sips. “It is this accumulated experience of many generations that creates great works of art in terms of the port.”
Van Zeller has a particularly transcendent work of art on his hands right now. My journey to the quinta coincides with the unveiling of a new stateside release—the most significant of van Zeller’s decades-long tenure as head of the family trade. Last year, he finalized a partnership with The Last Drop Distillers, a U.K.-based bottler that’s determined to procure the rarest casks of whisky and cognac hidden in the cobwebbed corners of warehouses across Scotland and France. One of the brand’s senior tastemakers, a longtime friend of van Zeller’s, coaxed the family into relinquishing some of its most precious stock. The result: Centenario, two bottles from the same vineyard, separated by 100 years, from 1870 and 1970. When released later this year, the tandem set will retail at just over $5,000.
On its face, the partnership seems curious; as a practical hybrid of wine and spirit, port has long evaded the gaze of either side’s most moneyed collectors and connoisseurs. That’s why you can take home a world-class bottle of 40-year-old tawny for under $200. (Good luck finding a comparably aged whisky or wine for one-tenth that price.) But when I steal sight of what we’re to taste—an emerald-green bottle carrying a white label embossed with the number 1870—a lump forms in the back of my throat. Confronted with the oldest liquid I’ve ever had the privilege to taste, I find myself practically choking up. Perhaps van Zeller can see my excitement and wants to extend the anticipation, because he suggests we go on a tour.
The road from the hilltop quinta down to the river is an unapologetic series of switchbacks seemingly designed to interrogate my long-held assertion that I don’t get carsick. But stepping onto the wooden deck of our riverboat, I feel a brisk breeze that delivers a reprieve from the unexpected bout of nausea. I definitely don’t get seasick, I remind myself.
As the boat drifts along beneath azure skies, afternoon shadows begin to encroach upon the deep valley. Quintas rise along the river on either side. I find myself covered in sustained goosebumps as I peer up at centuries-old facades, painted white, branded with the port industry’s most recognized names: Croft, Churchill’s, Ferreira. At this range, they appear more like cozy cottages and thatch-roofed inns than commercial production sites. Technically, these are van Zeller’s competitors, but he doesn’t see it that way.
“We all like to have our little trade secrets that we keep in the family—and not explain too much,” he admits. “But I have never seen such solidarity in a business as I have in port. When someone has a problem, the whole industry gets together and helps. They are part of a larger family as well.”
The sun begins to set, and we disembark on dry land. A seven-mile drive traces the banks of the river—alongside its only dammed section—as we forge toward our evening destination. The Six Senses Douro Valley is a luxury hotel with a modern interior beneath a deceptively classical Old World veneer. Tucked behind the pillared archways and gabled campanile are rooms with sharp edges, floor-to-ceiling windows, and organic bedding designed to enhance your sleep cycle. It’s a dichotomy that reflects the Douro itself: an ancient region, informed by ages of craftsmanship, eager to embrace a new luxury product that’s stylishly packaged for contemporary jet-setters.
In the hotel restaurant, we sit down in front of a couple of snifters, each glowing plum purple: the 1870 and the 1970. The supple bouquet of each makes deliberate overtures to my nose before I even lift a glass. Though I’ve trekked across the Douro for less than a day, it feels as if I’ve journeyed half my lifetime to arrive at this moment. I’m transported to that first stolen sip of liquid, the genesis of this longstanding love affair. The same thrill is here: elevated heart-rate, unshackled curiosity. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think I was thieving the contents of the rounded glass before me. I go so far as to request express permission for the taste.
The 147-year-old drink washes across my palate, a parade of freshly plucked cherries, sun-dried plums, and condensed balsamic—in that precise order. A slightly syrupy residue coats the roof of my mouth. The lingering hints of peppered dates echo across the back of my tongue long after the liquid goes down. I’ve never drunk a section of a rainbow, but I now believe I know exactly what indigo tastes like.
I could say the same for violet. The 1970 port is lighter in color and texture, yet it’s deep and demanding on the tongue, its peppery, plum essence unyielding. I surrender speech to silently contemplate its prolonged finish.
I glance across the table at van Zeller. I expect to see pride in his face, but then I realize that he knows he doesn’t own this. He is merely holding it close to his heart—as have generations upon generations before him—until his children are ready to do the same. In this moment, I understand what he meant earlier when he said port is about family. One day, I hope to be lucky enough to have my own children, to share such a precious gift with them. Until that day, I had better keep my liquor cabinet locked up tight.