Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Port, Porto and The Douro Valley

I shall begin by saying that my wife Louise absolutely adores port and will have a glass, or two, most nights before bedtime. Her love of the Vinho de Porto stems from a childhood where her Grandad often gave her sips to try. Or so she says, I just call her the 'Portoholic' of the family.

In trying to organise something nice for us to do for our Wedding Anniversary I struck on the idea of actually going to Porto to see and learn about how it is produced. Unfortunately the only flights to Porto from the UK are from either Gatwick or Liverpool, neither of which are particularly convenient airports for us. No matter I booked us to fly out from Gatwick on Saturday 8th June.

I am calling the northern Portuguese city Porto, but for most of the last 300 years in English we have known it as Oporto. This has always caused me confusion but I can now clear that up. In Portuguese "o Porto" means "the Port" and a misinterpretation linguistically led to English speakers calling the city Oporto. You can actually use either name but I prefer Porto.

We arrived on Saturday afternoon and took a rather scary cab ride from the airport to our hotel the Hotel Carris Porto Ribeira, a lovely place just a minutes walk from the Douro River and our room, as requested by myself had fabulous views of the river and of the Port houses on the opposite side of the river in the district of Vila Nova de Gaia.

The View from our hotel room across the Douro
The only plans we had for the weekend were a trip to the Douro valley on the Sunday and a vague idea of touring some of the port houses on the Monday so after unpacking we went for a walk by the river and then towards the city. The first thing that struck us both, and I am sorry to say this, was how grimy and unkempt the city seemed. Graffiti everywhere and many, many beautiful but delapidated and empty buildings. I kept reminding Louise that relatively speaking the Portuguese are quite poor even compared with their near neighbours Spain, where we have been many times. I have to say our first impressions were not so good. I have since read that the authorities in Porto have a problem with people leaving the city centre for the suburbs and are starting to address this with a program of refurbishment. And we did see evidence of this too.
Chocolate cup of port for a euro!

Our first taste of port came in a rather touristy way. A lady selling chocolate cups filled with port for a euro on the street. Yes, it was tacky, the chocolate was average and the port very cheap but hey, it was fun!
We dined simply in a restaurant around the corner from the hotel and hoped for better things on the Sunday.
Map of the Douro river region and it's proximity to Porto

The Sunday tour began with us being picked up at our hotel at 8.30am. There were seven of us on the tour, a real cosmopolitan bunch comprising Americans, Canadians, Dutch as well as us Brits. The drive to the wine region was actually quite long and it was almost two hours before our first stop. But what a view. And the next stop was even better. Having reached Pinhao, the centre of the port wine making region, we climbed inexorably up to the top of the hills to see one of the most spectacular views you could ever wish to see. Sadly the weather was somewhat grey and cloudy but event that did not spoil it.

The spectacular Douro Valley with Pinhao in the distance
By this stage I think we were all hungry and thirsty but we had a short boat trip to complete before lunch in a local restaurant. Lunch was good, if a little late and we feasted on simply cooked meats, salads and potatoes with carafes of wine and port to accompany it.

Louise with the 3 taster wines
at Quinta do Portal
Finally at around 3.30pm we arrived at the cellars of Quinta do Portal for our first tour and tasting of the trip. The cellar and tasting areas are away from the major tourist areas and were  rather stark and foreboding on arrival. Our guide told us a little about the architect, Siza Vieira, a rather strange man it seems, who will not let the company make any changes to the building without his say so and is obsessed with the colour grey. This meant that it felt like we were entering a nuclear test facility rather than a port house and even the name of the company was not allowed to be signed on the front entrance. Honestly, just bonkers! After a short tour of the cellars we tasted three wines, firstly a Moscatel, secondly a pink port (at Louise's suggestion) and finally a 30 year old tawny (Wow!).

From there it was back to the minibus and home to Porto. All in all the tour was frankly disappointing. Badly timed in that we did not have lunch until 2pm and I would have expected to visit at least two wineries but the scenery was spectacular and it did make us realise how hard it is to harvest the grapes on such steep terraces.

Taylor's - There I can see it, just can't find it!
And we found it, eventually!
Monday dawned still grey and cloudy but we had a plan and it involved port (no surprise there). This was the day we had allowed for touring some of the port houses on the river in Vila Nova de Gaia and our favourite house, Taylor's was first on the list. Finding it proved more difficult. We could see it from our hotel room (see the photo above) but did not realise how twisty the roads are on the other side of the river. By 10.30am we were flagging and I had to use my phone to give us walking instructions to find it. But the find was definitely worth it.
The ceiling of Taylor's sumptuous tasting room

A tour of the cellars was 3 euros and included a tasting of 3 ports. Normally you would do the tasting after the tour but the next English tour wasn't for half an hour so we sat in the glorious surrounds sipping at our ports, a Chip Dry White Port, a Fine Ruby and a Ten Year Old Tawny.

Left to Right - Chip Dry White, Ruby, 10 year old tawny
At this point I should confess my knowledge of port styles wasn't, until this trip, as good as it should be for someone with a WSET Advanced Certificate. So a quick guide in a few paragraphs based on the knowledge gained from the tour.

White Port - Made from just white grapes and usually aged for a short period. Serve chilled as an aperitif or mixed in a cocktail, possibly with tonic water as the Portuguese do. The lowest end of the quality spectrum.

Rose Port - New kid on the block. Strictly speaking a ruby port that has had little contact with the skins, similar to a rose wine.

Ruby Port - Aged for a short period of two years, often in concrete or stainless steel vats although sometimes in large oak casks (Taylor's do this). Not intended for ageing and has a bright claret colouring. Good with cheese, especially blue veined cheeses.

Reserve - Fancy name for a ruby port that maybe of slightly better quality. Used to be sometimes called 'Vintage Character' until that was banned in 2002.

LBV - Late bottled vintage. Staple of every decent restaurant or hotel throughout Britain. Essentially an aged ruby port that has had 4 - 6 years ageing. There are two types, filtered and unfiltered, the filtered being ready to drink the unfiltered more like a vintage port that needs decanting. Filtered LBV's are more common in Britain and can be kept for a short time.

Tawny Ports - Port aged in smaller oak barrels. The barrels are not completely filled to allow some oxygen to oxidise the wine a little. This gives it a somewhat nutty flavour and also with age the port will tend to brown. A simple tawny will have been aged two years but there are also 10, 20, 30 and 40 year old tawnies with naturally increase in price the older they are. Great with desserts.

Some of the names of the 32 port houses
Vintage Ports - They wine is initially aged for 2 winters and then an assessment will be made if the port is of sufficient quality to 'declare' a vintage which happens around three times a decade for the large port houses. The port is then bottled and continues to age in the bottle. Vintage port only makes up a small percentage of port production but is of the best quality. The port can then be aged for decades and gains great complexity whilst retaining it's fruitiness. Some 19th century ports are still drinkable today. The port will need decanting on opening as it will throw a significant sediment.

Single Quinta Vintage - In the slightly lesser years the port house may declare a single quinta vintage. That is a vintage from just one of it's estates. These are still sought after from the bigger houses.

Douro River with the old Rabelo boats.
Historically used for transporting the port down river.
Armed with the above knowledge we proceeded to the Taylor's on site shop after our tour and made some purchases. I should say that our nephew is called Taylor, hence why we love the port and we purchased a single quinta vintage from his birth year (he is currently 8 years old) as an 18th birthday present for him in 10 years. We also did the same for our wedding year (2002) and hope to open that for our silver wedding. I hope to still be writing this blog when that day comes.

And guess what. The next day we did all again but around Cockburns!

Enjoying what you're reading. Why not book me for a personal wine tasting with your friends. Ideal for a birthday, celebration, or alternative stag or hen party. See my website.

In the meantime, cheers! Enjoy your wine.

Next time: Celebrities and their vineyards.


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