Rediscovering Port

Port undoubtedly has an image problem.  Like sherry and madeira, its success in previous generations has left it pigeon-holed in the officers’ mess or the Oxbridge high table.  The vintage variety needs decades of cellaring – and who today has either decades or a cellar?  High in alcohol, the slightly improbable combination of sweet and red, it’s a wine searching for a place in today’s more relaxed life styles.

David Thomas, MD of Caviste, began to chart a path in this fascinating tasting of the IMG_4256contemporary wines of Portugal for Andover Wine Friends. Kicking off with stories of his own time in the Douro valley before he went on to qualify as an oenologist, he pushed past the barriers that stop us giving these wines their proper value. The barriers are:

  • not many of speak us Portuguese
  • unfamiliar and difficult-to-pronounce Portuguese grape varieties
  • the stereotype that Port only produces either mass market plonk (Mateus Rose) or heavy Ports
  • high alcohol levels. 

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The tasting led with four table wines.  These were the backbone of the Portuguese industry before the ‘invention’ of port and are now coming quickly to some prominence again.  Monte da Peceguina Branco   2007 is a quality white, mildly aromatic with good weight in the mouth (all that sun plus 20% fermented in barrels).  Niepoort ‘Drink Me’, Douro Red 2007 gives a bit of clue – highly drinkable, with a good depth IMG_4244of fruit, made from five local varieties.  Here is the first clue that Niepoort has a fun, modern designer in the team.  British ceremonial would be so much better if busbies concealed bottles of wine!

The next two are seriously grown up wines:  Quinta de Macedos Tinto Reserva 2001 is a bit of a mammoth – big, dense red fruit, powerful mineral notes and then a great whack of tannin, drying the mouth.  As David commented, it’s a great wine for education – and only time will tell if the tannins soften and get silky.

But the star red table wine is Niepoort’s Batuta 2004, Niepoort take on claret but with twice as much fruit.  Caviste have an allocation of only 12 bottles of this wine and a queue of customers despite the £50 price tag.  It is made from local grape varieties, with some Touriga Nacional, but not too much as the aim is great depth of fruit but not overwhelming tannins. Barrique ageing leads to a lovely veneer of oaky notes above great power and structure – a beautiful, big red which will age for years and would perfectly match steak or other powerful meat dishes.

Beauty ... and the beast?

And all this was the warm up act for the ports.  We pick up the key point about this great fortified wine:

  • vines grown on impossibly dry and steep hill sides, beautiful if demanding
  • endless sunshine and real heat
  • the classic red port is made from Touriga Nacional, a low cropper with small, intensely coloured berries with loads of tannin
  • gentle extraction of colour and flavour through the famous ‘treading’ of the grapes (or the modern equivalents of treading)
  • half ferment the wine and then add high quality grape alcohol to ‘stop’ the yeasts dead, leading to dense, fruity, wines with 20˚ of alcohol
  • entry level ‘white’ or ‘ruby’ (3 years old) port
  • basically two types of ageing for more serious bottles: either in barrels for some years (10 or 20) or for decades in bottles if a declared, top quality, vintage

IMG_4257 IMG_4261 White port of any quality is a bit of a rarity.  It is made with the Malvasia grape and so there is an Italian connection here – this is the same grape which goes into the mix for the Tuscan Vin Santo, another oxidative classic.  Churchill’s White Port has the sweetness and orange marmalade quality of port without the powerful red berries flavour. David sang its praises with cheese and we duly obliged with Colston Bassett, quality Stilton.  And such a beautiful colour too.

IMG_4252 These two wines – the white Port (‘lovely warm flavours’, Julie) and the Kalleske (‘very smooth and comforting and trickled down’ Sarah) came third equal in our post-tasting poll. 

The next wine is the shape of the competition, Kalleske JMK Fortified Shiraz 2006, from Australia’s Barossa Valley.  A beautiful, fruit driven wine, the alcohol perhaps not in perfect keeping with the fruit yet, but young, vibrant, good value.  And a much coveted small bottle – like a perfume jar. Those Australians know a thing or two about marketing.  Impressive sediment too.

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Two textbooks red ports follow, showing the difference in style between ‘ruby’ and ‘tawny’ perfectly, the first all dense red fruits, the second classic rancio, figgy, oxidized through maturing in wood barrels.  The colour difference between these identical blends, aged differently, is just about visible in the photo, at the rim:

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And finally two great treats.  First, the unusual Niepoort Colheita 1998, ie a tawny port with ten years of barrel ageing and a very short sojourn in the bottle.  There is a hint of red fruit here but then we are back to marmalade, wood, figs and caramel, outstanding at less than £30 a bottle.

The Colheita came second in the post-tasting poll: ‘amazing colour, smoothness, warming’ according to Tahira.  I agree – I voted for this! 

By contrast to this attractively browning wine, Graham’s vintage 1977, despite being 20 years older, is in prime youth.  Sourced by a wine group member (thank you Joanne!), it still leads with red fruit which are now followed by the elegant signs of age – but so balanced, poised, subtle.  And apparently it was only just begin to show … but some of us don’t have another half a life time to wait.

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The Grahams 1977 came … roll of drums … top in the post-tasting poll, but only by a short head!  ‘Although still youthful, the tannins have softened to a great level of approachability, and there was a concentrated core of fruit’ said Martin; ‘the most satisfying of the Ports with quite a few levels of flavour’ according to Paul. 

More about Port – well actually lots more – on the excellent:

 

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3 Comments

Filed under Tastings, Wines

3 responses to “Rediscovering Port

  1. Amazing to think of a 1977 as young!
    I also recently “rediscovered” port, as documented on the Iron Chevsky wine blog here: http://www.chevsky.com/2009/12/port.html
    A great port, with alcohol in check, can be quite profound.

    Best regards,
    Iron Chevsky

  2. Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so, Excellent post!

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