So, Port, eh?
With the excuse of attending a wedding, we travelled to Porto, where we were initiated to the magic of Port wines…and many others!
(Read this already? Go to Part 2!)
This story began many years ago, in 2007, in Madrid. Gianluigi is a young fella, just moved there to study for a few months. Coming from a small and prude city in northern Italy, the bright and incredibly alive 5-million people metropolis provided a life changing experience. After a few unsuccessful attempts to find a room, he stumbled on this ad in a local newspaper: not close to the Autonoma University, but close to the city centre and to Malasaña…oh well, you can’t have it all. It’s here that he met Nelly and Paul, two of his eight (!!!) roommates. Nelly and Paul are French, but she’s from a Portuguese family, so fast-forward 15 years, and here they are: celebrating their wedding in a town half an hour away from Porto. Of course, having witnessed the happy couple beginnings, Gianluigi couldn’t turn down the invitation to the wedding!
Porto is an outstanding city, a mix of new and old buildings, lively and bright, despite the intermittent clouds. The Douro river splits the city in two, we stayed in the south side which is called Vila Nova de Gaia, where all the Port houses are, as you can very easily guess: their names are written in huge characters on top of buildings and warehouses.
Before our scotch whisky epiphany, fortified wines were not our thing. However, after finding out that casks previously used or seasoned with sherry, Porto, and other wines are used to mature or finish whisky, our curiosity grew. So, obviously heading to Porto was the perfect occasion to start our exploration of Port and other Portuguese wines. After a morning spent strolling in the charming streets of the city centre, we booked a visit to Sandeman for the early afternoon, one of the most known Port houses (as we guessed by looking at various advertisements around the city).
It was founded by a Scotsman actually, George Sandeman, at the of the 18th century, with the first offices based in London. To our surprise, Port wine came to be in a much more recent era than we thought, as a consequence of the many Anglo-French wars which prevented French wines to be shipped to Britain. In order to conserve the wines for transportation, they started cutting them with aguardente vinica, grapes’ high abv spirit (~70% abv neutral grape spirit). Since this is done during fermentation (normally after four to five days), the wine retains a lot of sugars, giving more sweetness than most other wines. Going back to Sandeman, they are selling both Ports and sherry, and in fact their mascot, the Don, has both a Portuguese student cape and a Spanish hat. The tour was a bit touristy and cheesy, but very informative nonetheless.
We understood that there are three main types of Port: White, Ruby and Tawny. In all cases the grapes have to come from the Douro Valley Wine region, and the wine used to be transported to Vila Nova de Gaia with those typical dark and slim wooden boats, called rebelos.
The difference between white and red ports (both ruby and tawny) is the same as for regular wines. White ports are usually light and crispy, used for mixing as well. They spend 2-3 years in large vats (made of concrete or wood), before being filtered and bottled. Ruby ports go through a very similar process, a few years in vats and then in bottle. However, there are two other categories: the Late Bottle Vintage (LBV) and the Vintage. The former comes from a distinguished vintage, and is bottled after 4-6 years. The latter is from an exceptional vintage, and is bottled without being filtered, allowing the fermentation process to continue in the bottle. Vintage ports can mature for decades in the bottle, although once they are open, they don’t last long. The LBV and the Vintage samples need to be submitted to and approved by the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto. Finally, Tawny ports are matured in European oak casks, and not in large vats, before being bottled. Most of them have an age statement indicating the average age of the wines. An exception are Colheitas, which are from a single vintage year, and aged for a minimum of 7 years. Easy, eh? There are other categories, like Rose ports (technically ruby, but with limited skin contact for a lighter colour), but these are the main ones we tried.
In Sandeman’s warehouse we were shown some huge vats made from wood (European oak), that could contain up to several thousand litres of maturing wine, as well as very ancient vintage bottles, and many casks maturing tawny-s. The tasting included five samples: the Fine White and ruby Founder’s Reserve, the Vintage 2018 and two tawny-s (the Imperial Reserve and the 10 years old). To our palate the latter two were much better than the others, probably because of the woodiness which we are used to because of whisky. We decided to try the 20 and 30 years old by the glass: we couldn’t believe that a measure of the 30y was only 13 euros!
After Sandeman, the plan was to visit another port house, but a smaller and less known one. Serendipity stroke: right before the previous visit we were given a flyer for the Quinta dos Corvos, a few hundred meters away. They are a much smaller operation, and all their wine comes from a single estate (quinta means “estate”). The tour guide was extremely well prepared, she explained to us that they tend to focus on red more than white. Also, most of their Ports are aged. We found out that aged whites are as good as tawny-s, although while the latter tend to turn lighter over time, the former turn darker. We even tried the “grappa” they add during fermentation, but to be honest it wasn’t a memorable experience.
For a day it was more than enough, so we had dinner and went back to the B&B, happy to have learned something new…with a little mystery, however: since ruby ports are matured in large vats and them bottled, where do the ruby port casks used in whisky come from? We honestly still don’t know the answer, but for a couple of guesses wait for the next chapter of this story. Slainte!
Sandeman 1790 Tour
Price: 23.00 Euros pp (June 2022)
Duration: 1h 30m
Tasting: Fine White Port, Ruby Founder’s Reserve, Vintage 2018, Tawny Imperial Reserve, Tawny 10y (all around 19-20%)
Target: tourists and curious
Value for money: very good
Highlights: the warehouse and the cellars
Quinta dos Corvos Guided Tour
Price: 10.00 Euros pp (June 2022)
Tasting: White Port and 10y Red Port (both around 19-20%)
Target: tourists and curious
Value for money: very good
Highlights: the friendly guide that made us try their ‘grappa’