WHEN IN PORTUGAL . . . . .
. . . . . do as the Portuguese do, and then continue when you are back in Spain, or wherever you are!
Our family holiday in Portugal, was exactly that – a family holiday. It wasn’t an excuse for me to go off to Oporto, home of the famous fortified wine, Port. However, I reasoned, there wouldn’t be anything wrong in trying some of the aforesaid nectar whilst there, as well as some regular Portuguese wines too. I knew I was on a winner here – Claire loves Port and trying different wines, even the children are now used to tasting!
So, when in Portugal (and subsequently) we made sure we did as the Portuguese do. This, please note, does not mean drinking solely Ruby Port. Like Jerez (Sherry), there are several different styles of Port designed to suit different palates, occasions and food. I was in my element!
Port is a fortified wine made by adding brandy to arrest the fermenting grape must (juice) resulting in a wine that is both sweet and high in alcohol. It derives its name from the port of Oporto, Northern Portugal, from whence this wine was shipped for over 300 years (and still is) by English merchants.
Historically Port can trace its origins back to the 17th Century at the time of the trade wars between England and France. This made life difficult for English wine importers to access French wines and then, when King William III imposed punitive taxes on French wines, the merchants had to look elsewhere to satisfy the demand for wine amongst the English nobility. Portugal was the answer.
Their emissaries settled on the northern coast but found at first only thin white wine (now known as Vhino Verde, though it has dramatically improved over the centuries). However on travelling up river on the now famous Duero, they found local producers making wine by a process of fast fermentation at high temperatures that resulted in a very dark and powerful wine, dubbed ‘blackstrap’ in London. In order for it to arrive in England’s capital in a drinkable condition (via a lengthy voyage) the merchants added a small amount of Brandy.
However it was (and as a Wirralian, and Liverpool FC supporter I’m proud to say it!) a Scouser (Liverpudlian) who is credited with discovering Port as we know it, more or less, today. He found, on one of his journeys up the River Duero, a monastery where the monks were adding the Brandy during fermentation, rather than after the wine had been made. The result was the delicious sweet drink which is now world-famous!
Ruby Port is lovely. I enjoy it at the end of a meal either on it’s own as a post-prandial drink or with cheese to finish with a flourish. Claire also enjoys it as an aperitif. It’s one of the least expensive styles of Port therefore making it accessible to everyone. It has to have had a minimum of 2 years ageing in oak but it retains a deep ruby colour (hence its name) and a mulberry flavour and nose. It’s simple and tasty and is often the Port served at the end of Christmas dinner.
However the Portuguese shall not live by Ruby alone! Tawny Port should be a wine that has been aged in oak for much longer than a Ruby – therefore the wine loses its colour, changing to an amber-brown or tawny colour. However commercial pressures have meant a split in the Tawny camp, between traditional and modern, where ‘modern’ means a port that has a similar age to Ruby but whose colour has changed by leaving it up-river at high temperatures to ‘unnaturally’ mature the wine more quickly.
Often such wines are made from must that is less intense in colour in the first place (from slightly inferior grapes or from the final press/crush, the best quality juice having been run off already) and sometimes even some white port is added to take away any traces of bright ruby colour. There is a demand for this style of wine, in fact largely from France, where it is often used as an aperitif.
Aged Tawny, however, is a wine that has been left to age in oak for a minimum of six years thereby changing colour but also taking on a silky character. Such wines may have 30 years ageing written on their labels, which in effect is an approximate indication of their age as in fact Aged Tawny wines are made from blends from number of different years’ produce.
These wines are of top quality and often have a nutty character which the Port shippers themselves often prefer to drink chilled in the summer and will go well walnuts and toasted almonds.
Vintage Port is the most expensive style of Port, despite it being so simple to make! Wines from a single year (vintage) are blended and bottled after two or three years in oak. It remains in bottle, often having been bought by the consumer almost immediately, maturing for 15, 20, 30 years or more. The reason for its expense is that it is only made from the very best grapes from the very best vineyards, chiefly found in the Cima Corgo area, after the very best ripening conditions.
It is a wine that combines magnificently: power, depth of flavour, body, complexity and elegance. It has to stand the rigorous test of the wine maker, who, if he is perfectly happy and indeed confident, then sends it for further analysis to the ruling committee, the IVP, before it can be declared a ‘Vintage Port’. Such wine can be drunk with strong cheeses, the traditional partnership of English Stilton and Vintage Port woks well, but this is also a wine for savouring, in small quantities, on its own.
Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV) is a wne made from a single year (vintage), aged in oak for between 4-6 years and then bottled. There are two types – traditional LBV is is made in good years, bottles without filtration and ready to drink about 4-6 years after bottling. I love this style of port.
The more common LBV wines have been filtered and cold stabilized before bottling to prevent sediment. This filtering can be invasive thereby producing a slightly less fine port than the traditional LBV. It is usually therefore more economical in price.
Vintage Character Port, is not a vintage port. It has been aged in bulk for 5-7 years and filtered before bottling. Usually it is made from premium Ruby ports so it is a quality port, though the word ‘vintage’ is a misnomer.
Single-Quinta Vintage Ports – sound like they should be the best. It is vintage port made from a single vineyard. However although it is super, it is usually made in years when a vintage has not been declared so it is not of the very, very best quality – it’s lovely though!
Crusted Port – is a style popular in the UK with those who like Vintage Port but with a better price! It achieves its name because of the ‘crust’ or sediment it throws as it is bottled with little or no filtration. It is made from produce of a number of different years and can be an excellent alternative to Vintage Port.
More on my Portuguese Sojourn next week!
P.S. Spain’s best wine magazine, Vinos De España, now has an English language section which it’s my job to expand and develop. My first article is in the current August/September edition and my next articles will be in the October/November edition. The magazines are also available from: La casa Del Vino, Javea, La Vinoteca, Calpe and A Catarlo Todo, Teulada – with more wine shops being included soon