Could there be a worse time to open a £100m wine attraction?

Porto’s hugely ambitious World of Wine will open this summer despite the global pandemic, says the force behind it

Words by Henry Jeffreys

It would, at any time, be seen as an ambitious undertaking: a wine attraction spanning 300,000 square feet, with more than 350 employees, six museums, five restaurants and an initial budget of €100 million. But this is not, of course, ‘any time’.

The World of Wine was, from the outset, slated to open in Porto (main image) in summer 2020. Work began in June 2017 and duly came in on time and only €6 million over budget – even after the lifting of historic warehouses onto stilts 17 metres up in the air to install the infrastructure (kitchens, air-conditioning, parking) underneath. And its creator is not about to allow the small matter of a global pandemic halt its progress. But when the much-heralded venue throws open its doors at Vila Nova de Gaia, as planned, on 31 July, will anyone be there?

Adrian Bridge, CEO of the Fladgate Partnership, the Port company behind the venture, acknowledges that the timing is, as he says, “clearly the Achilles heel of the business model”. Nonetheless he remains determined to open on schedule, and is optimistic that the crowds will, eventually, appear.

The space, made up of former warehouses including the old Croft port lodge, comprises six key elements: Wine Experience, Planet Cork, Porto Across the Ages, The Chocolate Story, Porto Fashion & Fabric Museum, and The Bridge Collection, housing Bridge’s historic collection of drinking vessels. Among the restaurants, this being Porto, is one devoted solely to cod; The Chocolate Story will allow visitors to watch the transformation of cocoa beans into chocolate in real time; while the Fashion Museum is housed in an 18th century structure that includes a chapel by celebrated architect Nicolau Nasoni, complete with restored frescos.

Last minute changes, such as automatic doors and larger typefaces to allow for less crowding around exhibits, have been made in line with social distancing. Bridge didn’t want to leave the projected events space empty, so it will debut as a bistro. As to whether such optimism is misplaced, he says that the city and the Douro region in general is coming back to life, with restaurants and hotels open from the 18 May – “although that doesn’t mean there’s a lot of demand,” he added.

Visitors can watch cocoa beans transform into chocolate in real time at The Chocolate Story
Last minute changes have been made to the exhibition to allow for less crowding

There are encouraging signs, however: Fladgate’s Vintage House hotel in the Douro Valley is fully booked for the forthcoming June public holiday while back in Porto, the group’s two-Michelin-starred Yeatman restaurant at the hotel of the same name opened two weeks ago. It has, says Bridge, been performing at expected seasonal levels. He is equally keen to stress that Portugal has managed to keep the pandemic at arm’s length, with a death rate far below that of Britain or Spain.

Bridge compares the timing of the opening with that of The Yeatman in 2010. “I had this 10 years ago when we opened a five-star hotel during the financial crisis and people said I was insane,” he recalled. “This is not about a single year, like an expo, this is for the long term. We always anticipated building the business.” By 2023 he’s planning for 640,000 visitors per year.

Right now, Bridge thinks that most of these will be locals or near locals (the Spanish border is due to re-open on 22 June); he mentions that low-cost airline Ryanair, which serves Porto, is keen to get services up and running. “Pioneering people who can accept the inherent risk of being on an aeroplane will come back,” he said. Long-term, Bridge has his eye on two long-haul markets: Brazil and China. “The Brazilians see Porto as a gateway to Europe,” he said, while recognising that his aim to get World of Wine on Chinese travellers’ bucket lists “might seem insanely ambitious”.

Bridges is optimistic that the crowds will, eventually, appear at The World of Wine

For a place with such a long history Porto is peculiarly lacking in large museums. The idea with WOW is to turn the city into a winter destination, providing something to do in inclement weather – which strikes often. Previously, according to Bridge, visitors mainly came for business travel. The whole bank of the Douro river at Vila Nova de Gaia, which was once a working dock, is now crammed with bars and restaurants, many of which are owned by Port companies. Sandeman debuted The House of Sandeman Hostel & Suites in 2017 and the following year Fladgate opened the refurbished Infanta Sagres Hotel on the other side of the river. Before COVID, tourism was booming.

Bridge hopes that WOW will not only attract people back to the city, and help position Porto as “a capital of wine”, but make them stay longer and explore all that the Douro has to offer. “People say it’s going to be the Disneyland of wine. Well no, it isn’t actually – it’s going to preserve the historic centre [of Vila Nova de Gaia] and bring it back to life.” He remains confident that when people see WOW, they will understand his vision. Let’s hope there are enough of them.