In America, we had tried Port in a few different restaurants and even owned a bottle or two, but traveling to Porto was our chance to really try Port. In America, access to Port is very limited by availability and cost, truly special Ports aren’t even available. In Porto, Portugal we had free reign to truly experience the culture and flavor of Port.
We’d had a few pleasure weekends in Napa, which offers a tasting experience on a professional and massive scale. In comparison, Porto has a handful of port lodges offering small tastings of their collection. Whereas in Napa you drive around to different wineries, in Porto the lodges are perched over the River Douro in buildings that are often as old or older than the existence of the Port itself; the lodges offer a look at the production, aging, and bottling process.
Eva loves a good challenge while Jeremy just loves the chance to get drunk on something that tastes really good — we started off restrained by a little good sense. Our Port tasting was broken into two days, this way we would could compare the complexities of different makers and our inebriation never quite gets to total. After all, Port is 20% alcohol, a bit more than beer or wine.
Not a Port sipper? Perhaps you don’t know much about Port? Well, after a few tours, we were like red-faced experts. Port is roughly two hundred years old and comes to us mainly by English influence. In fact, most Port lodges are foreign-owned. The vineyards, or Quintas, are located along the Douro river which stretches from Porto, Portugal into Spain. The soil is extremely rocky and the climate is hot and dry, requiring a hearty vine. Originally, the harvested grapes were pressed by foot over many hours by workers, but many of the producers now try to simulate this with artificial presses called lagares. However, foot pressing still exists as some producers argue some of the subtlety of flavor is lost with the artificial presses. Completely “traditional” methods are something of a snobbery in Porto, many of the producers claim fully traditional methods.
The new wine is brought downriver to Porto by barco rabelo, a special lithe boat made to sustain the turbulent river. All production is carried out in Vila Nova de Gaia across the water from Porto. Brandy is used in the early part of the Port making process to stop the fermentation in the grapes and keep the natural sugars that show in the sweetness of the Port at completion.
The Port is then aged in large oak casks for varying times depending on type of Port or the plans for the particular style.
Most people are likely to be familiar with Tawny ports. These often come aged 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years. The age is actually an average of different production years that have been aged in small oak barrels and then filtered of sediment and blended. 20-year Tawny may be a mix of 30 year and 10 year old Port. The caramel color and rich flavor comes from oak aging.
In contrast, Vintage Port is made from grapes produced in a single year (though not typically a single estate) and is aged for only a few years in the large oak barrels so that there is very little exposure to the wood and oxygen. It is then bottled unfiltered so it can continue to age and in thick, dark bottles which protect it from light and air. These are the old bottles of Port you often see at astronomical prices. A Vintage is declared only 2 to 3 times a decade and needs to age to yield its best flavor. Once a bottle of Vintage Port is opened, oxygen makes contact with the liquid for the first time, and the lifespan of the wine is compromised. Vintage Port must be decanted to remove sediment and consumed within several days of opening.
LBV or Late Bottle Vintage are also wines from a single year. They appear in years of excellent quality and are aged longer in wood than Vintage Port. They are bottled between the fourth and sixth year after they are made, though from time to time we’d seen more aging. LBVs have a red color, and are smooth but fruity. They are typically filtered so additional bottle aging brings no new qualities to the wine. However, at several of the lodges we were shown LBVs which are not filtered — these can benefit from bottle maturation, but will never develop the details which are possible in a Vintage Port. A good clue as to filtering and aging is whether or not the Port is bottled with stopper corks — if it is, the wine bottle is not meant for laying down.
Most intriguing to us were Colheitas — dated Tawnies aged in casks. Batches of wine destined to be blended into reserve Tawnies (for example: 10, 20 year) sometimes turn out better than expected. These selections are then kept separate, and identified by year. The minimum aging requirement is 7 years, but many producers such as Niepoort and Krohn age several more years in the casks before bottling. Beware of the bottling date as some Colheitas go for only as little as 4 years in the barrel. Colheitas are extremely nutty, and the wood from the bottles is evident. After the meal Colheita combines well with crème caramel, and especially with deserts that contain dried fruits or nuts. We liked the flavor of Tawny Port best, and the Colheitas provide a more interesting single year experience. The trouble of the bottling is the lodge’s, and Colheita can be enjoyed upon it’s release. Bottles are filtered and can be consumed over several months.
White Port is relatively new, made from white grapes (or so they claim… we expected these to be red grapes processed without the skins) and is not exactly esteemed in the Port community. We think they are trying to expand their market more then anything else. The Whites are typically aged only a few years and come in two varieties: White, which is sweet, and Dry White, you can guess the taste… yep, its drier. There are a few Whites that are surprisingly good, aged for 8 to 10 years giving them a taste similar to a Tawny. We tried a 8-year at Krohn, which was extremely surprising.
The big importers of Port to the states such as Graham’s, Taylor’s, Ramos Pinto and Sandeman. All have beautiful tasting rooms, very nice tours and fairly boring Ports. They claim they are known for their Vintage Ports, in particular Graham’s, but they don’t serve these as tastings or they are very expensive tastings, something we aren’t inclined to try with the rather limp impression we had from their simple taste flights. Maybe one day we’ll invest in some Vintage Port. As a side note: Graham’s owns the other well-known Port imports such as Dow’s and Warre’s. They claim to be family run but it is one hell of a big “family” — or corporation? — of Port makers.
For simple tastes, we were big fans of Krohn, although we fear their more complex or aged style may be less bodied and layered than we like in our Port. Niepoort has been promising and enjoyable. Our tastes have been limited to half bottles and tastes at bars that specialize in “independent” Port makers. Vasconscelles has an amazing Superior 20 year Tawny that we had to go back to for another sample. A lot of the other makers were not impressed by Vasconscelles, claiming they don’t make their own Port, choosing to only make blends of other wine makers labors, but we were impressed by their people and the intricate flavors of this Port.
What it really comes down to is personal taste over presentation. The big manufacturers have beautiful showrooms but the real finds are based on your personal taste and hard work trekking through the hillside of the Port lodges. On accident we entered Offley’s tasting room and had a Colheita that started rather unimpressively but left a taste on the palette with enough of the nutty body and presence we crave to have us curious to try more. We find ourselves ducking into more wine shops then we ever have. This could be the start of a beautiful relationship.
Share a Slice
Leave a comment. Your email is never published or shared. Required fields are marked *