Last month, my wife Barbara and I escorted a group of 19 friends on a tour of Portugal where we discovered a deep sense of history and culture rooted in many ways to wine, religion, architecture, exploration and conquest.

Our adventure began in Lisbon, then on to Oporto (aka Porto) and across the Douro River to Vila Nova de Gaia. A seven-day river cruise through the Douro River Valley aboard the luxurious AmaVida followed providing the crowning jewel to a most enlightening experience. 

While aboard the ship, I was honored to serve as “wine host” for all 100 passengers. My task was to plan, coordinate, conduct and source all the wines poured for three tasting seminars and a five-course wine pairing dinner.

One seminar showcased Vintage Port (Dow’s, Grahams’s and Warre’s) from the highly acclaimed 2000 vintage. We then ventured to the newer and exploding category of dry table wines with examples from Setúbal and Alentejo. The final seminar focused on a sampling of aged Tawny (Dow’s 20 and 30 Year) and Colheita (Dow’s 2002) Port wines. I also matched each course of the dinner with local wines and included some unexpected pairings that excited the palate and elicited many rave reviews from our fellow passengers.

On our first day in Lisbon, we were joined by two other couples in the group for a four-hour walking tour through several ethnic historical areas of the city where we soaked up both local and national history while making several stops to sample bites of each neighborhood’s traditional foods accompanied by cocktails and wines.

A visit to Sintra on Lisbon’s outskirts offered a look into one of Portugal’s most historic periods as King Ferdinand II transformed the 15th century monastery into the majestic Pena Palace, with construction spanning much of the 19th century. Situated high on the hill of Sintra, this Romanticist palace is a treasure trove of sculpture, art and exquisitely executed hand-painted tiles.

Our next destination, Oporto, is about a three-hour drive north along the Atlantic coast from Lisbon and often referred to as home to the famous Port wines. Although this is a vibrant center for trade, home to historic cultural sites and a mecca for tourism, the actual storage and aging of Port wine occurs in the Lodges across the Douro in Vila Nova de Gaia.

The grapes for Port are grown and vinified to the east in the hot, dry Douro Valley. Historically, the fermented wine was then transported in large wooden casks about 100 miles by small open boats (rabellos) that traveled along the raging river to the cooler town of Gaia. Many lives and millions of gallons of wine were lost over the centuries as courageous men with the aid of oxen bravely navigated the Douro through its torrential rapids and along the rocky shoreline.

While in Oporto, we crossed the river to Gaia for extensive private tours and tastings at both Graham’s and the newly restored Cockburn’s Lodges. In addition to the magnificent range of wines we sampled at Cockburn’s, a highlight of our visit was a tour through their in-house cooperage. Here, a skilled staff of eight master coopers are constantly repairing and maintaining the thousands of wooden casks needed to patiently age Port wines for as many as 70 years or more.

At Graham’s, we were treated to an in-depth tour of the Lodge and then sampled a range of 10-, 20-, 30- and 40- Year Tawnys paired with Vintage Ports from 2007, 1995, 1985 and 1980. What a treat! During the tasting, I was discussing the very “under-the-radar” class of Colheita (vintage dated Tawny) Port with our guide. He then graciously pulled from the library a 1972 Graham’s for us to enjoy. All I could say was “WOW” as Barbara disappeared to purchase a bottle to take home.

We followed the Cockburn’s tasting with a private buffet-style lunch paired with table wines from the Douro and elsewhere in Portugal at the picturesque Yeatman Hotel overlooking Oporto across the river. The Vinum restaurant on the grounds of Graham’s was the setting for a classic multi-course Portuguese wine-country lunch with intriguing wines paired to each dish.

For our Oporto dinners, we savored traditional Portuguese cuisine prepared in three styles. Each course at all three restaurants was paired with the wines I was able to select in advance working with the sommeliers and chefs. For a more contemporary look at traditional dishes, we were delighted by Flow. For a more local’s style cuisine, we enjoyed a beautiful meal at Traça and to appreciate a Continental twist we dined in the elegant restaurant at our hotel Intercontinental Porto-Palacio das Cardosas.

We then boarded the AmaVida for our long-awaited cruise of the Douro River Valley. Each of my tasting seminars was well attended and spirited conversations ensued regarding the wines we were tasting along with their place in the vinous history of Portugal. Quite often, the conversations expanded into many other topics, including cork closures, wines from more familiar locales, serving suggestions, vineyard and winery practices, purchasing/cellaring patterns and more.

Two of the surprise courses I planned as part of our five-course dinner skillfully prepared by Chef Vladimir specifically to the wines chosen were a Dow’s Fine White Port paired to a pumpkin soup and a Graham’s 10-Year Tawny with a spectacular Osso Buco. These wines are usually enjoyed before or after the meal, but I thought it would be interesting to introduce them with the second and main courses to gauge the reaction. And a very positive one it was.

Our seven days aboard the AmaVida took us from Portugal’s Atlantic coast east to the historic town of Salamanca across the Spanish border and back. The voyage was packed with gourmet dining, expert service and a wide variety of on-shore excursions transporting us to small towns, hidden-away wineries, majestic views, and spectacular treasures beyond description. You really have to personally experience the adventure in order to fully comprehend the raw beauty and history of this cherished area.

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Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.