Destination Porto and Douro
One of the great historic shippers of Port, with a quality reputation second to none, The Fladgate Partnership exports its superb Taylor, Fonseca, Croft, and Krohn wines all around the world. But beyond the allure and expressive power of the Ports themselves, no producer is now doing more to bring the world back to their origins in the Douro Valley, to heighten the fascination of the wines by revealing the colorful culture, rich history and magnificent landscape that gives rise to them. Along with other leading Port groups, The Fladgate Partnership continues to invest heavily in its Douro vineyards and wineries, and the region has benefited greatly from the success of recent Vintage Ports and special old Tawnies. But all of the major producers agree that developing tourism in respectful and responsible ways is also essential if the region and its people are to thrive.
Porto and The Yeatman
Any exploration of Port must begin in the World Heritage City that gave the wine its name—Porto—and its twin across the mighty Douro River—Vila Nova de Gaia—for more than three centuries the historic center of the Port trade, where many shippers still have their cellars.
Together they make up one of the great wine capitals of the world, where The Fladgate Partnership’s greatest contribution to the city has been the creation of its first world-class hotel, The Yeatman, which was also the first luxury wine hotel in Portugal. Just as a great wine writer needs first to be a great writer, so a great wine hotel needs first to be a great hotel, one that defines a destination and provides an authentic and memorable sense of place. The Yeatman achieves this with apparently effortless ease. A member of the Relais & Châteaux group, this beautifully designed and furnished five-star hotel and spa, with 109 luxurious and spacious rooms and suites, offers spectacular views over the Douro to the historic heart of Porto, as well as attentive but discreet service from genuinely friendly and highly trained staff. It takes its distinctive name from the distinguished family who were partners in the famous Portshipping firm of Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman, from which the current Partnership grew with its purchase of Croft in 2001.
Adrian Bridge, The Fladgate Partnership’s very capable, dynamic and enterprising CEO who came to the role after a successful career in the British Army and investment banking, admits that when he first started work on the hotel in 2007, “everybody thought I was completely and utterly mad,” especially after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008. “If I’d had a euro for everybody who told me it would never work,” he says, “I could have retired long ago.” But he was convinced that there was an opportunity to develop luxury tourism in the city through a hotel that would be a destination in its own right, so he persevered and prevailed.
Identifying not only authenticity and individuality but sustainability as three of the hotel’s criteria for success, Bridge developed it by digging deep into the hill on which it now rests, on land formerly occupied by the Croft lodge, even though this added 10 percent to the cost. Water is recycled in a treatment plant under the hotel, and all of the hotel’s hot water is heated by solar panels. The hillside location also allows a dramatic and unusual entrance to the hotel, guests arriving at the back, at the highest point, then from the reception hall looking down the grand staircase and out over the generously proportioned lower floor.
The hotel opened in 2010, and even then there were some who remained skeptical. But Bridge had no hesitation in charging room prices that were twice those at what had been the city’s most expensive hotel, confident that guests would find it worth it. He knew that “the three most important things in creating a top-quality hotel, as in creating a top quality wine, are details, details, details.” So, he and his team devoted themselves to getting these details right. As an example of how much effort might go into only one of “the million decisions” involved, Bridge and his wife Natasha sought sample beds from six leading manufacturers, then slept on each of them for a month before deciding on a model that cost £4,000 per bed. “When people wake up feeling refreshed, they’re on your side,” reasons Bridge. And he has been proved right.
Due to high demand, in 2018 Bridge has added a further 26 rooms to The Yeatman, which include superior and executive rooms, family suites and a new Presidential Suite. This latest jewel in The Yeatman’s crown has 170m2 (1,830 sq. ft.), it has its own private swimming pool and garden with panoramic views, offering a relaxing retreat experience. The spacious terrace, with 115m2 (1,238 sq. ft.), is perfect to rest and contemplate the stunning scenery shaped by Porto’s historic skyline. The wine theme is ever present and The Presidential Suite features a luxurious master bed crafted from a wooden Port barrel.
While The Yeatman would be highly attractive to any discriminating guest, for wine lovers it is utterly irresistible. No hotel can be more deeply imbued with the spirit of wine. A dazzling collection of antique wine glasses—some thousands of years old, amassed by Bridge himself over many years—is displayed in a large glass wall cabinet and would be worthy of any world-class museum. The broad corridors, instilling a calming sense of space, are decorated with beautifully framed historic maps of the Douro and original fine art with wine-related themes. There is a beautiful and tranquil Vinothérapie® Spa by Caudalie, with a heated indoor infinity pool and breathtaking views over the river, while the outdoor pool, equally spectacular, is in the shape of a decanter.
All 109 rooms and suites are sponsored by as many wine partners, including many of Portugal’s finest producers. They also participate in the wine dinners held every Thursday evening, which are popular with residents and non-residents alike, as well as in three Sunset Wine Events in July, August and September and a Christmas Wine Weekend on the first weekend in December.
The hotel is also home to an elegant, perfectly situated two-Michelin-star fine-dining restaurant, where the brilliant Portuguese chef Ricardo Costa and a talented team offer imaginative, refined cuisine in which the traditional flavors of Portugal are interpreted and presented with contemporary flair. The highly knowledgeable and passionate wine director, Beatriz Machado—who studied under Professor Ann Noble at UC Davis—offers an astonishing 109 Portuguese wines by the glass, a symbolic tally matching the number of rooms and suites and wine partners. These by-the-glass options change several times a year and are cleverly introduced in a smartly produced 30-page Wine Journal, with detailed notes on all 109 wines. The wine team, led by Machado, is always on hand to provide Master Classes on Portuguese wines and Ports selected from The Yeatman’s award-winning cellars.
The Yeatman has assembled the largest collection of Portuguese wine in the world, including more than 1,300 labels, roughly 30,000 bottles, all perfectly preserved in temperature-controlled storage. The list, which has won the maximum three-star ranking in the annual WFW World’s Best Wine Lists awards every year since 2015, offers an outstanding range of table wines, as well as an unparalleled richness of wood-aged and Vintage Ports from all of the top producers, not only those in the Fladgate portfolio.
A short walk down a cobbled street takes hotel guests to the historic Taylor’s lodge, completely refurbished as a working museum in 2016, when it attracted well over 100,000 visitors in its first year. An audio tour, available in eleven different languages, lasts up to two hours if all the options are played (though any number can be skipped) and allows visitors to proceed at their own pace at any time. Along the way are a 3D map of the region, as well as atmospheric black and white photos and awe-inspiring color astro-photos capturing shooting stars in the sky above Taylor’s flagship Quinta de Vargellas. There are also Wi-Fi enabled selfie spots with fixed cameras and informative videos; artifacts such as the straw coats worn by workers in the Douro until the 1970s; and brilliantly clear but detailed explanations of viticulture and vinification, as well as the history of Port. The tour finishes with a Port tasting with friendly, knowledgeable staff who can help with any queries, and there is also an excellent restaurant, Barão de Fladgate which has recently seen the launch of a new tasting menu exclusively paired with Taylor’s Ports.
Bridge is keen to extend the length of the tourist season and the length of tourist visits, so he fully recognizes the need to supply additional attractions in Porto, “such as might entertain visitors on a rainy day in March.” He acknowledges, “You can’t just build a hotel and assume it’s all going to happen. You need to create things for people to do. We need to grow the pie in order to get our slice of it.” In 2011 he acquired for The Fladgate Partnership a large bottling plant and warehouse from Real Companhia Velha (Royal Porto), close to the motorway, redesigning and refitting it, as well as creating a large event venue for up to 800 people and a wine megastore. Moving the company’s bottling and warehousing here will allow it to clear a large area in front of The Yeatman, for which new space Bridge has another ambitious plan: The World of Wine, a large square (some 4,500 sq m) around which will be assorted galleries, museums, restaurants, shops, and a wine school. It will be a public and private venture, but most of the investment will come from private partners. Work has already begun and Bridge hopes that the first venues may be open by spring 2020 and that it will be “the definitive Portuguese wine experience.”
The Douro, Pinhão, and The Vintage House
All of the existing attractions in Porto will surely inspire more and more visitors to venture up the Douro to experience the majesty of the vineyards themselves. There is no more stunning wine region in the world, and here, for once, man appears to have enhanced the natural splendor of the rugged landscape, the miles and miles of stone terraces lending it pattern and texture. As one Portuguese poet aptly describes the impression, “When God created the world, he left his thumbprint on the Douro.”
Access to the central vineyards of the Cima Corgo has never been easier from Porto—by boat, by one of the world’s most scenic railways along the river, or by the new motorway that opened in 2016, making the journey by road both quicker (around 90 minutes) and safer than ever. The best base from which to explore the Douro is Pinhão, and thanks to The Fladgate Partnership, there is now another excellent hotel here, itself worthy of the trip: The Vintage House.
The first quality hotel in the town, opening in 1998, it was acquired by Fladgate in 2015 and has since been completely and painstakingly refurbished. The group’s marketing director for tourism, Richard Bowden, who has lived in Portugal for many years, explains that, “The Vintage House is not The Yeatman 2.” With a more “rural luxury,” it has its own authentic personality. But it is also extremely stylish and also enjoys an ideal location on the banks of the river, all of its 50 guest rooms and suites with lovely views. There is a comfortable bar and restaurant and a well-stocked wine shop, all open to nonresidents, as well as a beautiful breakfast room with arches and a terrace and an outdoor bar and pool, while a new indoor pool and spa planned for future development will help extend the season. Here, too, Fladgate has further grand designs.
Within easy walking distance of The Vintage House, and equally accessible by day-trippers arriving by boat or by road, in September 2015 The Fladgate Partnership opened a new visitor center at Croft’s flagship Quinta da Roêda. The property takes its name from the Portuguese word aruêda, meaning “noise,” because it sits on a bend in the river that used to be so narrow that the water rushed through it with a roar. Since the building of dams further upriver in the 1970s, however, the level of the river has been raised, and it has become much more tranquil. Even when the river still roared here, the estate was famous for its beauty, the poet Veja Cabral writing that if the Douro was a golden ring, Roêda was its diamond.
The gently sloping property makes it suitable for visitors and seems to be reflected in the graceful, rounded profile of the single-quinta Port that is made here in good vintages. (The 2002 Quinta da Roêda, the first to be made after Croft was acquired by The Fladgate Partnership, is particularly seductive.)
The visitor center is housed in Roêda’s old stables, which have been carefully restored in the traditional Douro Valley style. These provide an airy, light, and spacious environment in which to see beautiful old black-and-white photographs, taste the wines, and browse the shop for these and other local products, such as the estate’s excellent own extra-virgin olive oil. Available in four languages, there is a guided walking tour through the property, stopping at points of interest along the way and taking in magnificent views across the river. A patch of color-coded individual vines allows visitors to try to identify the different grape varieties. As many as 11 are now cultivated across The Fladgate Partnership, following the replanting—under David Guimaraens, the group’s talented and widely traveled technical director and head winemaker— of several that had fallen out of favor during the shift toward larger block plantings in the 1970s and ’80s.
During the harvest, visitors may even (by arrangement) get into lagares to experience the strange prickly-cum-squidgy sensation of foot-treading, without the exhaustion that comes from doing it for four hours late into the night, after a day spent toiling in the vineyards. Guimaraens explains that there is an old Portuguese saying “For the English to see,” so he and his colleagues thought it would be much better to provide something for the English (and all other visitors) to do. Willing visitors are supplied with shorts and a T-shirt, and there are smart shower rooms with towels for rinsing off purple-stained legs afterward.
Less accessible for larger parties arriving by boat or by bus, but equally worthwhile, is the visitor center at Fonseca’s flagship Quinta do Panascal in the peaceful Távora Valley, where in 1992 Fonseca was the first large producer in the region to introduce organic viticulture. In 1992 Panascal also became the first quinta to be open to the public, and it now offers audio tours of the vineyard and winery in nine languages, as well as the opportunity to buy wines by the bottle or glass, including such distinguished and original wines as Terra Prima Organic Reserve, and the splendid 2011 Unfiltered Late Bottled Vintage, along with the single-quinta wines.
The Hotel Infante Sagres
Back in Porto, a third luxury hotel owned by The Fladgate Partnership should now tempt visitors: the Hotel Infante Sagres. This is named after Infante Dom Henrique of Portugal, Duke of Viseu (1394–1460), better known as Prince Henry the Navigator, the fifth son of King John I of Portugal, who helped usher in the Age of Discoveries. Established in 1951, the Hotel Infante Sagres was the first five-star hotel to open in Porto, and over the years it has hosted the Dalai Lama, royalty including Prince Edward, the kings of Norway, and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, film stars like Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich, and rock stars such as Bob Dylan and U2. Located in the heart of the historic city center, making it the perfect spot from which to explore, it has an unmistakable aura of charm, elegance, and tradition and is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World.
All it lacked for a few years was the continued investment that any world-class hotel always requires, but The Fladgate Partnership, which acquired the Infante Sagres in April 2016, has now supplied this.
The hotel has been restored to its former glory and was reopened in April 2018 completely renovated after a five month, €8.5 million restoration, with 85 rooms including 10 prime suites, as well as an exciting new addition – a Vogue Café, created in partnership with Condé Nast International.
The main objective of the restoration was to bring the hotel back close to its original design, as initially designed by architect Rogério de Azevedo, who created one of the pioneering examples of modernism in the city of Porto. The architect behind the meticulous task was Antonio Teixeira Lopes, a pupil of the original author. Working alongside a number of restoration specialists, Antonio Teixeira Lopes followed the original design of the building, including ornate ceilings intricate stained glass windows, opulent chandeliers and lamps, and historical pieces of furniture.
The stained glass windows that illuminate the grand staircase are one of the masterpieces of the hotel. About 500 panels designed by Ricardo Leone’s workshop were removed, cleaned and painstakingly repaired over eight months. The luxurious chandeliers in the hotel's breakfast room and lobby were dismantled piece by piece, cleaned and restored. Alongside furniture that recounts its history, Infante Sagres boasts pieces that have been recently acquired through art auctions and antique dealers, in keeping with the classic style that the hotel previously had.
Adrian Bridge comments: "Infante Sagres is part of Porto's history. In addition to being the first five-star hotel, Infante Sagres is located in the heart of the city, which has seen a considerable exciting evolution over the last six decades. Perfectly positioned at the epicenter of this bustling and energetic neighborhood, the hotel offers a vibrant experience of refinement.
“The hotel further contributes to the dynamism of the city center with the new Vogue Café, a space that unites the timeless elegance of Vogue with the distinct charm of the Infante Sagres."
The Fladgate Partnership is first and foremost a producer and shipper of Port, and its wines have never been finer in quality or more varied in style. But it knows that what is in the glass is only half the story, and no producer is doing more to tell the rest of it in as engaging and worthwhile a way as possible. Bridge is convinced that “the tourism genie is out of the bottle, and nobody is going to put it back. People travel. So, let’s work with it.” One of the missions he has set himself and his staff is to give guests such a memorably special time that they become ambassadors—not only for The Fladgate Partnership’s hotels, restaurants, and visitor centers, but for the city, the region, the food, and Portuguese wine. The number of those ambassadors should swell like the mighty Douro in full spate and help ensure that the fado that seems particularly poignant there should never become a requiem.