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The Wine Show: episode nine – port

The Wine Show: episode nine – port

by Amelia Singer 29 June 2016

Amelia Singer discovers a new love for the fortified wine after travelling to the Douro and tasting port cocktails.

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The Douro valley has to be one of the most underrated places in the world. Its dramatic mountainous landscape, rich history, fantastic table wine, wonderful food and even port itself does not receive the attention and appreciation it deserves. Hopefully after this episode, that will change.

Picture yourself sitting in a trendy bar on a hot summer’s evening, sipping not a gin and tonic but a delicious and refreshing port cocktail. Not quite the image of port that you had in mind? This will give you a hint as to what is to come in mine and Joe’s port challenge.

Port is a fortified wine Brits have been drinking since the end of the seventeenth century. Although the drink has evolved into all kinds of styles and colours, our port drinking habits have never been more conservative. Usually, it is just drunk neat with a piece of Stilton at Christmas time. The irony is that in the seventeenth century, port was a main ingredient in cocktails. British gentlemen and sea captains combined it with sugar, water and nutmeg to form the ‘sangaree’ (precursor to modern day Sangria).

Even the winemaking technique behind port was considered ‘cutting edge’ and experimental back in the day. Port wine is a symbol of the oldest military alliance in the world between Portugal and the UK which dates back from fourteenth century. In the early days of the port trade, it was common practice to add a small amount of brandy to local (rather thin, astringent) wine prior to shipment to preserve it from spoiling. This mixture created a sweet taste that over the years improved in quality and laid the foundation for what was to become one of the most successful wine brands – port. Although it was not until 1850 that this method of fortification became universally adopted as an essential part of port production, by the end of the eighteenth century the practice had become well established. At this stage port had gained enormous popularity and was comparable to the rich, red wine we recognise from the Douro Valley now. The strong demand for port brought great prosperity to the Douro Valley as well as to the English merchants that had firmly entrenched themselves in Oporto.

The Douro

The Douro Valley is the now oldest delimited and regulated wine region in the world, dating back to 1756. Port wine may be tasted in around 120 countries on all five continents. It represents a significant part of the Portuguese vini and viticultural economy. Sadly, port itself has been in decline recently; perceived as a dusty tradition to be enjoyed at the end of the meal. English merchants such as Crofts, Symingtons and Taylors are all having to diversify their portfolio, from releasing lighter styles of port which won’t need as much ageing to even new breeds like Crofts Pink Port – the first pink port to be created, best enjoyed over ice or as a cocktail.

The association of port with cocktails is not such a far fetched thing – as I go at lengths in the episode to prove to Joe. The well known wine bar of the Yeatman Hotel in the heart of Porto boasts an extensive list of port cocktails. From the sparkling, pink and fruity to the robust and bourbon-based, there’s one for every palate. Even Joe enjoyed his flamingo-coloured concoction!

Buzzy wine bars and experimental port cocktails are just some of the ways that the drink is trying to reinvigorate its image. It was in 1979 when the ancient Douro demarcation was extended to include normal wine as well as fortified port that really got the ball rolling on winemaking in the area. Portugal’s entry into in the EU also swept away many of the bureaucratic regulations that had allowed the large shippers to control the market. For the past decade or so it has been arguably one of the most dynamic table wine regions in Europe. Well known port houses to small producers are all able to take full advantage of the Douro’s magnificent vineyards which cling to a series of steep, rocky terraces.

Young blood

Many young, ambitious producers are keen on making Douro table wines more well known but they also endeavour to make sure that the tradition of port lives on. Sandra Tavares and her husband Jorge Serodio Borges are among these. Together they run the company Wine and Soul – an innovative winery that promotes wines made from local grapes. Sandra also works alongside Cristiano van Zeller at the Quinta do Vale Dona Maria which produces a range of prize-winning table reds as well as own-label ports. She also is the only female member of the Douro Boys – a group of winemakers who banded together to shout about their wines to the outside world, and among whom are Quinta do Vallado and Quinta do Crasto. This equal emphasis on both the ports and table wines can only help both get the recognition the Douro wines deserve.

At the Symington’s recently built tasting room, Joe and I enjoy a glass of Symington’s Altano red, made from grapes usually used in port and which are grown in the Douro superiore. Its juicy, fleshy dark fruit is underpinned by a subtle mineral streak; an ode to the Douro’s schistose soil. Though each producer has their own style, Douro reds tend to have perfumed, aromatic dark fruit similar to port, but a similar structure to Bordeaux with a wilder side! I am also a huge fan of the intense, complex whites – which combine radiant lemon curd fruit with herbal tang.

Looking out over the vineyard over the breathtaking undulating setting, I couldn’t believe that this was my first time to this part of the world. The Douro is a UNESCO heritage site that is plentiful in fantastic wine, food, derelict chic towns as well as stunning natural beauty. Joe and I did a port wine tasting on a boat up the River Douro which was truly enchanting. To get back to Porto it is possible to take the most picturesque train journey on a steam train from Pinhao. Quintas like the Symingtons are encouraging wine tourism by building contemporary tastings rooms or offering visitors the chance to dine or stay in the Quinta.

I was just speaking to a couple who had come back from a long weekend to the Douro. Their tales of white port tonics, fantastic seafood, welcoming Quintas and awe-inspiring sunsets over the dramatic Douro valley made me wistful. How could people not realise that such a special place was right on their doorstep? Hopefully, as with the cocktails themselves, people will soon realise what they are missing out on. And I will just embrace Porto in the meantime – my house summer drink being white port with tonic of course (don’t forget the orange peel)!

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The Wine Show: episode nine – port


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