It is unlikely that you’ll find many restaurants in Porto that don’t include a glass of port on their menu, be it red, white or tawny. The Foody Travellers joined an Arblaster & Clarke wine tour to learn more about this popular beverage.
On the opposite bank of the Douro from Porto is the town of Vila Nova de Gaia, most of its centre devoted to the maturing and shipping of port wine. Like its neighbour on the opposite bank it is an old, old, town but its major development came about in the 18th century with the building of the port wine lodges. There are over 50 of them today.
In days gone by boats, the barcos rabelos, would bring the wine the 150km or so from the vineyards of the Upper Douro to the wine lodges to be made into port. Today’s method of transport by tankers is less picturesque, but much safer. Many lives had been lost in the dangerous waters of the Douro. However, the old tradition has not been forgotten and some of the larger wine lodges moor barcos rabelos laden with barrels on the river front, much to the delight of camera-wielding tourists.
A number of the lodges, some 20 or so, run tours for visitors. The tours are fascinating and informative as the guides tell visitors of the history and production of port wine; showing modern technology involving stainless steel vats sitting alongside traditional wooden casks. Needless to say there is always the opportunity to taste and buy.
Arblaster & Clarke tour
We had gone ahead of the Arblaster & Clarke wine tour group to have longer in the lovely old city of Porto. Up to this point we had been fairly abstemious, though several glasses of white port had been consumed as aperitifs before dinner. Things changed dramatically for the rest of our week in Porto after we joined the tour.
But the Douro is a region which not only produces port it also produces many delicious wines especially today as a number of the port wine companies are increasing their table wine production. The tour started with an introduction to Portuguese wines, for wine has been produced in Portugal for some 2000 years. Portuguese wines, we were to learn, became popular in Britain when the importation of wine from France became impossible after Britain declared war on France in 1698 and blockaded the French ports. There was already a close relationship between Britain and Portugal so it was an obvious choice to import Portuguese wine. Initially they were considered to be too thin and were not to British tastes, but it was discovered that by fortifying it with something like ‘brandy’ (grape spirit) it not only added to the flavour but it also preserved the wine.
Quinta do Passadouro and grape treading
One excursion during the tour took us by train along the banks of the river up to Pinhão. We only had to study the station’s lovely blue and white tile pictures for a few minutes to realise that Pinhão is pretty well the centre of the demarcated area for port production. The soil and climate here are excellent for vines: the schist and granite providing minerals and warmth, whilst the mountains protect the plants from the Atlantic winds and also the heat of the inland sun. But how anybody could dig out the narrow terraces for the vines from the near vertical slopes we could only marvel at.
From the railway station we were driven up into the hills to the Quinta do Passadouro, closely linked to the Niepoort port wine house. We were there in September and the harvest was in full swing. At the quinta we watched the grapes being unloaded from the little trucks and deposited in the granite tanks( lagares). By now the brave members of the group had changed into old and short shorts for a grape treading session. Yes, some of the vineyards really do still tread the grapes by foot. The guys were soon thigh deep in grapes linking arms across shoulders and steadily marching up and down the one of the big granite tanks that holds in the region of 10 tons of grapes. There is a good reason for treading the grapes by foot: feet crush the grapes but not the pips (crushed pips would make for bitter port) and the gentle, steady pressure over a fairly long time extracts extra colour from the skins of the fruit.
We adjourned for lunch to the B&B + Dinner run by Jet Spanjersberg and Ronald Weustink – Ronald is very much involved with the Quinta and Jet, as we discovered, is a superb cook. Lunch was served on the terrace with glorious views across the countryside beneath vines of passion flower and hibiscus. It was one of the most memorable of meals – beetroot with goats’ cheese and fig dressing, pork casserole with salad and local cheeses accompanied by far too much wine and port than was good for us. (The Quinta incidentally produces a glorious red wine.) We made a note that if we wanted a relaxing few days away – this was the place to come.
Port Wine tasting
Back in Porto we concentrated on port tasting and wine lodge touring. The lodges we visited are all open to the public but because we were part of an organised tour we certainly had the de-luxe tour and tasting sessions. Highly recommended were the visits to Taylor’s, Graham’s, Quinta do Noval and Calem. During our three days we sampled some 40 different ports.
We discovered that port can be red, tawny, white and now rosé. Thereafter it began to become more complicated.
To put it simply there are really only two types of port – red or wood aged. Ruby (red) – is when the wine has aged for up to three years with little or no oxidisation in wooden barrels. Tawny is a blend of three year old wines aged in wine seasoned casks. During the ageing process the wine is racked several times thereby causing oxidisation and turning it a tawny colour. Both Ruby and Tawny can also be classified as Reserva denoting a more superior wine.
The wines can also be classified by age – 10 year old, 20, 30 and over 40 years old. These ports are tawny made from a blend of wines from different harvest and aged in wood.
Colheita, LBV or Crusted?
Colheita: a quality tawny from just one harvest. It is aged in wood for at least seven years during which it is racked and filled several times thereby increasing its aromas.
LBV (Late Bottled Vintage): another quality wine usually made from a blend of wines from one harvest. It is aged in large vats, or similar, to keep the oxidisation process very slow. It is bottled between the end of July of its fourth year and end of December of its sixth year after harvest.
Crusted: so named because it creates a deposit or crust inside the bottle is a high quality wine from different harvests and bottled three to four years after ageing in wood.
White or Rosé or Vintage?
White port normally drunk as an aperitif is a young wine. However, older white port should be enjoyed with dessert. It comes in varying degrees of sweetness – Extra Seco, Seco, Doce and Lágrima.
Rosé port is the latest baby of the wine lodges and gets its colour from the maceration of strongly coloured grapes and no oxidisation.
Vintage port is the highest quality wine and made from a single harvest. To ensure the highest quality and not to flood the market vintages are not declared every year. They are chosen by a careful selection method over some 18th months. Whilst they can be consumed younger 15 years is usually considered the minimum age in the bottle, but the ageing process in cellars can be as long as 40 years.
On the way home we had a count up. We had ‘officially’ tasted over 30 different ports!
Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours Ltd: www.winetours.co.uk; www.winetours.co.uk/tours/view/292/galicia-the-douro-valley or Tel: 01730 263111 quoting The Foody Traveller.