Friday, 20 November 2015

Don't pass (by) the Port

If you’ve ever paid the slightest heed to what I write here, you’ll know I’m a big fan of fortified wines – those still largely unfashionable drinks Sherry, Port and Madeira, plus a myriad of variations on that theme from around the world.

Usually I include a recommendation for one or other of them for Christmas. But I’m trying to do them more justice this year by focusing on them alone, before they get overlooked in the festive frenzy. I’ll start with Port this week and move onto Sherry next time.

Terraced vineyards line the steep sides of the Douro Valley

Port – the bluffer’s guide
Port comes from the Douro valley, northern Portugal. Ripe grapes are harvested, then fermentation gets underway, with plenty of tannin and colour rapidly extracted either by means of foot-treading, or robotic machines doing the same job, or in a kind of mechanised tank.
Traditional stone "lagares" where grapes are foot trodden
The modern version with computer-controlled mechanical "feet"

Fermentation is brought to a premature halt by adding grape spirit; yeasts cannot exist in this high alcohol environment and die off. This results in an intensely fruity, deep purple liquid, quite high in alcohol and sugar.

Tasting Port in the Douro Valley

Different fates that now await the proto-Port:

  • -      Wines destined to become vintage Port will spend the next couple of years in large oak barrels, before being bottled while still youthful, deep-coloured, strong and tannic. These Ports can age for decades and over time will become softer, more complex and somewhat lighter in colour. Very generally, this is the only form of Port which will improve with age in the bottle.
  • -          Lighter bodied wines will have a brief period of wood maturation, before being bottled as ruby Port – the most basic (and cheapest) form of Port, and the kind of thing we all tend to buy a bottle of at Christmas. They retain a youthful deep purple colour, rich fruit and a spirity character.
  • -          Still other wines will be given an extended period of wood ageing, sometimes up to 40 years or more, to produce a tawny Port. These are then bottled, most often as a blend with an average age, sometimes as a single vintage, or colheita Port. The wood ageing gives these Ports a lighter hue and a less winey flavour, with nuts, caramel and spice flavours coming to the fore.
  • -          Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) is the product of a single harvest which, as its name suggests, has spent longer in wood (ie bottled later) than vintage Port. An innovation dating from the 1970s, they are not to be confused with true vintage Port, will not improve in bottle and tend towards the character of ruby Port, but with greater depth and complexity.


Ports for Christmas
A bottle of 2011 vintage Port from one of the great houses would make a fine present, but
Vines at Sandeman's Quinta do Seixo
has a long life in bottle ahead of it and shouldn’t be drunk now. For something to enjoy this Christmas search out a single quinta vintage, such as Sandeman’s Quinta do Seixo, Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos or Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas (around £30).

Tawny Ports are easy to find nowadays. Graham’s 10 year old (around £20 for a bottle) and Warre’s Otima 10 year old (around £10 for 50cl) are widely available (and generally on offer pre-Christmas). Reddish mahogany colour, with a slightly mellow, caramelly spiciness, a wee nip sitting by the fire (or radiator) on a dark November evening is comforting and warming. You can also try them chilled at the end of a meal.

Taylor's 20 Year Old - with Oporto in the background
If you get a taste for tawny, you’ll find more of what you like in the longer matured versions. I have a fondness for Taylor’s 20 year old (currently around £34 a bottle); Sandeman is renowned for the quality of its tawnies – Waitrose has its 20 year old for £37.50 (though currently on offer for £29.99). Ramos Pinto is a less familiar name, but well worth seeking out as they include small amounts of really old wines in their tawnies, giving great depth and complexity. Their 30 year old (£59.50 from thedrinkshop.co.uk) should give you an idea.

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