Portugal : Diane's Adventure In Port November 29, 2018 11:44

For the most part running a deli’s not nearly as glamorous as people imagine – I spend much of my working life sitting in front of a computer in a windowless office or humphing boxes up and down stairs.  So, when I received a call asking if I wanted to join a wine tasting trip to Portugal, I didn’t need to think about it for too long! 

And what a great trip it was – lots of fun but also very educational.  I learned a heap of stuff about Portuguese wines, both the fortified variety that we’re familiar with in the UK and the unfortified, which with all their unpronounceable grape varieties, are generally a bit of a mystery to us Brits.  This month, I’m going to concentrate on the ports and next month I’ll cover the unfortified wines.

I’m going to start at the end because that’s really the beginning as far as the port-making process is concerned!  We finished our trip in the Douro, which was an absolute highlight.  I can’t recommend a trip to this region highly enough.  The steep hills along the Douro River have been terraced by hand for centuries and indeed there is evidence of wine production here going back 2000 years. It’s so impressive that the entire region has been made a UNESCO world heritage site.

We were hosted here by Sandeman, a global brand with which we are all familiar, but I didn’t know that the company’s founder, George Sandeman, came from Perth (thus the Sandeman Library, now the Sandeman pub).  I’m surprised Perth doesn’t make more of that. Today, they pride themselves in making excellent wines, which hasn’t always been the case.  Sandeman was bought by Sogrape in 2002 and major investment in both the vineyards and the winemaking has seen them rise to the top of the Port tree.

The winery is based at the breathtakingly beautiful Quinta do Seixo.  It’s perched on top of a hill that is garlanded by terrace after terrace of vineyard, planted primarily with Tinta Roriz (internationally known as Tempranillo) and Touriga Nacional.  Port is always a blend of several indigenous grape varieties, the exact varieties depending on the style of port the winemaker wants to end up with.  The winery itself is extremely modern, pristine and impressive and so I was more than a little surprised to hear that the grapes are still partially stomped by foot in shallow open vats called lagars.  Apparently, this isn’t uncommon in port production. Who knew?!

Port is made in the same way as other wines, up to the point where the desired sugar level is reached, and then grape spirit is added to the fermenting juice.  This causes the yeasts to die and fermentation stops when the wine is still relatively sweet.  The spirit also increases the alcohol content and stabilises the wine, facilitating long term ageing.   The wines remain in the Douro until the spring following harvest, when they are taken to Sandeman’s centuries-old lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia for ageing.

In very simplistic terms, there are two primary styles of Port – Ruby and Tawny.  Ruby Reserve, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), Vintage, Crusted and Single Quinta/Estate are all types of Ruby Port and tend towards fruit and chocolate flavours.  These are initially kept in large wooden barrels (balseiro) for a relatively short time (between 2 and 6 years) and are then bottled, either for immediate release and consumption in the case of Ruby and Reserve or for ageing for possibly many decades in the case of Vintage Ports.  A vintage will only be declared in the very best years which occurs on average about 3 times a decade and a Vintage Port will contain only wines from the year stated on the bottle.

Like Vintage Port, LBV is made from grapes from a single vintage but whereas the Vintage Ports will spend only 18 months to 2 years in wooden barrels, LBV will remain for 4-6 years before being bottled.  Unlike Vintage, LBV ports are ready to drink at the point of bottling and most don’t improve beyond that point, although some of the best will.

Tawny Ports might also be aged for many decades, but this process takes place in smaller oak casks (known as pipes) which allow greater oxidization.  It’s this oxidization that gives tawny port its distinctive tawny colour and flavours that lean towards dried fruits, nuts and caramel.  Where Vintage Ports are aged in the bottle and each vintage is individual, tawny ports are all about consistency.  A port house, such as Sandeman, will hold barrels of wine of many different ages going back decades and each year they must produce a blend that tastes the same as the one they produced the year before.  This takes huge skill, craftsmanship and dedication, and as the world’s most awarded port wine brand, they’re obviously very good at it.

We were fortunate to be staying in Porto, directly across the River Douro from Sandeman’s cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, and on our first evening we were treated to a tour followed by a tasting of Aged Tawny Ports at 10, 20, 30 and 40 years old.  These wines are blends from different vintages that average around the declared age of the port.

These tawny ports were something of a revelation to me. The Sandeman style is very vibrant and fresh, not overly exuberant on the nose but with an explosion of flavours in the mouth, which became increasingly nutty and more toffee-tasting as we progressed through the ages.  These are elegant, versatile wines and although perfect with cheese or dessert, served chilled they also make a perfect aperitif or accompaniment to a rich appetiser.  Forget the old stereotype of port and cigars in the dining room; we were sipping 20 Year old Tawny chilled as an aperitif in baking heat under the olives groves and it was perfect!  Throw in some Salted Marcona Almonds and you're in heaven!

The other great thing about tawny ports is that because they have been partially oxidised during ageing, they keep a bit longer than other ports once the bottle is opened – maybe a month or so in the fridge.

We currently hold the following ports in stock, but others are available on request: