Exploring Ports in Porto and in the Douro Valley

In addition to wanting to see Porto, we came to the area to explore (surprise) ports. We took a day trip from Porto to the Douro Valley, with Pedro (Peter) from CoolTrips. It was a long day (8:30 AM-7:00 PM), but well worth it. Shortly after leaving the city, we passed through the Verde wine region, the cool, rainy, granite-soiled Verde wine region that is so ill-suited to growing wine grapes (and in which the grapes never fully ripen or achieve their full sugar content) that it has earned its own DOC. This is the region where the light, minerally, low-alcohol, slightly effervescent Vino Verde wine is produced (a wine that may be fine for a light, mid-summer afternoon refresher, but for us, at least, not for much else). Interestingly, while some of the grapes were trellised in the way we are all used to seeing, others were still being trellised in the traditional way, with vines grown high and fully pruned up to the canopy, which spread horizontally and where all the leaves and grapes are grown.

About an hour and a half later, we began reaching one of the three things for which the Douro Vally is justly famous: Its absolutely fabulous views, with steep, terraced mountains rising from the river, densely planted with grapes and pocked by occasional homes, towns, family wineries and large Port Lodges, such as those from Sandaman, Croft and Ferriera. The mountains were so steeply terraced, that many could accommodate only two or three rows of vines. And to make the views all the more stunning, we were there in late October, when the leaves were turning multiple shades of yellow, orange and red.

DSC01060DSC01112DSC01043Tom and Joyce at Valley scenic oveview

The sightseeing component of the tour took us through the valley’s first two towns (Peso de Regua and then Pinhao), the latter from which we boarded a modern replica of the shallow-bottomed Rabelo boats (that Joyce and Tom piloted part of the way—including under some of the river’s famous bridges) that used to brave the hazardous, pre-dammed river to carry their precious cargo of Port wine barrels to the warehouses of Gaia (in present-day Porto) where they would aged before being shipped to their ultimate destination in England.

Tom driving the boat

The sights, however, did not end with the views. The interior of the Pintao train station is covered with 1857 tiles that tell the history of the valley. And then there was lunch at Restaurant Sabores, high on a hill with a view over the river valley, that provided salad, salmon and chicken (all very good) and pork (not especially memorable) followed by a delicious sponge cake soaked in port. And this with the restaurant’s own private-labeled Douro Valley white and red wines.


Douro Valley Wines

Although the views of the incredible Douro Valley scenery continued through our entire trip, we were there for more than scenery. We were there to learn about Douro Valley wines (especially, but not exclusively ports), visit some of the region’s growers and producers and taste their wares—both alcoholic and otherwise.

We learned of the history of the wine region and why its permeable schist-based soil, hot summers and cold winters and very limited rainfall are so well-suited to growing grapes, and especially those used in port. And, how the appellation’s insistence on dry farming (growers cannot irrigate their fields) reduces yields to among the lowest in the wine industry (about 1-1.5 kilograms per vine) and produces the type of deep colors and concentrated fruit that is so emblematic of fine port wines. All Douro Valley sub-regions, however, are not equal. This has been clearly demonstrated over the last 20 or so years, as growers have applied science to their art to determine not only which individual plots are best suited to growing port grapes, but also how different treatment of plots and different combinations of grapes from them can yield different qualities in the finished product.

Science has even stepped into the time-honored, and contrary to popular legend, highly regimented and physically demanding process “treading”, where men stomp on grapes to extract the juice. While we still saw treading bins and pictures of men holding onto each other (to prevent them from falling) and stomping to the persistent beat of a pacing drum, this tradition too is falling to technology. While a few small wineries to continue this practice (and more do still hold co-ed treading parties and celebrations), larger lodges, such as Graham’s (see below for a full discussion of Graham’s) has developed a patented, programmable treading device that uses silicon pads to simulate the pressure of human feet that can fully crush the grapes without breaking the seeds (which would impart acids and tannins into the juice).

We also learned about the critical role the British played in creating and growing the port market. They have been buying port since the 12th century, gave Portuguese wines preferential tariff treatment in the 18th century, and by the 19th, had begun to establish the leading port production and aging companies.

Port, in fact, became so popular in England that winemakers from other parts of Portugal began producing fortified wines with non-Douro grapes. The Portuguese government became so concerned that this would diminish and threaten the brand, that it established the world’s first designated wine region (DOC) around the Douro Valley and mandated that only indigenous Douro grapes could be used in its production. But for all the Portuguese concern about port, the Portuguese, as we learned, don’t drink all that much of it. In fact, roughly 80 percent of Port is now exported and much of that that remains in the country is sold to tourists or consumed by them in bars and restaurants.

We, however, did more than learn about Douro wine and port. We also visited a couple wineries and tasted some of the region’s white, red and rose still wines, as well as ruby, tawny, white and rose ports. We also tasted some of the region’s almost equally famous olive oil, as well as some of its almonds, quince paste and even cheese. (The Valley, as we learned, grows just about any and every type of produce).

Olive Oil Museum and Velha Geracao winery Joyce and Tom with ownerOlive Oil Museum and Velha Geracao winery 01Olive Oil Museum and Velha Geracao winery 02

Our first winery stop was at the small family-run gape grower (one-third of his harvest goes to a major port producer), vintner (red, white and rose), olive oil producer and almond farmer who put together his own olive oil production museum with refurbished (and still operational), traditional equipment that took us through the olive destemming process, through curing in brine (for about two months), to the two-stage crushing process (this granite stones) where the first press juice is used for oil and the second for lamp oil, candles and so forth. The juice and paste that will become olive oil is then mixed with water, where the solids sink to the bottom, of the barrel, the water stays in the center and the oil, which rises to the top (a process now done by centrifuge) is separated and divided (primarily on the basis of acidity) between extra virgin (less than .07 acidity), virgin (.07-10) and plain olive oil (above (.10). The extra virgin is bottled and sold under the D’Origem label.

Olive Oil museum 01Olive Oil museum 05

The primary product, however, is grapes, while about one-third of the production goes into Port, the rest is bottled as still wine under the Vella Geracao lable. The producer sells white, rose and red wines. Our favorite, the Grande Reserve Red (of which we had the 2011), which is aged for 18 months in a combination of French and American oak, We also sampled his olive oil, almonds and the delicious honey produced by his neighbor.

We ended our day (except for the hour and a half drive back to Porto) at a small, family-owned port lodge that produces under the label, Qunita das Lameles. After exploring the estate, complete with its own pretty chapel, we went into the aging room, where, after a brief description of the process, we tasted a ten year-old tawny from the cask (Tom’s favorite of all the day’s ports). We then tasted (from bottles) a six year-old Extra Dry White Reserve (very nice), a light, easy-drinking Rose (not our taste), a Ruby, a Late Bottle Vintage Ruby and a very young 2011 Vintage.

Our real Port education and tasting, however, came the next day, with a private (press) two-hour tour and extraordinary 13 poet tasting at Grahams.

Graham’s “Port 101” Class

We augmented our port education with a number of informal tastings at Portuguese restaurants and wine bars (during which Tom developed a particular taste for Dow’s Fine White Port as an aperitif. We took our formal port education in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Porto, where all the city’s port lodges are located—built into hillsides, away from the sun, to provide stable temperature and humidity for an aging process that can take up to forty years.

We began this education with 3.5 hours at Graham’s, where we had a tour and an extraordinary tasting of 13 different ports: From white, to ruby, to tawny, to vintages and a number of other classifications with which we were not previously familiar.

After learning of the Graham family’s 350-year history in the Port industry the 1820 founding of Graham’s and the purchase of the company by the Symington family, we were treated to an extensive private tour and an even more extensive tasting by Felipe, our knowledgeable and patient teacher.

Since our tour was in Vila Nova de Gaia, rather than in the Douro, where the grapes are grown, fermented and aged for the first two years, before being transferred to the lodge, our tour began in Graham’s barrel room, where most of the aging and especially critical blending process takes place.

Graham arge barrelsGraham barrelsGraham tasting roomGraham's 1952

The production, aging and blending process for port is very different from that of unfortified still wines. Still wines, for example, are typically fermented until the yeast has been exhausted and fermentation stops on its own. Port grapes, by contrast, are fermented for only for two or three days, after which fermentation is artificially stopped by adding alcohol (in the form of a special flavorless grape brandy with 77 percent alcohol). This results in a much sweeter wine (since little of the grape’s sugar is converted to alcohol) with a higher alcohol content (typically 18-20 percent) versus about 13-14 percent) than is the case with still wines.

The aging process is also different. While red wines typically spend less than two years in new oak barrels that are typically retired after three years, port barrels are used for seven or eight years to age still wine before they are used to age port. By that time, the wood aromas and tastes that normally come through to the wine are virtually gone. These already neutral barrels may then used for up to 100 years. This means port can spend much more time in barrels without picking up the flavor of the oak. Tawny ports, in particular, after spending two years in large barriques, are then transferred to typically (roughly 200 liter) French oak barrels where they spend anywhere from another five, to as many as fifty or more years. During this period, the wine is transformed. The bright red color, for example, dulls and gradually turns to amber and the bright fruity taste mellows, turning to nuts, dried fruits and even tobacco and coffee.

Although the Port Wine Institute (the port wine governing body) does set blending guidelines and mandates (such as the minimum average age of wines in particular wines), winemakers are faced with continual challenges of how much of each particular vintage to incorporate in a wine for current release, and how much to reserve for future years, or even to declare as a Vintage or Quinta Vintage. Graham’s, for example, just last year released an 1882 single year tawny that sells for a mere 6,500 Euros per bottle. (You better act fast, since only 660 numbered bottles were released.)

Although all this barrel aging does not produce an oaky flavor, the small amounts of air that permeates the wood does oxidize the wine, which turns from a bright red to a pale amber over the years. Another difference is that while still wines continue to age in the bottle, tawny ports do not. It stops aging the moment it goes into the bottle, with the same color and taste (assuming the cork maintains its integrity) until the bottle is opened.

Ruby port, meanwhile, is a very different animal. Most rubies never even see the smaller barrels in which tawny is aged. They, instead, are generally aged—for a minimum of two years, but typically up to about seven for premium Ruby ports—in huge, very old oak barriques. Since so little of the wine has contact with either wood or oxygen, oxidation is almost nonexistent. The most prized of Ruby Ports, especially Vintage ports—are specifically intended to age and to develop their prized nuance and subtlety in the bottle, rather than in the barrique.

Different ports are also blended in totally different ways. Fine ports, for example, are typically made from multiple types of grapes grown in different vineyards and often by different growers, from different sections of the Valley, and are combined with wine from different years as a means of providing a degree of consistency over the years. Tawny’s, meanwhile, often come from specific plots that are known to produce very ageable wines and are then blended across as many as 50 or more different years. Vintage ports, by contrast, consist of grapes from a handful of the best vineyards, but only from those picked in a particular year. Then there are Single Quinta Vintage ports which consist only of a single year’s grapes from one particular vineyard. All blending, however, has common goals of maintaining a degree of consistency over the years and of optimizing the taste of the wine.

But before getting into all these distinctions, just how many different types of port wines are there, and how do they differ from each other? First, all ports have a few things in common. All come from grapes that are not only grown in, but are indigenous to the Douro Valley. All are fortified with a particular type of grape brandy and have alcohol contents of 18-21 percent. Such things are mandated by the Port Wine Institute, which also has the power to determine such things as how much brandy each lodge is allowed to purchase each year (which determines how much port each can produce), which years can be declared vintage years and which wines can be labeled as reserves.

Although there are many similarities among ports, there are even more differences. At the highest level, there are white ports (which are made from white grapes and come with varying levels of residual sugar, from very sweet to extra dry) and red ports (from red grapes).

The reds consist of different grapes. Although a broad range of grapes can be used, the most common are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (which is a form of Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão and Tinta Amarela. Of the red ports that are produced from these grapes, there are Rubies and Tawny’s. Each of these, however, can be divided into multiple variations. Rubies, for example, can be divided among:

  • Fine Ruby Ports, generally lower-end, every-day wines used for cooking and basic drinking;
  • Reserve Ruby Ports, which are usually blends of at least five different vintages that spend more time in barriques;
  • Late Bottle Vintage Ruby Filtered Ruby Ports, a single-vintage Ruby that is often aged for five to six years before being filtered and bottled;
  • Late Bottle Vintage Unfiltered Ruby Ports, single-vintage rubies that may either unfiltered (in which case they will continue to develop in the bottle) or filtered (in which case they will not);
  • Crusted Reserve Ruby Ports, are unfiltered blends of at least two vintage years that age in wood for up to four years, bottled, and then aged at least another three years in bottle. While some may taste similar to single-vintage ports, they are less expensive.
  • Single Quinta Vintage Ports, which come from one particularly good year’s harvest of a premier vineyard (or Quinta); and finally,
  • Single Vintage Ruby, the king of all Ruby ports, which often combine grapes of the lodge’s best grapes from its best vineyards, and are made only from a handful of exceptional years, typically about two or three vintages each decade.

Then, of course, there are Tawny ports, all of which are blends of wines from multiple vintages. They differ on the basis of the average age of the wines that are combined into the blend. While they are typically labeled wither 10, 20, 30 or 40 Year, the actual average age is often a few years older than is shown on the lable.

This is all very interesting in theory. But the real question is: How do all these different ports play on the palate?


Graham’s Port Tastings

At Graham’s, we tasted 13 different ports, with at least one example of each of the different types of ports, and even a couple of old, rare wines.

Graham tasting 02Graham tasting 04Graham tasting 03

Among our favorites of the rubies were:

  • Single Vintage Rubies from three vintages that allowed us to compare three very different vintages—a relatively young 2007 and a slightly older 2000 (among the best vintages in three decades) plus a much older 1883. While we enjoyed all three, we particularly enjoy the smooth mellowness of the 1883 and the incredible potential of the 2007.
  • Quinta dos Malvedos 2001, a single Quinta Vintage from Graham’s premier vineyard
  • Late Bottle Vintage Unfiltered, which was lighter than the vintage ports with a taste of red fruits, and possibly, a pinch of pepper.

We also tasted and got to compare five very different tawnies:

  • Four multi-vintage tawnies, beginning with a 10 year (an easy-drinking tawny that still retained some of its bright color and fresh fruit notes), then a 20 Year (which had turned an orangish color and had dried fruit notes), a 3 Year (more of an amber color with a nutty tastes and more complexity); and a 40 Year (a 120 E wine with the color, and the taste of subtle dark caramel and nuts); and finally a
  • 1972 Single Harvest Tawny, a wine of there are only 30 casks left, with one barrel (375 bottles) being released each year. This is a very, very smooth, dark-colored wine with very concentrated sugar.

While taste is certainly the most important factor in selecting a wine, you should also know when, and with what it can best be drunken. White ports, for example, are intended to be drunken young and extra dry whites (which I prefer) works well as an aperitif. Rubies, meanwhile, are better suited to sweet desserts. Some, such as Reserves are intended to be drunken young while Vintage, Late Bottle Vintage and Crusted rubies can be drunken either young (for those who prefer intense fruits) or older (for complexity and subtlety of taste). Vintage and Late Bottle Vintage, meanwhile, go particularly well with cheese (with blue being a classic combination) and dark chocolate.

Tawnies, as discussed, can be drunken immediately after they are bottled, or several years later, since they do not age in the bottle. Different age tawnies, however, tend to work best with different pairings. Young tawnies (especially a 10 Year), for example, generally go well with nutty desserts (think, for example, an almond tarte) and 20 Year with aged cheeses (such as a robust cheddar). Older tawnies, meanwhile, especially 40 Year and older Single Harvests, by contrast, can probably be best appreciated alone or, for those who prefer, with a nice cigar.

But, as we also learned, to truly enjoy your port, it should be served at the proper temperature. Reds tend to be best stored and served at about 14 degrees Centigrade (about 57 Fahrenheit) while whites, like non-fortified whites, are best served a bit cooler (about 10 degrees Centigrade or 50 Fahrenheit).


Other Vila Nova de Gaia Port Tastings

After our formal, first-class Graham’s education, we were ready to strike out on a few other formal tastings. These included tastings at one other large port lodge (Cockburn’s), one mid-sized (Churchill’s) and one smaller, boutique lodge (Quinta do Novel).

Cockburn’s was, by far the best of these three tastings. We tasted seven different ports, beginning with four barrel-aged wines. We started with two Ruby’s: a Special Reserve (aged for six years) and Late Bottle Vintage (five years) that unexpectedly, had a rounder, softer texture than the Special Reserve (which had an extra year in oak). Then to two Tawnys, where we, as expected, preferred the smoother, nuttier, more caramelized 20 Year to the younger, more fruit-based 10 Year. We ended the tasting with three bottle-aged Vintage Rubys: the fruity, full-bodied 2007 vineyard-select Quinta dos Canais, which provided a nice comparison with the smoother, more pronounced flavors of the lovely 2007 Vintage (the best grapes from one of the two or three vintage years of the decade), which then provided a great comparison to the port wine from the next vintage year, 2011. While this Ruby had only two years barrel and two years bottle aging, this very aromatic wine appears to have the potential of becoming a memorable vintage wine.

Churchill’s which was highly recommended, and greatly anticipated, but turned out to be disappointing. We tasted four Rubys, a Finest Reserve (four years of barique aging), which we felt had an unpleasant barnyard taste), a 2007 Late Bottle Vintage (4 years in oak and four in the bottle) which still needs much more time to mellow), a 2003 single-vineyard Vantaa Quinta de Gricha (more approachable, but still not our taste) and finally, a much more interesting, much greater potential 2011 Vintage. When we conveyed our personal perceptions of these wines, we were told that the Churchill vineyards are grown on a slope with northern exposure that results in darker, more extracted wines that typically require longer to age than those from other leading vineyards.

Quinta do Noval, a small, boutique producer, where we tried three tawnys in a very, very overpriced tasting (19.50E). The 10 Year (relatively fruity and smooth), followed by the Colheita vineyard 2000 (still pretty harsh) and then the 20 Year (smoother, but not particularly well integrated). Since Joyce is not a big Tawny fan, she decided to try one of the vineyard’s still red wines, a 2012 Cedro do Noval Tinta. The wine was not particularly memorable. Worse still, the 2.50 E glass (sold on the menu as a glass—not a tasting), was served in a port glass and included less wine than any of the three also small port tastings! This turned out to be one of the most memorable of all our tastings, but for exactly the wrong reasons.

So, what better way to end three incredible months in Europe, than by tasting ports in the Porto area. But, atlas, our time had come to an end and we left Porto to go back to our home in San Francisco.

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