Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Many ports in a (rain)storm

written 11th January

Given the weather, more power shower than rain shower for the first couple of days at least, Will was apparently waiting for an opportunity to shoehorn in this particular bad pun all weekend but unfortunately, circumstances did not conspire in such a way as to allow him to do so - 'any port in the drizzle' isn't quite the same :)  so I promised him I would use it as a blog title and give him the credit...

It has also been commented already that there were apparently seven (I didn't count them) references to Port in a post supposedly not about port but as we are in Porto in Portugal, it really is unavoidable... :)  and as we took full advantage of every port drinking opportunity, I now consider myself something of an expert on the matter :)

There are many, many port wine lodges in Vila Nova da Gaia, most of whom offer tours of their cellars and tastings for various fees ranging from free to €3-4.  Unfortunately we only had time for two, Taylors which was free and Sandeman's which we got heavily discounted from €4 to €1 on a combined ticket from the Palacio da Bolsa.  And honestly, the Taylors' tour was far far better.

Here are some things I didn't know about Port:

The wine itself is made from grapes grown in the Douro valley several 100kms from Porto

Douro valley table wine found itself in Britain during the 17th century when King Charles II banned the import of french wines and his portuguese wife made Portugal the obvious choice for alternative supply.

Douro Valley wine doesn't travel well, so the British sailors added brandy to it before the voyage, which is the origins of the drink we now know as Port, although the brandy is now added much earlier in the process.

The Douro valley is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, and the only one where the wine is aged in a different place from that where the grapes are grown.

It was demarcated in the 18th century to protect the quality (and therefore the price!) of the wine and also to ensure that only the best wine was exported - thus protecting the reputation of Portuguese wine worldwide (some should tell that theory to the makers of blue nun... ;) )  Ironically, given the popularity of Port, one of the things the demarcation legislated against, was the addition of spirits and fruit juices to inferior table wine to imitate the taste, texture and colour or better wine. 

Only Port made with grapes from the Douro valley and aged in Porto can be called Port (or have any reference to the word port on its label) and it was protected following a lengthy court case in Britain, pretty much as soon as there were laws under which such a case could be brought.

Although Port is called Port after Porto, it is actually all aged and shipped from Vila Nove da Gaia on the south bank of the Douro, a separate city although part of the same municipality, where export taxes were, and stll are, lower.

There are three main types of Port; Tawny (which comes further subdivided into Tawny, Fine Tawny, 10 or 20 year old varieties), Ruby and Vintage.

Port wine making is far, far more complicated than normal wine making although the initial process is similar - grow grapes, pick grapes, crush grapes, ferment grapes - but with port, the fermentation process - the conversion of the natural sugars into alcohol - is halted artificially early by the addition of neutral spirits so the wine is sweeter and also more alcoholic than table wine.

Once the fermentation process is complete, the port is left to settle for 6 months in the vineyard before being transported to the wine lodge to age.  This used to be done by boat (special boats called rabelos which are now only used for tourist river trips), until the river was dammed in the early 60's and is now done in metal tankers which is better for the wine quality anyway.  To ensure that the quality of the demarcation is protected, a member of the Port Authority must seal the tanker at the vineyard, travel with it and unseal it again at the lodge.

The master winemaker will decide what sort of port each harvest will be used for.  Initially, all the port is aged in large oak barrels in the lodge (20,000l+) but a harvest which is considered good enough to be a vintage is bottled fairly quickly and then left to age in the bottle for a minimum of 17 years.  It must display the year of the harvest on the bottle and is unfiltered so must be decanted on opening.  Once opened, it is best consumed within 24 hours (we were told this in Sandemans, shortly before a video about Port which was prefaced by a lengthy "consume alcohol responsibly and in moderation" public health warning!) as it will not keep in the decanter.  Port lodges will aim for vintages every year but in reality will only achieve one every 3-4 harvests.

Late Bottle Vintages (LBV) are apparently the bread and butter for companies like Taylors (who are one of the only companies who only make Port, all the others also make Douro table wine - same grapes, different process).  These are not as exceptional as proper Vintage but are still made with grapes from the same harvest, and must display the year of harvest and year of bottling on the lable.   They are aged for up to six years in the barrels before bottling, do not age further in the bottle, and can be open for 8 weeks or so before losing any quality.

Tawny Port ages longer in the barrel and the resulting oxidisation give it the golden colour.  Although it is called "10 year old" or "20 year old" port, this doesn't actually refer to the age of the actual wine within it as tawny port is made from a blend of different harvests from many years.  Taylors' oldest wine in the barrel is from 1934 and this is added into the blends for 20 year old port. 

There are strict characteristics laid down by the Port Authority as to what constitutes a 10 or 20 year old port (colour, tastes, alcohol level, sugar level etc etc) so it is the master wine makers job to blend lots of different harvests together the achieve this.  It is initially aged in large barrels then blended and decanted into smaller barrels to age, which are all kept in a 'lot', a group of barrels labelled a a particular type.

Periodically, it is tested, drained out of the little barrels into a big bucket to oxidise further and then returned to the big barrels so it is all fully mixed together.  This process can happen several times until it reaches all the right criteria and the wine is filtered at each stage so once it is ready, it is bottled and sent out ready to drink so it does not need to be decanted and will not get any better by keeping it.  Thus a 20 year old tawny from a company like Taylors should always taste the same, no matter what year it was bottled.

Ruby port is the youngest and reddest and is only aged for a couple of years before it is bottled and ready to drink.  It ages in the big barrels so does not get much contact with the wood or the air which gives it its fresh redness.

To ensure an uninterrupted supply of consistent quality port, each wine lodge is only allowed to bottle a third of its stock in any one year to  ensure it is never affected by a bad harvest.  In 1999 for example, Taylor's entire harvest had to be destroyed but the company still bottled and shipped out fresh supplies of port that year.

Port wine is traditionally red, but white port was created in the 1930's to fill the gap in the British apperitif market left during the spanish civil war when sherry wasn't easily available.  A couple of years ago, in an attempt to make a Port an all year round drink rather than a christmas/winter log fire drink, a couple of enterprising companies created rose port, to be enjoyed on the rocks, in the sun.  It proved popular so they forced the Port Authorities to accept it as an official Port variety and now most companies make it.

There, now you know as much about Port as I do!

As I say, we only had time for two tours; Sandemans and Taylors.  Sandemans, which is down on the quayside and one of the first ones you come to, was a large tour group, a bit like a tourist conveyor belt

and although the tasting was free (the tour was one of the more expensive however) the port wasn't the nicest we had all weekend.

Although, saying that, the free exhibition about the history of the Sandeman's disinctive emblem - the man in the black spanish hat (representing Sandeman's sherry business) and the black cloak (the Coimbra undergraduate's cloak representing the Port) holding a glass of port - one of the very first brand logos (from back when brand actually meant hot iron burn mark on a barrel), their battle to make advertising something one did (rather than seeming cheap and desperate) and their involvement in the court case to protect the word "Port" against cheap imitators was very interesting.

Taylors tour however is free, but very out of the way so we were the only people in our tour with a really knowledgeable guy who knew his stuff and was more than happy to answer our many questions.

The setting was less theatrical than Sandemans (tour guide dressed in the hat and cloak and moodily lit cellar) but it was definitely a working lodge with port wine oxidising in buckets and everything.

I think the tastings were charged by the glass, but as we had had a meal in their restaurant beforehand -

the absolute finest of fine dining that I think we have ever had, anywhere, and with a fabulous terrace view out over Porto, the river and the bridge -

we got one free glass of white port before lunch and a glass of LBV 2003 after our tour, which probably should have been served with the coffee but we wanted to go do the tour.

Unfortunately we had to cut short the tasting at the end as we had already got tickets for Sandemans and the parents had a plane to catch which was a bit of a shame but we weren't to know we had already had the best.

We liked our LBV so much that before heading to the beach the following day, we navigated our way back there in the van - through the one way system and down a couple of streets only inches wider than our wing mirrors! - to spend our roadside repairs port money on a bottle, so we have a much more upmarket tipple than our usual in stock now!

My advice (assuming you want it), go to Porto, try as many different Ports as you can - we also liked Porto Cruz, especially the white one, and another one we got a free tasting of in a bar on the quayside but can't remember the name of - try several port wine lodges but make sure you save your pennies (or take your parents!) for lunch at Taylors and prepare to spend the rest off the afternoon supping port in their gentlemans club tasting lounge - life doesn't get much finer than that!

I like Port - I believe this is already apparent :)


  1. Can say I thought Taylors was best too - next time I shall eat there upon your recco. The bottles of LBV I brought home for the boys were well received too.

    Must also add that I've followed many travel blogs over the years and yours is THE most comprehensivly informative.


  2. it will take all your €50 weekly budget :) definitely highly recommended though! it was very fine fine dining - we are very grateful to my parents for that treat :)

    glad you re enjoying it all!

    In her annual christmas letter, my mother described the blog as "amusing and factually informative" so I'm going to have to start including some dull lies soon *grin* ;)

  3. Hmm, I did, erm, at least six tours of Port lodges while there, and indeed had more port at all ones giving free port out as well. Quite an adventurous few days, both early starts, both rather, um, jolly.

    I recommend tasting port from the year you were born, too. Crikey, I came home with a dozen bottles last time I went. A cracking place.

    I also recommend heading up a bit to Braga, where indeed I had the best meal out ever ever (and cheap, too) overlooking the forest fires that were burning wildly at the time. And eating veal. And drinking lots ov vinho verde, too.

    Tawny ftw, mind.

  4. Dear Jules ~ I love Port too. Great post!
    ~ Jules