The Factory House in Portugal’s famed port-producing city of Porto is a stunning piece of architecture that was created to facilitate British businessmen conducting trade in Portuguese goods. While not generally open to the public, Iberian Wine Tours was able to arrange a private tour as well as a tasting of vintage port from their cellars and to learn more about the history of the port wine trade.
The name “Factory House” is likely to throw you off, as to most people that term conjures up images of smokestacks and long, windowless, dreary looking buildings.
This building is anything but. It is sometimes referred to as The British Association House or Freitoria Inglesa, the Portuguese for British Factory House. It derives its name from the term for trade merchants which in the 18th century were referred to as Factors, who wanted a building with an appropriate atmosphere from which to conduct their business.
Back in the 1700s, trade between Britain and Portugal was robust. Shipments of Portuguese goods regularly left the harbour at Porto destined for London carrying various goods but primarily the region’s delicious, fortified wine, port. Between 1785 and 1790, the beautiful Factory House was constructed of granite in the neo Palladian style. It was designed by then English Consul John Whitehead.
It is a very impressive structure with its seven arches on the ground floor that face the street. Once inside those arches you see the majesty of the ground floor with its high ceilings and grand foyer. At the end of the foyer is the staircase taking you up to the remainder of the house which we were graciously toured through by the house’s director.
The Factory House is very reminiscent of an exclusive British gentleman’s club. Which in essence it has become. There are now just 7 members of the Factory House, being the most influential port producers. Those members appoint 12 directors which oversee the affairs of the Factory House which are to promote the awareness of port wine across the globe. Our tour was like a walk back into history. In the reading room we saw newspapers going back hundreds of years. In fact, each Wednesday the Factory House hosts a lunch for its members and guests and on display in the reading room that day will be the local newspaper from 100 years ago.
There is also a library with over 20,000 books in it, most written many decades ago. We noticed a few interesting titles as we perused the many book-lined shelves in the library, including the rather prescient “Europe: Going, Going, Gone” and the somewhat cynically titled “How to be Happy, Though Married”. One fellow on our tour quipped “I see they carry fiction, too”.
There is a grand ballroom done in Wedgewood blue with white trim and glass chandeliers that is quite stunning, and we are sure has seen many a spectacular gala.
On the fourth floor is the dining room with its long table that can comfortably seat 40. Adjacent to the dining room is, believe it or not, another identical dining room! Why the twin dining rooms? So that after the meal the members can enjoy their port with their guests without that pure pleasure being adulterated by the remaining smells of the meal just consumed. The rooms are identical so as you leave one dining room you take your seat in exactly the same place in the second dining room.
Saving the best for last, we were taken downstairs to see the port cellars. There are over 15,000 bottles of vintage port in these cellars.
All of the wine in the cellars was donated by the various members. “Donated” might not be the most accurate term. As a new joining member, the producer must donate 12 cases of vintage port to the factory house. Vintage port is port that comes from a single harvest (or vintage) as opposed to blend of several different vintages. Not every season is good enough to “declare a vintage” and make a single harvest port. Maybe three or four vintages in a decade would meet that quality test. Once you have become a member, you must donate a further 12 cases each time you declare a new vintage. It was fascinating to walk among the dusty old bottles bearing labels going back 40, 50 years and more!
We finished off our tour in the drawing room where the Factory House treated our group to a glass of Gould Campbell’s Vintage 2000 port. 2000 was a fantastic vintage and it showed in the deep concentration of the wine. Many feel that 2000 and 1994 are two of the finest vintages of the last 30 years. At age 21, this wine was showing all the character and complexity that cause people to lay these bottles down for decades. Decadently rich, it showed the vintage’s ripe characteristics together with the producer’s drier style. It is a thinking man’s port, one that asks you to sit quietly and contemplate its flavours of blueberry and blackberry as they intertwine with hints of baking spice and dried fruits. And we can think of no more perfect setting to undertake that contemplation than in the refined luxury of the drawing room at the Factory House.