In addition to wanting to see Porto, we came to the area to explore (surprise) Ports. We took a day trip tour from Porto to the Douro Valley. It was a long day (8:30 AM-7:00 PM), but well worth it.
Verde Wine Region
After leaving the city, we passed through the Verde wine region. The cool, rainy, granite-soiled Verde wine region is so ill-suited to growing wine grapes (the grapes never fully ripen or achieve their full sugar content) that it has earned its own DOC. Vino Verde wine is light, minerally, low-alcohol, and slightly effervescent. Vino Verde wine may be fine for a light, mid-summer afternoon refresher, but for us, not for much else. Interestingly, while some of the grapes were trellised in the way we are all used to seeing, others were still being trellised in the traditional way. Vines are grown high and fully pruned up to the canopy. They spread horizontally, where all the leaves and grapes are grown.
Douro Valley Views
About an hour and a half later, we began reaching one of the three things for which the Douro Vally is justly famous: its absolutely fabulous views. The steep terraced mountains rise from the river. They are densely planted with grapes and pocked by occasional homes, towns, family wineries, and large port lodges, such as those from Sandaman, Croft, and Ferriera. The mountains were so steeply terraced, that many could accommodate only two or three rows of vines. And to make the views all the more stunning, we were there in late October when the leaves were turning multiple shades of yellow, orange, and red.
The sightseeing component of the tour took us through Peso de Regua and then Pinhao. In Pinhao, we boarded a modern replica of the shallow-bottomed Rabelo boats (that we were allowed to pilot part of the way—including under some of the river’s famous bridges). These boats used to brave the hazardous, pre-dammed river to carry their precious cargo of Port wine barrels to the warehouses of Gaia (present day Porto). Once there they would be aged before being shipped to their ultimate destination in England.
The sights, however, did not end with the views. The interior of the Pintao train station is covered with 1857 tiles that tell the valley’s history. And then there was lunch at Restaurant Sabores, high on a hill with a view over the river valley. Our lunch included salad, salmon and chicken (all very good), and pork (not especially memorable) followed by a delicious Port-soaked sponge cake. The restaurant’s own private-labeled Douro Valley white and red wines accompanied our meal.
Douro Valley Wines
Although the views of the incredible Douro Valley scenery continued throughout our entire trip, we were there for more than the scenery. We wanted to learn about Douro Valley wines (especially, but not exclusively Ports), to visit some of the region’s growers and producers and to taste their wares—both alcoholic and otherwise.
The wine region’s permeable schist-based soil, hot summers and cold winters and very limited rainfall are well-suited to growing grapes–especially those used in Port. The appellation’s insistence on dry farming (growers cannot irrigate their fields) reduces yields to among the lowest in the wine industry (about 1-1.5 kilograms per vine) and produces the deep colors and concentrated fruit that is so emblematic of fine Port wines.
All Douro Valley sub-regions, however, are not equal. This has been clearly demonstrated over the last 20 or so years. Growers have applied science to their art to determine not only which individual plots are best suited to growing port grapes, but also how different treatments of plots and different combinations of grapes from them can yield different qualities in the finished product.
Science has even stepped into the time-honored, and contrary to popular legend, highly regimented and physically demanding process of “treading”, where men stomp on grapes to extract the juice. While we still saw treading bins and pictures of men holding onto each other (to prevent them from falling) and stomping to the persistent beat of a pacing drum, this tradition is falling to technology. A few small wineries still continue this practice, and more still hold co-ed treading parties and celebrations. Yet larger lodges, such as Graham’s have developed a patented, programmable treading device that uses silicon pads to simulate the pressure of human feet. The devices can fully crush the grapes without breaking the seeds (which impart acids and tannins into the juice).
The British played a critical role in creating and growing the Port market. They have been buying Port since the 12th century. In the 18th century, they gave Portuguese wines preferential tariff treatment. By the 19th century, the Douro Valley was becoming the leader in Port production and aging.
Port became so popular in England that winemakers from other parts of Portugal began producing fortified wines with non-Douro grapes. Becoming concerned that this would diminish and threaten the brand, the Portuguese government established the world’s first designated wine region (DOC) around the Douro Valley. It mandated that only indigenous Douro grapes could be used in its production.
But for all the Portuguese concern about Port, it was interesting to learn that the Portuguese don’t drink all that much of it. In fact, roughly 80 percent of Port is now exported. Much of what remains in the country is sold to tourists or consumed by them in bars and restaurants.
Tasting Douro Wines and Port
But now it was time to do some tasting. We stopped at several wineries and tasted some of the region’s white, red, and rose still wines, as well as ruby, tawny, white, and rose ports. We also tasted some of the region’s almost equally famous olive oil, as well as some of its almonds, quince paste, and even cheese. (The Valley, as we learned, grows just about any and every type of produce).
Our first winery stop was at D’Origem. This small family-run grape grower (one-third of his harvest goes to a major Port producer), vintner (red, white, and rose), olive oil producer, and almond farmer. He put together his own olive oil production museum with refurbished (and still operational), traditional equipment. After being destemmed, the olives are cured in brine for about 2 months. They then go through a two-stage granite stone-crushing process. The first press juice is used for oil and the second for lamp oil, candles, and so forth.
The juice and paste that will become olive oil are then mixed with water. The solids sink to the bottom, of the barrel, the water stays in the center and the oil rises to the top (a process now done by centrifuge). The oil is then separated and divided (primarily on the basis of acidity) between extra virgin (less than .07 acidity), virgin (.07-10), and plain olive oil (above (.10). He bottles and sells the extra virgin under the D’Origem label.
His primary product, however, is grapes. About one-third of his production goes into Port, the rest is bottled as still wine under the Velha Geracao label. The producer sells white, rose, and red wines. Our favorite was the 2011 Grande Reserve Red, which is aged for 18 months in a combination of French and American oak, We also sampled his olive oil, almonds, and the delicious honey produced by his neighbor.
We ended our day (except for the hour-and-a-half drive back to Porto) at a small, family-owned port lodge that produces under the Qunita des Lameles label. After exploring the estate, complete with its own pretty chapel, we went into the aging room. There we tasted a ten-year-old tawny from the cask (Tom’s favorite of all the day’s Ports). We then tasted (from bottles) a six-year-old Extra Dry White Reserve (very nice), a light, easy-drinking Rose (not our taste), a Ruby, a Late Bottle Vintage Ruby, and a very young 2011 Vintage.
Our real Port education and tasting, however, came the next day, with a private two-hour tour and an extraordinary 13 Port tasting at Graham’s.
Port 101 Class
We augmented our Port education with a number of informal tastings at Portuguese restaurants and wine bars (during which Tom developed a particular taste for Dow’s Fine White Port as an aperitif. We took our formal Port education in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Porto, where all the city’s port lodges are located—built into hillsides, away from the sun, to provide stable temperature and humidity for an aging process that can take up to forty years.
We began our education with 3.5 hours at Graham’s where we enjoyed a tour and an extraordinary tasting of 13 different Ports, including white, ruby, tawny, vintages and a number of other classifications which were previously unknown to us.
The Graham family has a 350-year history in the Port industry. It was founded in 1820 and purchased by the Symington family.
Our tour was in Vila Nova de Gaia, rather than in the Douro, where the grapes are grown, fermented, and aged for the first two years before being transferred to the lodge. The tour began in Graham’s barrel room, where most of the aging and especially critical blending process takes place.
Producing, aging, and blending Port is very different from that of unfortified still wines. Still wines are typically fermented until the yeast has been exhausted and fermentation stops on its own. By contrast, Port grapes are fermented for only for two or three days. Fermentation is then artificially stopped by adding alcohol in the form of a special flavorless grape brandy with 77 percent alcohol. The result is a much sweeter wine (since little of the grape’s sugar is converted to alcohol) with a higher alcohol content (typically 18-20 percent) versus about 13-14 percent of still wines.
The aging process is also different. While red wines typically spend less than two years in new oak barrels that are typically retired after three years, port barrels are used for seven or eight years to age still wine before they are used to age Port. By then, the wood aromas and tastes that normally come through to the wine are virtually gone. These already neutral barrels may then be used for up to 100 years. This means Port can spend much more time in barrels without picking up the flavor of the oak.
Tawny Ports, in particular, after spending two years in large barriques, are then transferred to typically (roughly 200 liters) French oak barrels. There they spend anywhere from another five to as many as fifty or more years. The wine is transformed during this period. The bright red color, for example, dulls and gradually turns to amber. The bright fruity taste mellows, turning to nuts, dried fruits, and even tobacco and coffee.
Although the Port Wine Institute (the Port wine governing body) sets blending guidelines and mandates (such as the minimum average age of wines in particular wines), winemakers continually face challenges of how much of each particular vintage to incorporate in a wine for the current release, and how much to reserve for future years, or even to declare as a Vintage or Quinta Vintage. Graham’s, for example, waited until 2015 to release an 1882 single-year tawny that sells for a mere 6,500 Euros per bottle. You better act fast, since only 660 numbered bottles were released.
Although all this barrel aging does not produce an oaky flavor, the small amounts of air that permeate the wood oxidizes the wine, turning it from a bright red to a pale amber over the years. Another difference is that while still wines continue to age in the bottle, Tawny Ports do not. Aging stops the moment it goes into the bottle, with the same color and taste (assuming the cork maintains its integrity) until the bottle is opened.
Ruby Port, meanwhile, is a very different animal. Most rubies never even see the smaller barrels in which Tawny is aged. They are generally aged—for a minimum of two years, but typically up to about seven for premium Ruby Ports—in huge, very old oak barriques. Since so little of the wine makes contact with wood or oxygen, oxidation is almost nonexistent. The most prized of Ruby Ports, especially Vintage Ports—are specifically intended to age and to develop their prized nuance and subtlety in the bottle, rather than in the barrique.
Different ports are also blended in totally different ways.
- Fine ports are typically made from multiple types of grapes grown in different vineyards and often by different growers, from different sections of the Valley. They are combined with wine from different years as a way to provide a degree of consistency over the years.
- Tawny’s often come from specific plots that are known to produce very ageable wines and are then blended across as many as 50 or more different years.
- Vintage Ports consist of grapes from a handful of the best vineyards, but only from those picked in a particular year.
- Single Quinta Vintage Ports consist only of a single year’s grapes from one particular vineyard. All blending, however, has common goals of maintaining a degree of consistency over the years and of optimizing the taste of the wine.
But before getting into all these distinctions, just how many different types of Port wines are there, and how do they differ from each other? First, all Ports have a few things in common. All come from grapes that are not only grown in, but are indigenous to the Douro Valley. All are fortified with a particular type of grape brandy and have alcohol contents of 18-21 percent. Such things are mandated by the Port Wine Institute, which also has the power to determine such things as how much brandy each lodge is allowed to purchase each year (which determines how much port each can produce), which years can be declared vintage years and which wines can be labeled as reserves.
Although there are many similarities among Ports, there are even more differences. At the highest level, white Ports are made from white grapes and come with varying levels of residual sugar, from very sweet to extra dry.
Red ports come from red grapes. Although a broad range of grapes can be used, the most common are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (which is a form of Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão and Tinta Amarela. Of the red ports that are produced from these grapes, there are Rubies and Tawny’s. Each of these, however, can be divided into multiple variations. Rubies, for example, can be divided among:
- Fine Ruby Ports are generally lower-end, everyday wines that are used for cooking and basic drinking;
- Reserve Ruby Ports are usually blends of at least five different vintages that spend more time in barriques;
- Late Bottle Vintage Ruby Filtered Ruby Ports are a single-vintage Ruby that is often aged for five to six years before being filtered and bottled;
- Late Bottle Vintage Unfiltered Ruby Ports are single-vintage rubies that may either be unfiltered (in which case they will continue to develop in the bottle) or filtered (in which case they will not);
- Crusted Reserve Ruby Ports are unfiltered blends of at least two vintage years that age in wood for up to four years. They are then bottled, and aged at least another three years in the bottle. While some may taste similar to single-vintage ports, they are less expensive.
- Single Quinta Vintage Ports come from one particularly good year’s harvest of a premier vineyard (or Quinta); and finally,
- Single Vintage Ruby is the king of all Ruby ports. They often combine the lodge’s best grapes from its best vineyards. They are made only from a handful of exceptional years, typically about two or three vintages each decade.
Then, of course, there are Tawny ports, all of which are blends of wines from multiple vintages. They differ on the basis of the average age of the wines that are combined into the blend. While they are typically labeled wither 10, 20, 30 or 40 Year, the actual average age is often a few years older than is shown on the label.
This is all very interesting in theory. But the real question is: How do all these different ports play on the palate?
Graham’s Port Tastings
Our heads were spinning from all of our newly found knowledge, but now it was time to taste. We tasted 13 different ports at Graham’s: at least one example of each of the different types of Ports, and even a couple of old, rare wines.
Our favorites Rubies were:
- Single Vintage Rubies. We tasted from three very different vintages—a relatively young 2007 and a slightly older 2000 (among the best vintages in three decades) plus a much older 1883. While we enjoyed all three, we particularly enjoyed the smooth mellowness of the 1883 and the incredible potential of the 2007.
- Quinta dos Malvedos 2001, a single Quinta Vintage from Graham’s premier vineyard
- Late Bottle Vintage Unfiltered, which was lighter than the vintage Ports with a taste of red fruits, and possibly, a pinch of pepper.
We also tasted and compared five very different Tawnies:
- A 10 year multi-vintage easy-drinking Tawny that still retained some of its bright color and fresh fruit notes
- The 20 Year multi-vintage Tawny had turned an orangish color and had dried fruit notes.
- The 3 Year multi-vintage Tawny had more of an amber color a nutty taste, and more complexity.
- The 40 Year multi-vintage Tawny (a 120 Euro wine) had the color and taste of subtle dark caramel and nuts.
- 1972 Single Harvest Tawny was a very, very smooth, dark-colored wine with very concentrated sugar. Only 30 casks of this Tawny are left, with one barrel (375 bottles) being released each year.
While taste is certainly the most important factor in selecting a wine, you should also know when, and with what it can best be enjoyed.
- White ports are intended to be consumed young
- Extra dry whites (which Tom prefers) work well as an aperitif.
- Rubies are better suited to sweet desserts. Some, such as Reserves are intended to be drunk young while Vintage, Late Bottle Vintage, and Crusted Rubies can be drunken either young (for those who prefer intense fruits) or older (for complexity and subtlety of taste). Vintage and Late Bottle Vintage go particularly well with cheese (with blue being a classic combination) and dark chocolate.
You can drink Tawnies immediately after they are bottled, or several years later, since they do not age in the bottle. Different-age Tawnies, however, tend to work best with different pairings. Young Tawnies (especially a 10 Year) generally go well with nutty desserts (think, for example, an almond tarte) and 20 Year Tawnies go best with aged cheeses (such as a robust cheddar). Older tawnies, meanwhile, especially 40 Year and older Single Harvests, can probably be best appreciated alone or, for those who prefer, with a nice cigar.
But, as we also learned, to truly enjoy your Port, it should be served at the proper temperature. Reds tend to be best stored and served at about 14 degrees Centigrade (about 57 Fahrenheit) while whites, like non-fortified whites, are best served a bit cooler (about 10 degrees Centigrade or 50 Fahrenheit).
Other Vila Nova de Gaia Port Tastings
After our formal, first-class Graham’s education, we were ready to strike out on a few other formal tastings.
Cockburn’s was the best of our stops. We tasted seven different Ports, beginning with four barrel-aged wines. We started with two Ruby’s: a Special Reserve (aged for six years) and Late Bottle Vintage (five years) that unexpectedly, had a rounder, softer texture than the Special Reserve (which had an extra year in oak).
Then onto two Tawnys, where we preferred the smoother, nuttier, more caramelized 20 Year to the younger, more fruit-based 10 Year.
We ended the tasting with three bottle-aged Vintage Rubys. The fruity, full-bodied 2007 vineyard-select Quinta dos Canais provided a nice comparison with the smoother, more pronounced flavors of the lovely 2007 Vintage (the best grapes from one of the two or three vintage years of the decade), which then provided a great comparison to the port wine from the next vintage year, 2011. While this Ruby had only two years in barrel and two years in bottle aging, this very aromatic wine appears to have the potential of becoming a memorable vintage wine.
Churchill’s was highly recommended, and greatly anticipated, but turned out to be disappointing. We tasted four Rubys:
- The Finest Reserve had four years of barique aging. We felt it had an unpleasant barnyard taste)
- 2007 Late Bottle Vintage was aged for 4 years in oak and four in the bottle. We felt it still needed much more time to mellow
- The 2003 single-vineyard Vantaa Quinta de Gricha was more approachable, but still not our taste)
- A 2011 Vintage was much more interesting and showed much greater potential. When we conveyed our personal perceptions of these wines, we were told that the Churchill vineyards are grown on a slope with northern exposure that results in darker, more extracted wines that typically require longer to age than those from other leading vineyards.
We tried three Tawnys in a very, very overpriced tasting (19.50E) at this small boutique producer. The 10 Year was relatively fruity and smooth. The Colheita vineyard 2000 was still pretty harsh. The 20 Year was smoother, but not particularly well integrated.
Since Joyce is not a big Tawny fan, she decided to try one of the vineyard’s still red wines. The 2012 Cedro do Noval Tinta was not particularly memorable. Worse still, the 2.50 Euro glass (sold on the menu as a glass—not a tasting), was served in a port glass and included less wine than any of the three also small port tastings! This turned out to be one of the most memorable of all our tastings, but for exactly the wrong reasons