I had my first port tonic about six years ago while travelling through the Douro Valley in the north of Portugal. Ice cubes clinked around in my wine glass, a sizable goblet filled with dry white port (a fortified wine), tonic water and a spiral of orange peel. Our waiter recommended it as an aperitif. I was transfixed by the cleverness, the recklessness, and this blatant attempt to hijack the gin-and-tonic market. White magic! I grappled with the sort of tender heartbreak of a girl in her finest frock attending the town’s main bash only to realize that the guest of honor had cut the cake half an hour ago. Was I, as always, too damn late to the party?
Seated outside at the Vintage House Hotel in Pinhão in the heart of the Douro Valley, we watched tourists in rabelo boats, the wooden kind used to transport wine barrels and cargo long before the railway was built, gliding across on sunset cruises. Glasses of port and tonic were being raised at a table nearby; the drinkers appeared as misty-eyed as I was.
I first scuttled overseas from Cape Town in 2007, venturing to destinations burned in my memory from the pages of my government-issued school textbooks and encyclopedias. Places like Stratford-upon-Avon, Stonehenge, the Berlin wall, Rome’s Colosseum and the Vatican. Heck, Disneyland Paris. I was 27, on a sabbatical from a youngish career in law, but unfurling quietly with a subtle but steady case of burnout, having done nothing but study and work and work and study. It made me the first in my immediate family to travel outside Southern Africa; childhood vacations were spent visiting my grandparents in Durban, an hour from our family home, picnicking in local parks with the extended family and their dishtowel-tied biryani pots, going on walks and hikes with my parents, and reading books borrowed from the community library at home.
(My parents are lifelong diehard teetotalers, by the way, to set the scene, so there wasn’t a drop of wine, beer, and certainly no port in our house).
On my first visit to Portugal, in 2008, I was enchanted: bleak winter warmed by frango assado (grilled chicken) doused in piri piri oil, followed by ginjinha (cherry brandy), less than a euro a shot back then, from that hole-in-wall kiosk in Lisbon’s Rossio Square where African men and women congregate, adorned in bright fabrics from their homelands, to this day. To be fair, it’s easy when you’re a visitor with no direct relationship with the Portuguese taxman, nor have ever had to contend with municipal strikes resulting in piles of black garbage bin bags rotting in the sun; it is on these terms that I’ve adored the place.
But I do. Mine was, and remains, a hopeless love that swoons at the promise of bony little sardines on the grill and sausages filled with fat and flour, that aches when the grandmas are made to queue with tourists for the trams and bristles at the injustice of locals being pushed out of their once rent-controlled homes, commuting for hours now to get to work. I was enamored even before the city’s intense construction efforts in late 2015, when too many buildings’ façades and innards were crumbling dangerously and there were no third-wave coffee shops to be found. Bitter bica, or die, friends. Mine is the sort of love that scorns the glossies that declare the country the “new” it dining destination, and rolls its loyal beady eyes at friends who write long blog posts about the intricate calçada Portuguesa (patterned cobble stones) after a single week-long visit.
Back in 2008 I knew of port only as a drink to sip neat, in small glasses after a meal.
Until that first trip, I’d seen so very little of the world, and no forum or message board could answer the question I clutched tightly to my being for fear of shriveling in embarrassment: barring altitude changes, would the air there feel and smell different? Would I feel different somewhere so far away from home? It did and it didn’t, and I could say the same for myself, I suppose. Unlike the teens on gap year trips, I—a brown woman with two respected degrees, a career that promised success and power and a small pot of savings—was too old for the shared dorms and smelly backpacks. My soon-to-be fiancé, an unassuming type, had travelled without fanfare throughout his teens and twenties on low-cost group vacations from his home in Holland to the south of Spain, to Scotland, Barbados, Mexico and a host of countries, chasing sun, football, pool-time and boozy club nights at all-inclusive resorts. I, meanwhile, ached for museums I’d only ever read about or seen on T.V., for guided walking tours with historians; I longed to follow the curves of ancient architecture, to imagine the weight of the footsteps of queens and dictators, terrible politicians and magnanimous revolutionaries.
In Portugal we found a common love, so much so that after years of visiting its far corners, from southern coasts to northern vineyards and agricultural wheat fields in between—after witnessing the economic crisis, as it made a rapid recovery in the past three years—through making friends, tragically losing one to a river he knew so well, and all the while still not being able to string more than a sentence in Portuguese (polyglots, I loathe you), finally, after all of that, we funneled our savings into an apartment in a historical part of Lisbon’s city center. To finance it, we’ve had to rent it out most of the year (and, in a way, we became part of the problem).
In the months before we purchased it we stayed in a long-term rental located diagonally opposite on the looming 18th century square (how’s that for serendipity!) and drank port from an unlabeled bottle. It was purchased with our good friend Célia from one Sr. João who owns one of the city’s slowly fading little grocers in Alcântara, a place where you cosy up for a chinwag and the day’s bread, cheese, a few vegetables, soap, and a bottle of wine. The port’s cork had all but disintegrated and the label pasted on the sapphire-green bottle had faded and crumbled in parts decades ago. It was still excellent, and it never occurred to me to mix it with anything.
But now, in the Douro Valley, in this region where the striking cornrow terraces of vines, cork and olive trees—a man-made marvel carved into the schist and limestone—climb steeply and plunge low into the Douro River below, my port was being mixed into fashionable cocktails.
These vineyards have earned UNESCO world heritage status by virtue of the hands that have created the living stacked walls, some more than 250 years ago. Granted a European Protected Designation of Origin (DPO), port, the fortified wines made in the Douro Valley and northern provinces, is produced by the addition of aguardente, a neutral grape spirit that straight-out arrests fermentation. Back in the 1700s, this factor allowed for the wine’s longevity as it journeyed through to the Bay of Biscay onwards towards England, when the wars with France led the Brits to look for new land for grapes; when you mixed grapes with fragrant oak barrels, firewater, and a sea voyage, port became a drink of British invention, albeit an accidental one. Just look at the English names festooned across the cellars in Porto: Taylor, Croft, Dows, Sanderman, Graham, even… Cockburn (pronounced CO-burn).
On our first visit to the Douro Valley, we encountered a scrawny fistful of visitors as rickety delivery trucks on the roads bulged with harvested grapes: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and so on. Fast-forward six years, and the tourism industry now operates at capacity. A tunnel on the motorway between Porto and Pinhão shaves driving time considerably, inviting visitors to explore beyond the mist-covered port cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto. Buses stuffed with tourists hurtle along skinny, twisting bends. Bookings for wine tasting at quintas, or wine estates, are now mandatory. Long gone are the days of aimless ambling until sunset that I read about, stopping at a homely cottage on a wine farm for a bed and a meal in the kitchen.
One particularly clear and bright day we drove to Quinta do Pôpa, up a craggy set of hairpin bends whose reward seemed to be nothing more than survival over death, as the adrenalin of escaping another near-fatal plunge ensured that you treasured the scenery with your whole heart, while pitying the designated driver (to be clear: not me). But fortune favors the brave, they say, and as it turned out, we were the only visitors on the lawn with a picnic booked at the time. Stretched below us while we lounged on a patchwork throw, was a panorama of terraces, an ode to the manual labor that birthed this place. And the Douro River, flat as a mirror except for an elegant cruise barge in flashy white that drifted through it like an iceberg calving soundlessly in the Arctic. We gawked shamelessly at a swimming pool full of revelers on the top deck, and I wondered how many tumblers of gin were being substituted for white port.
Like it was back on our first visit, the drink we were offered as an aperitif on hot, windless Douro afternoons was a port and tonic. “Porto Tónico is an old drink but not yet popular in the global mainstream,” as Catarina Cosme Curto (who manages a Lisbon bar catering company) told me; while a port and tonic required no wine expertise to enjoy, what you gained in your glass was “a rich history of Portugal’s oldest winemaking region.”
At another quinta, I observed tables of tourists, most of them elderly or visibly retired, sitting under the outdoor trellis covered in soft green vines; open-mouthed in the heat, they swirled wine glasses with beads of condensation that slipped in streams down the stems. Inside the smart air-conditioned bar fashioned like a period library, small groups huddled around tables where tutored tastings, pairing a flight of port wines with chocolates or cheese and berries were underway to the sophisticated strains of jazz, or something like it. I ordered a port tonic from the barman, my second of the day, and squeezed into a seat near a window. I could see the Douro River, an oblivious green serpent on the other side. A rosemary stalk and grapefruit peel bobbed in my glass. I needed both hands to lift it. Later, I was told that the port and tonic vessel used should be grand, a wide-bowl wine glass, for example. (Why not a goldfish bowl, I wanted to counter.)
Port and tonic is an acceptable choice as a digestive or a sipper. On its own, by the measure of Portuguese drinking habits, port may be poured for special occasions or enjoyed in wintertime, a tipple preferred by the generation before mine. A port tonic is far more egalitarian; age, gender, class, or time of day, it seems to shimmy effortlessly between these constructs, a chameleon in a large goblet.
Or so I’ve heard. No Lisbon-based Portuguese friend or acquaintance has ordered one in my presence. Perhaps there’s a veil of shame in ordering a drink so clearly targeted at tourists. Perhaps it’s the company I’ve kept to date, and other cooler Portuguese folks are occupied on Saturday evenings at soirees where trays of port tonics infused with mind-relaxing foraged herbs or CBD drops are passed around. It’s an interrogation I’m yet to conduct.
Don’t stick to white port only, I’ve heard. Red port and tonic [one part ruby port, four parts tonic water and ice, Catarina suggested] is a worthy alternative. I was advised to spruce it up with slices of lime and mint by Porto bartender Lia Igreja de Oliveira who said that she’d never seen the port and tonic as popular as it was in 2017. I wondered if this was something to attribute to Porto alone – it would make sense to drink port tonics proudly and with no fear of reprisal near the source. Lia told me that Portuguese bartenders have been using port in creative ways for years. I twisted the thin curl of grapefruit peel fished out from my hefty glass, breathed in the lively aroma of citrus and wondered how far we were from flavored and elaborate versions. There are botanical bars dedicated to gin all around the world. Surely port can’t be too far off.
But, what if the port tonic was best imbibed in Portugal and the Douro, a drink that captured climate, terroir and the excitement of a trip with hair-raising sheer cliffs and lung-expanding views. I prepared it with white port and not enough ice at home in Cape Town during the summer. The drink fuelled an intense spell of saudade – a very particular brand of Portuguese nostalgia and longing that requires you play crackly fado music and stare listlessly out of a window as you think of one particular ex-boyfriend who loved you well enough, a long time ago. My husband paced around me irritably but knew better than to turn down the soul-shredding crooning of Amália Rodriques.
I won’t be surprised, though, if a speakeasy in Williamsburg, Shoreditch, Melbourne or the city where you live has cooked up a range of $22 dollar port tonics in wee crystal goblets, luminous with witchy bugs, twigs and botanicals. In spite of my enchantment with the drink (and Portugal) you can bet all of your $22 that I’m channeling a mighty eye-roll and a hefty hex on that brand of wickedness.