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Visiting the ground zero for Port wine

Recently a work project took me to Viana do Castelo in the North Region of Portugal.

Viana, as the locals call it, is the home of Browning’s Portugal manufacturing and assembly plant. Shotguns, rifles and pistols have been made here for over 30 years. Interestingly enough many of the local residents are not even aware that thousands of firearms are manufactured in their small community every year.

Viana is located on the Lima River where it empties into the Atlantic. The town was founded in 1253, however in the 16th century it became famous as one of the main ports where Portuguese explorers set sail prior to their many discoveries in the new world. Viana is the capital of the local municipality and has about 37,000 residents. 

Portugal is located in southwestern Europe bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Spain on the other. Once a global maritime power in the 16th century, it began its world decline in 1822 with the independence of its wealthiest colony, Brazil. 

In 1911 it granted independence to all its African colonies. Portugal today does include the Azores Islands and the Madeira Islands.

Portugal is slightly smaller than the state of Indiana and has a population of over 10 million. The primary religion is Roman Catholic, and the official language is Portuguese. The capital is in Lisbon, and Portugal’s government is a parliamentary democracy.

Since I had a weekend to spare, Browning provided my accommodations in the Pousada de Viana do Castelo. This hotel was originally built in 1918 and later remodeled to its present state. With only 48 rooms, it looks more like a castle than a hotel. It sits on the highest point in town, and the panoramic view from my room was superb. 

With almost a thousand miles of coastline and Viana on the coast, a local seafood dinner was a must. It just so happened my hotel’s restaurant was famous for Bacalhau (cod in Portuguese) which is the national dish of Portugal. 

Oddly enough, Bacalhau refers to dishes made with salted cod, not fresh cod. Some say there are over 365 ways to cook this dish, however one of the most popular ways is, “Bacalhau a Gomes de Sa,” and this is what I was served. This recipe uses salted cod, potatoes and onions served in a casserole.  The local wine, which is a must when eating Bacalhau, is Vinho Verde (green wine) which is light, fresh and fruity and found nowhere else in the world. The dinner was both delicious and hardy. 

Next door to the hotel was the Basilica of Santa Luzia. The view from the steps of the basilica has been described by National Geographic magazine as, “the most beautiful in the world.” Work began on the building in 1903 with construction slowed immensely during World War I and II. The building was finally completed in 1953. This is truly a magnificent building with an unforgettable view.

I spent a day walking throughout the historic downtown with its port, its many fountains and centuries old buildings. Though Viana was very interesting, my favorite city in all of Portugal was not that far away, and since I was so close, I was not about to miss it.   

Porto, or Oporto in English, is located on the Douro River not far inland from the Atlantic. Porto is the second largest city in Portugal and has a population of about a quarter million. It is one of the oldest urban centers in Europe and is a registered World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Porto’s history dates to the Roman occupation in the 4th century, and ruins have been discovered indicating occupation at least to 275 BC.

Oporto, for anyone who has ever enjoyed a fine glass of Port, is literally ground zero for Port wine.  Port is a fortified wine produced only in the Douro Valley. Typically a sweet red fortified wine, often served for dessert, it must have been made in Portugal to be legally called Port. As many cigar smokers know, few things are better paired than a glass of vintage port accompanied by a fine cigar.

In 1756 the wine producing region near Oporto became the third oldest protected wine region in the world. The first was Chianti in Italy in 1716 and the second in Hungary. Port has an alcohol content of 18 to 20 percent. The increased alcohol is a result of adding distilled grape spirits to fortify the wine.

There are numerous styles of port depending upon the quality of the base wine, whether it’s aged in a bottle or barrel, and whether it is from a single year or blended from several years’ harvest. The most expensive ports are those identified as vintage ports. After the base wine remains two years in barrels it is tasted to determine if it is good enough to be declared as “vintage.”

Vintage ports are bottled unfiltered and continue to age in the bottle. Only three or four ports are identified as vintage in any one decade. The older vintage wines are the most expensive and the most sought after of all ports.

Two years ago, Taylor, a famous port house in Oporto, came across two casks of port which were made in 1855. The wine had been aging for over 150 years in the original casks. Considered the rarest port ever sold, Taylor has bottled the wine, and it sells for $3,500 per bottle. 

Before I knew it, the weekend was over, and I had to return to Viana and get some work done. I watched as the Browning craftsman turned blocks of Turkish walnut into some of the most beautiful gun stocks I have ever seen. 

Shotgun engraving was being done by laser driven machines as well as by hand. Many of the employees had worked at Browning in Belgium before transferring to Portugal and took great pride in their work.  

After a long day of visiting the factory and enjoying the hospitality of the local team it was time to head back to the farm.

Much to my disappointment, my friends at Browning did not provide me a new shotgun to take home, but I was able to depart Portugal with a couple bottles of vintage Port. 

With libations in hand, my cigar smoking friends at the Elmo Store were all happy to welcome me back.