Whenever England went to war with France, English wine drinkers looked to Portugal to fill their empty cellars. Barrels of port rolled on to ships at the mouth of the Douro river; Bordeaux’s loss was Porto’s gain.
The drink that the English fell so deeply in love with demands fortification and long ageing; the resulting levels of alcohol were, in the hard-drinking early 19th century, considered a bonus. One way or another, timing has generally been on port’s side, at least until last year, when World of Wine (WOW), the gargantuan £85 million project spearheaded by Adrian Bridge of the Fladgate Partnership, opened at the height of the pandemic.
More ambitious than Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin, it covers 55,000 sq m of former port cellar space in Vila Nova de Gaia, just below The Yeatman hotel (another Fladgate project; the company also owns Taylor, Croft and Fonseca ports, among other businesses) and looking across the Douro at the tiered houses of Porto proper.
Three of the complex’s nine restaurants share a terrace with that incredible view just beyond – the historic centre of Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s easy to see why. Sitting in the sunshine, eating fresh fish between visiting the cork (Planet Cork) and wine experiences, I reflected that the pandemic was unlikely to harm such an impressive venture in the long run – in fact, at some point it would probably become a point of interest in the Porto Region Across the Ages exhibition downstairs.
I was able to get there this June, but a lot of people weren’t, and it was eerily quiet. It doesn’t deserve to be: the Cork and Wine exhibitions are particularly inventive and interactive, and there’s a whole museum dedicated to rosé wine that opened after I left. The idea, WOW’s Maria Delamain told me, is to have ‘all of Portuguese wine in one place’ which, given that the country has 250 indigenous grape varieties and wine styles as different as Vinho Verde, port and Madeira, is quite an idea. They also want to celebrate Portuguese industries that aren’t wine, so there is a fashion and textile museum and another that takes you through the history of chocolate.
Planet Cork is great: I learned that the trees live 200 years, act as warehouses storing carbon dioxide, and that there are 800 million cells in one cork stopper. We got to weigh ourselves in virtual corks which, a year into a pandemic-induced sedentary lifestyle, caused a brief sense-of-humour failure.
The exhibition is sponsored by Amorim, Portugal’s biggest cork producer, so there was no mention of taint anywhere, which was a shame, especially in a giant complex dedicated to demystifying the past: ignoring faults has not, historically, served Portuguese cork well.
The Wine Experience is the real tour de force. It’s not easy to make the detail of viticulture interesting for casual drinkers, but WOW manages to be informative without being condescending, using Portuguese regions to discuss soil types, animating the process of vinification and displaying a detailed flavour wheel that includes a few unusual options (green and black olives) as well as some real conversation starters: ‘medicinal’ grouped with ‘bacon’, for instance. I even liked the series of cartoons illustrating your grape type – I was Shiraz – ‘versatile, a crowd-pleaser’. I can live with that.
Particularly interesting was a side-by-side comparison of white and rosé, highlighting similarities and differences in production and flavour. Obviously, a place that’s opening its own rosé museum takes pink wine seriously but that’s still rare enough to be noteworthy – and long overdue.
Interactivity is the priority: you can attend a Demystifying Wine Workshop at the Wine School or learn how to make chocolate from a master. There are exhibition and event spaces and there’s a fine-dining restaurant, a wine bar with an impressive by-the-glass list, various cafes and T&C, a restaurant offering local specialities in the former Croft’s office, a beautiful old building with stone walls and wooden beams. They have their own chocolate brand, made on site – hell, they have their own stamps.
WOW really is a world, but one that looks outwards: it is an important tourist development for Portugal, or at least it will be, as soon as the tourists can get in.