Readers may have been thinking, “So, F.K. went to the Douro Valley, and so far he has written about red table wines and white wines and eating cod innards, but what about Port, which is of course what the Douro is all about?”
Today we get to that, but first some history.
How Port Got Fortified
Trade between England and Portugal, which had been carried out profitably and peacefully since the 1400s, received a boost in 1689, when war between France and England cut off access to French wine. The hearty red wines of the Douro Valley represented an alternative; these were often shipped with a dollop of brandy added to the barrels to ensure their survival during storage and the sea voyage. In the early 18th Century, merchants discovered a monastery in the Douro where monks added brandy to the wine during fermentation, resulting in a wine that was powerful (“fortified”) and sweet, because the alcohol killed the yeast cells and left residual sugar in the wine. Thus was Port born and a whole area of manufacture and trade, long dominated by the English, established.
Nothing Is That Simple
It would take more space than we have to describe the intricacies of the history of Port and its making, and so let’s encapsulate.
>By the early 18th Century, Port was so popular in England that its manufacture had become corrupted though over-production and adulteration, leading to:
>The demarkation of the Douro and its best growing areas by the Marquis of Pombal in 1756.
>Ports were made upriver and than taken to Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from the city of Porto (Oporto) for storage in the manufacturers’ warehouses or lodges. The barrels were brought to the lodges on flat-bottomed barges. This practice was eventually codified into law, and shipping of Port from individual quintas upstream was forbidden, until Portugal’s entrance into the EU in 1986. Thereafter, quintas were allowed to by-pass Vila Nova de Gaia, and some quintas nowadays have no presence in that traditional site. In addition, in the 1950s and ’60s, the Douro was dammed in several places, making the boats obsolete.
>The styles and nomenclature of Port have changed considerably over the years. The most famous product of the Douro, Vintage Porto, represents at most two percent of port production, the rest being Ruby Port (now usually called “Reserve”), Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV), Tawny Port of various ages, so-called “crusted” Port, white Port and different proprietary branded Ports. Vintage Porto from a “declared” year, however, remains one of the world’s great wines and, compared to Burgundy and Bordeaux and the cult wines of California and Australia, a relative bargain. Remember that Vintage Port, aged in barrels two years, is intended to mature in the bottle, most not being considered ready to drink until 20 or 30 years after harvest. In youth, they are powerful, potent and monumentally tannic. Which leads to:
A Tasting of Ports from 2007.
Thursday, Sept. 3, our team of six regrouped at the Niepoort winery at Quinta do Napoles to taste 15 Ports from 2007. The trick was that we were tasting three examples of each Port, one bottle that had been opened two days previously, decanted and poured back into the bottle; one that had been opened one day previously, decanted and poured back into the bottle; and one that had been opened the morning of the tasting but not decanted. The idea was to give us some hint as to the wine’s potential for development and to counter-balance the immense difficulty involved in tasting very young, tannic Ports. So we didn’t taste 15 Ports; we tasted 45 Ports, AND we tasted them blind AND we did this between about 7:30 and 9 p.m. And that’s why we’re called Professionals!
My notes will try to trace the evolution of the Ports we tasted; remember that as we were doing this, we didn’t know which bottles of a particular house or brand were the ones that had been opened two days ago or the ones opened 12 hours ago, but believe me, when you take in a sip of wine and the tannins would strip the wallpaper from your mouth (if your mouth were, say, a living room), then you know you have the most recently opened example. As the tasting proceeded, and I realized that my notes on the Ports tended to run: 1. Opened two days ago; 2. Opened one day ago; 3. opened this morning, I sensed that there was a pattern, and indeed the pouring of the examples did not vary from that scheme.
These Vintage Ports from 2007, a year described as “classic” and “exceptional,” are just coming into retail markets in the United States. Prices will range from about $75 and $85 to $115 and $125.
These notes are in the order of tasting.
Churchill’s Vintage Port 2007. Massive tannins, searing tannins, followed by a clearing of the air, so to speak, broadly intense and concentrated and smoky; then, aromas of grapes, orange rind, spice cake and plum pudding; clean earth and minerals, deep, intense and concentrated, spicy black fruit, dense and chewy; walloping tannins; great presence and weight. Excellent potential.
Croft Vintage Port 2007. Very tannic but rich and succulent; coffee, mocha, cocoa bean, fruit cake, toasted walnuts and orange rind; cool, clean minerals; dark chocolate, smoke and tobacco leaf; plummy and jammy, mint and minerals; leather, briers and brambles, packed with tannins. Exceptional potential.
Dow’s Vintage Port 2007. Punishing tannins; then … big, jammy, minerally, slatey; bright, clean, black fruit infused with smoke and dark chocolate, dense yet almost buoyant tannins, tough and rooty, branches and briers. Very Good+ to Excellent potential.
Fonesca Vintage Port 2007. Powerful tannic structure, huge presence and substance; then rich, warm and spicy, fruit cake and cookie dough, currants and plums, toasted almonds; intense and concentrated, platonic plums; black pepper, bitter chocolate-covered raspberries; crushed gravel and slate; immense. Excellent to Exceptional potential.
Graham’s Vintage Port 2007. Fathomless tannins; then — fairly closed-in but hints of toast with orange marmalade or plum jam; grapey, alcoholic; clean, pure, intense, concentrated; tannins continue to build in scope and power. Needs 25 to 30 years. Maybe Excellent potential.
Niepoort Vintage Port 2007. Deep, clean, pure and intense, smoky and toasty, tightly focused on sleek and stalwart tannins but opens to bitter chocolate, tobacco leaf, lavender and potpourri, plum jam and black currants; very dense and chewy; a finish of briers and brambles and forest floor, and a burgeoning mineral element. 25 to 40 years. Excellent, possibly Exceptional potential.
Niepoort Pisca Vintage Porto 2007. From a single vineyard. Difficult to assess because of the massive tannins, though in the example that had been opened two days previously, decanted and re-bottled, the tannins felt smoother and more integrated. Clearly a Port that exudes self-containment, confidence and power, purity and intensity and concentration. 25 to 40 years. Excellent potential.