Port is one of the world’s oldest wine styles. A tasting offered by the Vintage Port Academy in Hong Kong of tawny ports showed the versatility and delightful flavours of this wine. The classic port houses of Croft, Dow’s, Fonseca, Graham’s, Taylor’s and Warre’s formed the academy to foster appreciation of this gift to humanity.
It helps to have a little background: Port is made in the Douro valley in northern Portugal, and has been produced there for almost 2,000 years. Many countries make a port-like wine but only port made in the Douro valley can be called by that name.
The Douro is about 130 kilometres inland, in the mountainous regions of the Douro River. The soil of the valley is stony, made of volcanic rock. Vines are forced to push their roots deep because the soil does not retain water.
Yields are low, which tends to concentrate flavours.
The first wines labeled as port were shipped to the United Kingdom in the second half of the seventeenth century. At the time the UK was at war with France so Bordeaux’s delights were not available.
Port is a fortified wine, made by adding a small amount of grape brandy during the winemaking process. This fortification process helped preserve the wine during the long ocean voyage to the UK.
About 30 different grape varieties are used, which explains the complexity of the winemaking process and the flavours that develop. The best red grape varieties for port include touriga nacional, touriga franca, tinta roriz, tinta amarela and tinta cao.
Ports come in a range of styles. Grapes are harvested about mid September, and always by hand. Many port houses still extract the juice by treading on the grapes, in large granite tanks called “lagares”. It is a wondrous sight watching people arm in arm treading grapes to the sound of a squeezebox or guitar.
Treading also keeps the skins in contact with the fermenting wine. This extracts flavours, tannin and colour.
When about half the natural sugar in the grapes has been turned into alcohol through the fermentation process, young grape brandy is added: about 10 litres for every 45 litres of wine.
This is known as “fortification”. It stops the fermentation process and retains some of the grape’s natural sweetness, which explains why port is a sweet drink.
In the spring, the port is transported to the coast to be blended, bottled and aged. The coastal humidity is better for ageing of the wine.
Ageing takes place in bottle or wood – usually oak barrels. Because of fortification port can mature in wood for long periods, in some cases for more than a century. Different production methods and ageing processes allow winemakers to produce many distinct styles of port.
When a port ages in wood, the wood allows small amounts of air to contact the wine. The port changes colour from deep red, known as ruby, to a browner hue known as tawny. The wine becomes smoother to taste and more complex characteristics replace the fruity aromas of youth.
I sampled a port made in 1855. Yes, a wine as old as Bordeaux’s famous classification year. Indeed, port vineyards were the first in the world to be legally categorised. They became a classified region – what the French call an “appellation d’origine controlee,” or controlled region of origin – in 1756.
The 1855 sample – known as the Taylor’s Scion – shows how well port can age. It still had acidity and the range of flavours seemed to change with each sip. It began tasting of treacle and toffee, then coffee and cashews, all encased in a sensation of drinking liquid fruitcake.
It is cruel to tell people about a wine they never encounter, but this port shows what is possible with this wine style.
Perhaps more accessible to the public is the Graham’s 1952 tawny port, which Queen Elisabeth II chose as the drink with which to toast her 60 years on the throne. It is a wine that does not need food. It feels like drinking liquid toffee, and the aromas seemed to change with each sniff.
A note with which to finish: Port actually pairs well with some Asian foods, especially fatty and rich dishes like Peking duck.
* Published in China Post, 8 November 2012, page 10. Find a link here.