Tasting Port in Porto
Across the river from Porto city centre, on Castello Hill in Vila Nova de Gaia, the world’s greatest port wine lodges are located. I headed towards W. & J. Graham’s (est. 1820) because a leaflet inviting me to a tasting had been pressed into my willing hands as soon as I stepped off the heavily scaffolded Ponte Luís and, well, I might as well start up the hill and work my way down.
Not that this was a bad start: Graham’s 2000 Vintage Port was ranked in the top 100 wines of 2003 by Wine Spectator Magazine – out of a list of 12,000.
First up was one of the (medium) dry, white ports which are popular in Portugal as an aperitif but still relatively underrated internationally. This is perhaps because they can be difficult to match with food. The PR lady recommended salted peanuts but this particular wine would go better with a fruit salad or melon. I took a sniff and a first tentative sip while the lady explained that this wine is barrel-aged for 3-4 years – and, to my mortal embarrassment, promptly choked on it. The civilized Brits chatting around the next barrel studiously ignored this. They wouldn’t speak to me anyway – I looked like someone who sleeps in a tent.
Once I had stopped spluttering and sneezing cracker-crumbs across the table, the wine slithered down my throat like a soft, dry sherry, only much better, leaving the slightest afterglow. On second thoughts, just forget sherry.
Next up was a 1998 late bottled vintage (LBV) barrel-aged for 6 years. It tasted like the typical Christmas tipple of my student days. Almost immediately the lady poured another glass, this time Graham’s 10-year-old tawny “to compare”. Being older, this wine is lighter in colour. Barrel-aged ports change gradually from a deep ruby to almost amber in wines 20 years and older. I hastily crunched a cracker to clear my palate and took a sip: liquid Christmas pudding. I savored it slowly and left the LBV behind. It would be suicidal to stagger down the hill on the narrow winding roads.
I did not really want to do another tour. Port is a little heavy on a sunny afternoon. So I followed the back road parallel to the main avenue, away from the main tourist circuit. There I came across a friendly woman sitting in the doorway of Wiese & Krohn. She smiled and beckoned me inside, even though I was on my own. I shrugged and entered.
The woman, Margaret, removed her slit-like glasses which perpetually threatened to fall off her nose and talked me through the history and methodology of port production.
The Alto Douro became the first area for denomination wines in the world, demarcated in 1756 to prevent adulteration with inferior wines. What makes the area so special is the unique microclimate of the steep slopes, combined with very hot summers and cold winters. The narrow terraces still require manual harvesting of the grapes in many places.
The discovery of port was accidental: wines from the Douro region became popular with the British as a result of a ban on French wine imports. However, the wines would often spoil on the long journey back and so, Margaret explained, people began to add brandy to preserve it. Over the centuries, the manufacture of port evolved into a fine art.
Port derives its sweet taste from natural grape sugar. This is achieved by stopping the fermentation process by adding 77% proof spirit before all the sugar has turned to alcohol. Only in dry ports, always made from white grapes, is the fermentation process allowed to run its course.
There are 16 grape varieties used in the production of port, but only 3 or 4 of these, all of them red, can yield Vintage ports; the most exalted of the wines. Vintage years are few and far between: the best of the twentieth century were in 1963, 1970 and 1994. The 2000 vintage is also extremely promising.
After no more than 2 years in the barrel, vintage port is bottle-aged in black bottles, stored horizontally, for a minimum of 8-10 years, which means that the 1994 vintage is only now ready for drinking. I joked with Margaret that I’ll have to wait for my 50th birthday to sample the 2000 vintage. Who knows – perhaps I will. I began to understand the three-figure-pricetag of even the most recent vintages.
Next up is Tawny port which stays in barrels for a minimum of 3 years; 5 years and older is referred to as ‘aged’ Tawny. The name derives from the tawny owl (really!) because of the wine’s property to change colour with time spent in the barrel. Aged Tawny falls into three further sub-groups: ‘reserve’ (aged for 5-8 years), ‘blend’ which is aged for 10-40 years and is composed of more than one harvest and ‘colbetta’ (‘harvest’) which, unlike the blend, derives from a single non-vintage harvest year written on the label. Unlike a vintage, this port does not improve in the bottle but these wines can mature in barrels for a long time.
Margaret took me to one end of the vaulted cellar where a few barrels rested in a rusty wire cage. “Look at the dates,” she said. There were barrels dating back to 1865.
“Won’t they have turned to vinegar by now?” I blurted out.
She gave me a horrified look. “They are still maturing. Recent analysis has shown them not to be at their peak, yet.”
“When will that be? Next year, fifty years from now?”
“We don’t know.”
“And what will happen then?”
“I don’t know either, but these wines are not for sale!”
That’ll be one big party, then.
Finally there is the LBV which, according to Margaret has “some vintage characteristics” but is not bottle aged. It matures for 4-6 years in barrels then should be drunk soon. LBV labels carry both the year of harvest and bottling.
“Phew,” I said, “This is complex.” Margaret laughed; she had barely begun.
She led me to the upstairs tasting room where more barrel-tables awaited, but this time we were alone in the cool, echoing hall. She polished the glass surface, placed three glasses in front of me and poured three different white ports.
“These are all made from the same grape variety,” she said.
First up was the 8-year-old ‘Branco Seco’. It is oaky, slightly chocolaty and leaves an afterburn. “This is perfect with toasted, salted almonds,” Margaret said. She is right; there is an almondy hint to this wine. Margaret knows her stuff. I liked this wine a lot.
Next up was the 4-year-old ‘Port Senador’. It is sweet, but a little bland to my taste.
Finally, ‘Porto Lágrima’, also often labelled as ‘Porto Lágrima de Christo’, literally ‘Christ’s Tears’ which are reputed to have been sweet rather than salty. Aged for 4 years, this wine tastes like a burst of sweet grape juice.
“How come they are all the same variety?” I asked.
“The sugar content differs because of the length of fermentation.”
Ah yes – stupid me!
Margaret fetched two more glasses and poured an LBV from the year 2000.
“But 2000 was a vintage year!” I blurted out. Margaret rolled her eyes patiently: “Well, yes, but remember that only certain grape varieties can produce vintage wines. Also, vintage port can only be derived from grapes grown on certain slopes with the perfect climatic conditions.”
But of course.
“However,” she continued, “a LBV port will have some vintage qualities.”
The question of what these are died on my lips. I took a sip – it was sensational. It tasted of summer sun and fruit. Margaret said it reminds her of the smell of crushing grapes at harvest time. I asked her how come I had never tasted an LBV like this in the UK. She said that these wines have to be drunk soon after bottling, over the space of a few years they will slowly begin to oxidise, so maybe the wines I had in the UK were off. She was being polite and I didn’t mention Graham’s 1998 LBV, either.
We (or rather I, for Margaret abstained) finished with ‘Porto 10’, a tawny blend. It is very dry with a hint of grape-seed. Here I must say Graham’s surges ahead, by some distance.
We spent a while talking about port and the talk drifted to the weather. Apparently, 2004 was a horrendous year for grape production, with a windy and wet summer throughout. In fact it was raining constantly until mid-October.
“It is changing, you know,” she said: “I remember hot summers and cool winters as a kid.” Don’t we all. The talk shifted to the consequences of global warming. In the light of so much worse to come, it has never occurred to me that, soon, great vintages will be a thing of the past, too.