Hard a’ port (Porto, Portugal – Day One)

Only a week a go I was talking about a style of wine considered to be very old-fashioned and makes one think of old British movies. This wine was sherry, and it is interesting that about two weeks later I am here where they produce the other wine that comes to mind which is port. Sherry and port share a few things in common apart from being thought of as an old persons drink. Firstly they are both fortified wines, but in the case of port the fortification is made during the fermentation to stop it and retain a residual sugar, whereas sherry with the exception of pedro ximenez and muscatel are fortified after the fermentation. Secondly the fortification was important for the transportation and spread of port as it was for sherry, but it was actually British wine merchants who introduced the process into port whereas the Moors introduced it in sherry. The third similarity is with the fact that like dry sherries, cask-aged port doesn’t age in the bottle and should be consumed pretty soon after bottling, whereas vintage port ages in the bottle and can keep for a very long time indeed. The first fundamental difference between the two is that the vast majority of port is made from red grapes, whereas more sherry is made from white grapes. Along the same lines, almost all port is sweet whereas the majority of sherry is either dry or medium-dry. Like sherry however, port is also undervalued and underappreciated, and the best examples are truly exceptional wines regardless of their style.

The port halls of Taylor’s

The first port house I visited along the banks of the Douro River should almost be considered as three, as it is part of what is called the Fladgate Partnership. My original appointment was at Fonseca, which was founded in 1822, but the group also owns the older Taylor’s and the even older Croft which was the most recent edition to the group. I met with Nick Heath who is the marketing director for Fonseca, but is involved with all three houses as well as the world-class Yeatman Hotel just next to Taylor’s which is Portugal’s only ‘wine hotel’. Back at Fonseca which sits on the hill overlooking the city of Porto, Nick introduced me to not only the history of Fonseca but also the history of Porto and port. I’ll talk more about the history of port in my next post, but the birth of Fonseca as we know it came in 1822 came when Manuel Pedro Guimaraens acquired majority control over Fonseca, and it was stipulated that the name remain. Interestingly Manuel was forced to flee Portugal not long after this in an empty barrel (kind of like in The Hobbit, wait for the movie), and for a time the headquarters were in England where the business grew steadily to become the second largest shipper of port by 1840. The Guimaraen family have been involved with the business all the way through, even after it was acquired by Dick Yeatman who owned Taylors. The winemaker today is David Guimaraen who studied and worked in Australia many years ago, and agreed that the quality of our fortified wines was also very good, particularly from Rutherglen. I had the chance to taste through a range of the Fonseca ports, and you can read my notes here.

Fonseca

One of the most important things that I learnt about ports is what defines each producer. As the process of port production and ageing is the same for each house, it is the vineyards that make the biggest difference. The fruit for port is grown in the Douro Valley about 150 km east of Oporto towards Spain, where it is much warmer and drier and better for the ripening of the fruit. The wine is vinified and fortified in the region before it is usually transported to the riverside in Oporto for the ageing, either entirely in cask or at some point in bottle. Similar to Jerez, the climate of Oporto is more stable and has more humidity which is great for the ageing of the wines in cask as they have enough humidity to minimise evaporation of the wine and less fluctuations in temperature between day and night and also between seasons. Just like any other viticulture, the terroir of the vineyard makes a huge impact, and that is how each of the houses that form the Fladgate Partnership can have their own style and personality. Nick took me to the Taylor’s port lodge to see the barrels with wine ageing and by all intents and purposes each of the lodges are the same. We then visited the Yeatman next door and came to grips with the way that wine has been worked into the running of the hotel, such as Thursday night wine dinners with different winery partners in Portugal, a 25,000 bottle cellar that guests can visit and choose their wine with dinner, structured wine tastings in the 24 hour bar, a wine store, and even a spa that offers must/aqua therapy amongst other treatments. I made an appointment to meet with the wine director later that afternoon, but unfortunately she never turned up and I wasn’t able to discuss the programs any further.

The Decanter Pool at the Yeatman Hotel

My second port lodge visit was with Ramos Pinto, and with all respect to such a wonderful wine producer, it was possibly one of the most pointless visits of my trip. To begin with the person I was supposed to be meeting wasn’t there, and I was left in the hands of one of the tour guides. As I have mentioned before I was a tour guide myself, and I know first-hand that it is one of the most difficult jobs in the wine industry, as you have to teach people about something assuming they know nothing but not sounding like you are talking down to them. In my case they just aren’t equipped to know all of the necessary technical or brand/business related information that I need, and in some cases their English skills aren’t good enough to understand all of my questions. Visiting the port lodge I also didn’t learn or see anything I hadn’t seen before, apart from the museum offices that had a whole bunch of historic items including old bottles, advertising material and typewriters. Never have I taken a tour and after only 15 minutes been invited to taste, not even in Bordeaux. Admittedly there isn’t a lot to see, but at the end of the day I could have just looked at photos, read information and tasted the wines anywhere. The good news about the visit was that the port wines were generally outstanding, but the red table wines did not offer much. Click here to read my notes from the tasting.

Ramos Pinto

Click here to see more photos from my first of two days visiting port lodges.

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