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|| News Item: Posted 2001-12-19

The Count on Cigars: In Search of Port in Portugal
Portugal and London: The Best of Two Worlds

By Eric Risberg

Photo by
Port and cigars - two of my favorite enjoyments. Just as I went to Havana for the first time with much anticipation, I recently traveled this fall to Portugal, where port wine is produced, and to London to visit some of the most famous cigar shops. The trip did not disappoint and left me wanting to get back to Portugal in the near future to spend a much longer amount of time.

To get to Oporto and the Douro Valley, where port is produced, my wife and I rented a car in Lisbon and drove north on an autopista (freeway) at speeds averaging more than 90 mph and made the trip in a couple of hours. (Driving this fast is customary and had nothing to do with stopping for a couple of espressos at a rest stop off the autopista.)

Port wine takes its name from the city of Oporto, located where the Douro River flows into the Atlantic. But actually, the wine is produced across the Douro River in Vila Nova de Gaia in long red-tiled lodges (shippers' warehouses) after the wine is trucked by container from the Douro Valley some 60 miles or more to the east.

Oporto reminded me of Havana in many ways. Parts of it seemed to be crumbling and in search of a rebirth. One of the most fascinating walks is to go from Oporto across the two-tier iron bridge, Ponte D. Luiz, which takes you directly to the port lodges on the opposite side of the river.

Photo by Eric Risberg

Photo by Eric Risberg
Along the waterfront are creaking gondola-shaped barcos rabelos, mothballed after years of service from bringing port down the Douro River to the lodges at Vila Nova de Gaia. Some of the most visible wine shippers on the waterfront are Calem and Sandeman. The true treasures of Vila Nova de Gaia are found by walking up the narrow cobblestone alleyways reeking of port that go to the lodges which house thousands of old oak casks called pipes (barrels that make 712 bottles).

With the help of former LA Times photographer George Rose, who now works for Allied Domecq wines, I was able to visit Cockburn (pronounced "coh-burn"), the brand leader for the United Kingdom. The port they are known for is their consistent ruby, Special Reserve. Cockburn has one of the largest lodges there, but what was most interesting was entering a locked basement room and seeing where they kept the few remaining vintage ports they had dating back to 1912. Most of the bottles were entirely crusted in cobwebs illuminated by just a couple of hanging bulbs. The smell was mildewy mixed with the aromas of wine.

Photo by Eric Risberg

Photo by Eric Risberg
Contrasting this visit was a meeting with winemaker Joao Nicolau de Almeida of Ramos Pinto, the leading shipper to Brazil, and also known for their eye catching themes created by famous artists, but most notably for their fine tawny ports. Ramos Pinto was not nearly as large, but was more technologically focused and had deep rows of crypt after crypt in the ground containing numerous vintage ports.

They were also in the process of completing a new waterfront museum. Ramos Pinto is one of the leading innovators of the winemaking process in Portugal, and de Almeida is one of the country's leading makers of non-fortified Portuguese wines.

The highlight of my wine experience in Portugal was driving from Oporto toward the town of Pinhao in the heart of the Douro Valley. I was initially reluctant to make the drive because I heard the roads were very windy and I was having a stressful time driving the rental Opel diesel wagon we had. But taking the time to drive there was one of the best experiences that I don't regret for an instant. I will always remember the view when I first saw the Douro River below as we descended down into the valley toward Regua as we twisted and turned down the narrow two-lane road. On each side of the river, terrace after terrace of vineyards rose from the bottom of the valley. I had never seen a wine country setting like this ever before.

Completely by accident in search of a quinta (wine farm or estate) we drove into the Quinta do Panascal, one of Fonseca Guimaraens three premier quintas in the Douro. At this flagship quinta of Fonseca, tourists can see up close how port is made. What was really educational was being able to take a self-guided walk through one of the terraced vineyards on a steep hillside and see the dramatic scenery below.

Photo by Eric Risberg

Photo by Eric Risberg
Also one can see the granite troughs called lagares where the grapes used to make many of the vintage ports are still stomped by foot. It was at the Panascal where I learned that when looking at port in the light that you don't see "legs" on the side of the glass, but "tears" for all the back-breaking labor that goes into picking the grapes on these steep hillside terraces in the hot sun. The grapes used to make port are grown in some of the challenging conditions, literally right on top of bedrock.

One of the best appreciations I acquired in Portugal was for inexpensive tawny port, which is usually aged in wood 2-3 years and released for immediate consumption. It seemed that whenever we checked into a hotel or finished a meal in a restaurant, we were always given a glass of port. In most cases it always turned out to be a tawny. Most of the port consumed in the U.S. is mostly premium ruby or vintage character. I found many of these tawnies to be lighter and softer and able to go with a wider range of foods than the heavier rubies or vintage ones.

If one were to make a trip to the Oporto region, I would recommend a brief stop to see the lodges, but suggest that one stay in the Douro Valley and spend more time visiting many of the quintas that welcome visitors. An excellent book about the subject is "Port and the Douro" by Richard Mayson.

(A link to this book on appears at the bottom of this page.)

On the way home we stopped in London, a city known as one of the best to find cigars, particularly Havanas. Thanks to my good friend Chip Goldeen of Ashton Cigars, I was able to tag along with him as he made calls at Harrods, Fox, Davidoff, Dunhill and Selfridges.

Photo by Eric Risberg

Photo by Eric Risberg
For years I have read about the famous Davidoff, Dunhill, and Sautter stores, but by far the most interesting shop was the J.J. Fox & Robert Lewis store on St. James Street. The shop dates back to 1787. In the back of the store is a small museum where one can find cigars that once belonged to Winston Churchill and sit in the chair he used to sit and smoke in at the shop. Also on display are ledgers showing the purchases made by many famous customers, and what may well be the oldest surviving box of Havanas, produced for the Great Exhibition in London in 1851.

A very rare treat was being taken into the basement of the store and seeing the stacks of boxes containing more than a million cigars for their customers. I was able to look at shelf after shelf of cigars belonging to famous people, some of whom are no longer living. Many of these cigars I had only read about and seen in photographs.

I saw many Davidoff Dom Perignons, Romeo y Julietas made in the '50s and early '60s, Dunhill Havana Clubs, Hoyo de Monterrey Hunt Club double coronas, and some Flor de Cano short churchills. What also impressed me about the shop was their friendliness, how just about anyone could wander in for a cup of coffee, and how willing they were to store cigars for their customers.

Photo by
One of the best humidors I walked into was at the Davidoff store. They seemed to have one of the widest selections with everything from Cohiba Millennium Torpedos to no-longer-produced, Cuban-made Davidoff 1000s in a special glass-enclosed counter. Also browsing that day at Davidoff store was actor Richard Thomas from The Waltons who was closely looking at some Cohiba robustos.

The famous department store Harrods has one of the best selections of smoking accessories, including smoking caps and really unusual items such as a real guillotine cutter and sterling silver humidors.

Dunhill was probably the quietest and least busy store, but it had some of the best looking cigars for sale, particularly their Montecristo robustos. At the time I was there the store was undergoing a major renovation, but is opening a new cigar lounge and club in the near future.

A word of caution about London: Bring lots of money. It is one of the most expensive cities in the world. The cigars I described at the Davidoff store go for about $50-$60 apiece. On average, most of the Havanas in London start around $16 for a robusto and go up to $24 for a double corona. The popular tubed Romeo y Julieta Churchill sold for about $20.

Unfortunately, for these prices one would expect some great cigars, but sadly most of the Havanas that I saw on display in London looked to be of fair quality. Many of the wrappers looked very poor and light in color, and a number of the shop managers I spoke with complained about the declining quality of cigars coming out of Cuba due to increased production and lack of standards.

Happy travels, The Count

("The Count" aka Eric Risberg is a staff photographer with the Associated Press based in San Francisco.)

Related Links:
Port and the Douro

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