Sunday, May 15, 2011

Which Port in a Storm?

Since we had to write a paper for a class, and I needed an excuse to organize and type my notes from a recent trip to Porto, Portugal, this was a great way to kill two birds with one stone. I have no idea how well (or poorly) my papers have been received in this class, since I never got one back graded, marked up or commented on. Nor did I get confirmation via e-mail that they were even received. Ever. Talk about instructor apathy! So my other motive is insurance: it will be difficult to say I didn't finish on time if the paper is sitting right here on this server two full days before it's due.

This version was edited slightly because I can't post something without rewriting it at least a couple more times to correct, clarify and hopefully improve the text.

Port now comes in Pink. It’s new, it’s colorful and you can even make cocktails with it. Pink probably won't dethrone our favorite Ruby and Tawny Ports here in the United States, but it's probably more accessible for younger drinkers. White Port is also starting to make an appearance, and should do well here since it's lighter than the reds and is served chilled - a better option for summer.

All varieties start as wine, made from grapes grown on schist soils around the Douro Valley. Red grape varieties include Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) and Tinto Cão. Many of these are the same varietals as used to make Douro wines. There are also white varietals but they don’t seem to be considered important enough to list by the producers. Presumably they use the same varietals as for white Douro wine: Codega, Rabigato, Donzelinho, Viosinho, Cercial...

Fermentation is stopped after about two days by adding 77% alcohol spirits that kill the yeast and preserve the sugar in the beverage. The final result is Port, with an alcohol content of 20%.

Crushing, fermentation and blending with spirits takes place outside of Gaia, with much of it done in Regua about an hour’s train ride up the Douro from the coast. Most Port is blended, aged and bottled in Vila Nova de Gaia, after being trucked there from Regua or elsewhere up the Douro Valley. Those interesting boats loaded with barrels floating on the Douro are just for show; they can no longer compete with trucks for efficiency.

Port prices run the gamut from around $10-$15 for whites and rubies, $15-$40 for tawnies, $50 and up for Vintage. Select vintage Ports can run over $400 and even $500 on auction at Christie’s. The saying in Porto is “the older the better” and the price reflects this.

Sorting the types of Port can be a bit confusing, since prices do overlap and non-vintage (NV) tawnies can be priced by age, creating an overlap with true vintage and LBV Ports. Whites, Rubies and Tawnies can also be reserve selections.

White Port
As its name suggests, this is an amber colored liquid. It’s still somewhat sweet and at 20% alcohol it’s best as an apertif. Unlike red Port, it’s served chilled at 8°-10° C (46°-50° F). It can be extra-dry or extra sweet, and some wineries, such as Ramos Pinto, make a variety of styles. Many spend some time on oak.

Pink Port
The new kid on the block, Pink Port seems to be quite the rage among producers. At Croft, it never sees wood at any point in its production, being made exclusively in stainless steel. It’s served chilled like white port and is marketed as a component in cocktails like The Runaway or the Sunset. Croft suggests drizzling it over fruit sorbet with a mint garnish, mixing it with jasmine tea, or using it to make Sangria.

Ruby Port
Typically, ruby Ports are not barrel aged, since the goal is to keep a bright ruby color. They stay in a cask for three to five years, and are blended across years. These wines are less complex than Tawnies, with more fruit and less woodsy tones, placing them between whites and Tawnies. This wine will keep for weeks or months once opened.

Tawny Port
This wine gets some barrel time. Most are non-vintage and blended across years. Tawnies are also sold by age, although since they’re a blend this is somewhat subjective. These Ports develop woody, caramel, honey notes and nice complexity that (hopefully) justify their higher price. These should be served lightly chilled at 16° C (60° F). Once open, the wine will keep for weeks or even months. Colheita Tawnies get six years in barrels.

Late Bottle Vintage (LBV)
Ruby Port from some years is judged of better quality than average by a single producer and is given the LBV designation, with all wine from a single year. It’s typically aged six years at Croft, four at Sandeman - so apparently there’s no hard and fast rule on aging time. Some, such as Quinta de Ventozelo, are unfiltered and should be decanted before drinking. These wines may mature somewhat in bottles.

This is the high end stuff, with vintage years officially declared by the Port Wine Institute. These exceptional years happen on average but a couple of times per decade.
Many are foot crushed, apparently to smash out as much tannin from the skins as possible from the outset of the crushing process. Since this happens in a shallow area, there is probably also a lot of aeration going on to help the yeast.

These wines are typically unfiltered and need careful decanting prior to drinking. These wines mature in bottles, and like LBV, should be stored on their sides so that the cork remains wet. These wines are still good after 100 years, and 15 years aging is considered a minimum, with Sandeman’s tour guide saying that 25-30 years’ aging is preferred.

These wines have a ruby color during their first five years in the bottle, aging gradually to a more amber color.

Once you decide to open a vintage Port, you have two days to drink it before it degrades. Invite friends, since at 20% alcohol you’ll be doing your liver a favor by not drinking it all yourself.

Nobody can visit the Porto region without stopping off for some tasting. Considering the number of producers offering their wares, we decided to limit our exploration to two wineries.

The Sandeman Don looms over the city of Porto. He’s everywhere, more ubiquitous than Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. He’s the mysterious figure dressed like the tour guide, holding a glass of Port that seems to float magically over his shoulder.

Like most ports, the Don is really English. Sandeman, Croft and many others are owned by British companies and have been since the 18th century.

You wander idly about the museum, gazing at the history of Port in general and Sandeman in particular. The dim lighting and rough wood finishes give the impression of being inside a cask,  or perhaps an ancient sailing ship transporting Port wine to England.

The tour will begin in twelve minutes, by consensus in English. You grasp your € 4.00 entry ticket, waiting for a short woman dressed in  black to lead you forward. Everything seems calculated to burn the house’s logo, the Don, into your brain: he’s plastered on all major axes of circulation, printed on your ticket, explained in the house museum. The guide, a very serious young woman, bears his costume, a wide-brimmed black hat and black cape that absorb the little light present in the cellar so that she almost disappears when she turns her back to the audience.

She beckons, and the group advances, speaking French, English and German in hushed tones as they walk across the wood pavers that line the floor. The pavers are for humidity control and to allow the barrels to be easily moved, the guide explains.

We move down a long corridor lined on both sides with barrels. Vertical cages packed with bottles rise behind the barrels on the right, marked with hanging signs indicating the year they were bottled. These are o meior, vintage Ports. A sign indicates 1957, and I wonder what manner of elixir their contents have become after sitting so long in this dark cave.

The corridor terminates in an array of towering casks, each holding over 20,000 liters of Port.
A wood cutout of the Don reminds everyone where they are, in case the memory dimmed during the three minute walk from the entrance.

The tour proceeds past a small, azulejo-lined pond complete with goldfish (why not cave fish, I wonder). The pond is functional, to maintain humidity.

Flexible pipes crawl across the ground, used to move the Port from the casks to wherever they see fit. In the distance, workers move about, but it’s not clear what they’re doing in this place where the chief asset to quality seems to be time. Time to age the Port, allow it to become imbued with the essences of wood and grape, to mature into something wonderful.

Eventually we pass out of the cellar into a small viewing room, where after a series of slides urging us to drink responsibly, we learn about the regions where the wine is grown, fermented and held prior to arriving in Gaia for aging.

After the presentation, we taste. Today we have a white port and a ruby.  The glasses, already filled and counted, await us at rustic wood benches next to a store where we can purchase Port, T-shirts and all kinds of swag imprinted with the image of the Don.

The white port was a medium amber color and had a sweet note, followed by fresh-sawn oak. Maybe a bit of raisin for fruit. On the tongue, a bit of acidity to balance the sugar, and a caramel finish. A much lighter, perhaps more approachable drink than a red Port, probably with enough sweetness to appeal to younger drinkers. White Port is served chilled, so probably a better choice in summer, too.

The ruby had a better showing of fruit; cherry, maybe blackcurrant, some vanilla, and a bit of caramel. A sip confirmed this impression. This was a much more complicated wine, yet finished cleanly with lingering caramel.

After Sandeman, we decided to head well upslope from the Douro to Croft. They produce the same three kinds of Port as Sandeman, plus one other. They make the traditional wood-aged Tawny, the fruitier and less-aged Ruby, White and only recently, Pink. Think fortified White Zin or rose and you’ll get the picture. Something pretty, easy to drink and new.

Croft tour guides dress more like flight attendants crossed with matadors. Tours are in English only. It doesn’t matter if everyone on the tour is French. They’ll adapt. They’d better, since closing time is fast approaching and nobody wanted to remain any longer than necessary.

Croft grapes are hand picked, and grow on the same slopes with fast draining schist soil that gives such great flavor. The vines’ roots can reach down twenty meters looking for water, and this lack of moisture concentrates flavors in the grapes.

Their vintage Port, only made in truly exceptional years, are crushed by foot. Presumably more ordinary years have to settle for mechanical presses. It’s not clear why feet are better, nor what the cost differences are between the two methods.

The floor at Croft is covered with gravel, something like road base. No wood pavers here, but things seem to work just fine nonetheless. The system of casks and barrels is the same as Sandeman, too. The main difference here is that the visit is free and you receive a complimentary glass of white Port at the end. You can also purchase any other type of Port for tasting.

I found the two white Ports quite similar, since I wasn’t able to taste them side by side. We bought a glass of Pink. The first thing I noticed was a strong hit of alcohol, followed by some fruity notes. Other than that, I don’t have a great recollection of what it tasted like since I forgot to take notes and it was late afternoon.


White Port
We did a bit of testing, and decided that blue cheese and even chocolate (to a lesser extent) do work. So do ripe apricots. Pistachios work well enough, but the apricots and cheese were better.

Ruby Port
Melon and Prosciutto works with the fruitiness of the Port. Cheese (notably blue) and chocolate are also suggested.

Tawny Port
The classic pairing, at least in France, of melon and prosciutto works with Tawny Port as well as Ruby. Sandeman suggested walnuts, blue cheeese (presumably Stilton), chocolate (and chocolate-dipped strawberries). We often serve pistachios with it, too.

One Port producer suggests almond tartes and cream pies to accompany their Tawny Port and dark chocolate for their aged Tawnies.

Recipes for these tapas feature on another producer's site. Note that many of them revolve around blue cheese, cured ham and melon. Blue Cheese Baby Burgers, bruschetta with dried meat, tomato brioche bread with Serrano ham, Four Seasons toast with Valencay goat cheese, melon balls and Prosciutto, and a creamy verrine with avocado, crème fraîche, salmon mousse and Ricotta cheese.
Another producer adds ice cream to the list, without specifying a flavor.

Vintage Port
Apparently, the consensus is that vintage Port is something you savor on its own. However, it pairs with chocolate, cheese or melon like other red Ports.

1 comment:

  1. Mike, I enjoyed the paper, it is very useful. I have enjoyed the Ports in the past and now, or soon, will try some new ones as life allows. You are a great writer of food. I am privileged to be a reader of your works. God bless.