Traveling to Porto for Port Wine

Our home bar has gone from a couple airplane-approved size bottles of random liquors to a full slate of port wines. It was the main goal for our trip to Porto, Portugal a couple weeks ago, and needless to say, our mission was fulfilled. In September, Jeff brought home our first bottle after a colleague recommended we give it a try. It was Taylor to be exact.

We both were turned off from sherry (another fortified wine) when I blindly purchased a bottle on offer at our local supermarket, so I was a little wary when I took my first sip of the ruby red liquid.

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Instantly, we both fell for the delicious and sweet wine, and we broke out the calendars to try and squeeze the main hub for port distillation into our travel diary. While we loved the sights and romantic air of the city, we were focused on learning and tasting as many port wines as we could.

This is what I learned in our adventure:

What is port wine? It’s a fortified, often sweet wine made from grapes grown in the Duoro Valley in Northern Portugal. It has three different main styles: white, ruby, and tawny, with several variances in between. There is a more recent addition; a pink or rose port, that is starting to take off in the mixed drink category.

There are several variations of the styles such as Late Bottle Vintage (LBV), Reserve, Vintage, Crusted, and many others.

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Much like the Chianti or whisky regions we have traveled to in the past, under European Union Protected Designation of Origin regulations, any dessert or fortified wine grown outside of Portugal will not get the distinction of “port.” The grapes must be grown under the strict rules in order to carry the prestigious label.

How is it made? Grapes from the Duoro Valley are processed in the same manner of making wine. Then, a neutral grape spirit is added. After inquiring what this meant at the Calem Distillery, Nelson, our tour guide, confirmed that the spirit is like grappa or the pure alcohol made from the left-over grape bits after the wine is extracted. The spirit is formally called aguardente. It can be drunk on its own most commonly paired with coffee, but its primary use is for port production.

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When the spirit is added, it stops the wine’s fermentation process. There is still quite a bit of sugar left in the wine at this point, but it also boosts the alcohol content. In most wines, the alcohol content varies between 10 and 15%, but port wine can vary between 16 and 22%. The wine is then stored and aged in either oak casks for the tawny flavor or in massive vats that can hold millions of litres for the ruby port. The massive vats are reserved for the ruby category because the wine has less contact with the wood retaining the sweet and un-tainted taste of the oak. Smaller barrels allow the wine to come in contact with the wood turning the wine into an amber color and flavor.

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Interestingly, when we were in Edinburgh, we were told that Glen Moray whisky uses old port barrels to age their whisky giving a slight port flavor and color to the whisky. Sadly, we did not enjoy the Glen Moray like we had hoped during our tasting, but it is an interesting journey these barrels take around the world.

Depending on the type of port being made, the wine will sit in the barrels for years and then bottled in the Vila Nova de Gaia region of Porto. Then it is ready to be enjoyed.

Who discovered port wine? The Duoro Valley was officially declared protected as a wine-making region in 1756. This makes it the third oldest wine protected region after Hungary and Chianti. But port wine had been in production for many years before it was officially protected by the Duoro Wine Company.

The first vines were planted around 2000 BC in southern Portugal by the Tartessians, but it was closer to the 10th century BC when the Phoenicians brought more varieties to the region. Fast-forward a few centuries to the ever-expanding Romans and Greeks, and the wine production of Portugal moved North to the Duoro Valley where production has stayed.

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The English played a large part in the history of port wine by importing it to the island as early as 1386. But in 1703, the Methuren Treaty was signed between Portugal and England in response to the English and French war depriving English winos the French grape. Portuguese wines were given preferential treatment with lower import and duty costs. Many of the distilleries have British names because of this continued alliance: Cockburns, Taylor, Dow, etc.

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The act of fortifying the wine was started to stabilize and enhance the flavor of the wine for long sea journeys. The makers wanted to make sure their wine would not spoil in the months it would take to cross the Atlantic Ocean or a quick jaunt over to England. But once it was discovered to be drinkable by the English in 1678, the “rise of port wine” really began.

What does it taste like? It depends on which category you try. In my limited experience, I can only tell you my opinion. But I cannot recommend enough trying several for yourself to see what best suits your palette.

The ruby port is my favorite. Whether that makes me less sophisticated, I don’t care. It’s sweet with the same wine flavor best associated with the dark red color. It also tastes thick and syrupy, which is why you typically serve only 100ml per glass.

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When we did our tasting with Porto Cruz distillery, they taught us the three ways to taste the wine in your mouth: you swish, chew, and slurp before swallowing. This allows the wine to coat your mouth and spreads the flavor around opening all of your senses to the little nuances. You may look silly slurping and chewing, but it really does change the way you taste the wine.

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The tawny port is not my favorite. The oak really bleeds through the wine turning it wooden and fibrous in my mouth. It tastes very much like sherry, which I cannot stand. But Jeff really enjoys the tawny. I’m just not man enough to take my port “rough.” But I will say, the older the tawny, the smoother the taste. We tried a 20 year old from Sandeman, and I quite enjoyed the smooth texture and the subtle taste. The oak definitely came at the end, but it didn’t punch me in the face quite as hard as a young tawny.

The white port is largely flavorless except for the Lagrima version. There is a lot more sugar kept in this wine (with a shorter fermentation process) creating “tear drops” of syrup on the glass or “legs.” When you tilt the glass and return it to the proper position, you can see if there is residue or wine sticking to the sides of the cup. The thicker the wine, the sweeter it will generally be.

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Rose port is a relatively new product released to the public. I had to give it a try because the hot pink bottle caught my eye everywhere we went. Served mainly as a spritzer, the rose tastes like a white port brushed up against a ruby for the briefest of moments. It is sweet but without a lot of flavor, so it is mainly sold as a novelty rather than a proper drinking port.

What do you serve it with? This is where freedom rings. You can serve port before or after the meal, but because it is so sweet, you don’t want to serve it with the meal. White and rose port is more typical (if served) before the meal because of the lighter nature. But the ruby and tawny ports are served after dinner with either chocolates or cheeses.

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During our Porto Cruz tasting, our hosts said you could either contrast the flavors or complement them. So, basically, it’s whatever you want to do. A nice ruby port pairs beautifully with dark chocolate or a good sheep’s cheese while tawny port pairs well with strong cheeses like Stilton or a creamy dessert like custard or creme brulee. They both did say you could serve red berries with a ruby port, but because the port is sweet, the tangy-ness of the berries can clash a bit on the tongue. Pair the fruit with a meringue or cream, and you have the perfect partner to a ruby.

Where can you find it? Port is getting easier and easier to find. France is the biggest importer of port wine at the moment with England. We have been able to find the big brands in our local supermarkets, but the smaller distilleries export directly to small wine shops and merchants.

In England, my favorite place is The Good Wine Shop in Chiswick. The staff are really helpful and give you information on pairings as well as recommendations based on what your meal is. But they also have a large selection in comparison to the grocery store.

In Porto, Garrafeira do Carmo is the best place to go. It’s a tiny shop in the city center, but the staff gave us a ton of information. And they have amazing offers on shipping wine to you no matter where you are.

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We have also had some amazing luck finding port wine in duty free shops in the airport. Good prices and pretty decent selections. You won’t find the small, independent brands, but we are stocked with quite a variety thanks to the international airports we frequent. I know port can be found in the U.S., so I would recommend checking out any of the big shops like Specs. We have seen they have a nice selection online, so I can only assume they have the same on the shelves.

* * * * *

This is just the beginning to port appreciation, and I realize I am no expert. But both Jeff and I are on our way to learning everything we can about this precious and delicious drink. I wholly recommend you picking up a bottle and giving it a taste.

What are your favorite port wines? What should we try next?

For more information, check out The Pleasure of Port: The Inside Story of a Unique Fortified Wine by Joao Paulo Martins.

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