Port Wines Review - An Introduction

Many years ago, I was privileged to attend a holiday weekend lunch at the mountaintop refuge of a distinguished Portugese attorney. He had assembled an impressive gathering, including a theologian, a professor of jurisprudence, a  cleric,  a bullfighter, an actress, a nephew recently  escaped from a revolution in Africa, and several government cronies.  Our host set an extraordinary table, darting back and forth to an open kitchen and into his cellar for wine after wine. A high point came as the sun faded  away late in the day when he clambered out of the cellar bearing a port with a tattered and faded, barely decipherable  label showing its birthdate as 1813.

Gathering grapes

We shared that dark , still fresh, orange wine, voicing our appreciation of the ancient, eminently lush treasure, proof that mature  port is one of life’s great pleasures. I thought of that experience that other day when we sampled another mature beauty, a Barros Collheita Porto from 1974. Smooth, lush, elegant, all sorts of adjectives came to mind. Maturity can be expensive and the normal price for this one is $150. Still, you can pay that much, often more, for any number of Bordeaux and California reds which are still  unproven infants.

 

Map of Porto wine regions

 

The Portugese have been making port–porto in their terminology—atop hills overlooking the Douro river for more than three centuries. It’s basically a sweet wine, fortified with a touch of brandy and sugar to give it extra kick. Other nations, including the United States, produce port but it remains almost synonymous with its original homeland.

  

Douro River

The wine we enjoyed more recently was a wood-aged, single vintage port, a Colheita. It comes with a story.  This special bottling celebrates the “Carnation Revolution” of 1974, when Portugese revolutionaries staged a military coup against a dictatorship which had ruled for forty years and transformed their government into a democracy. Soldiers placed carnations in the muzzles of rifles to celebrate the peace. Our host had been closely allied with the ruling powers while his nephew had been a rebel fighting its colonial regime, but differences were put aside over the holiday table.

 

Grape vines

 

The minimum aging for colheita port is seven years in cask, but the Sogevinus Ports like this one, spend much longer in cask – decades usually. Vintage ports, on the other hand, only spend two years in barrel before being bottled. They mature in wooden barrels and are bottled only when orders are placed. Our 41-year old was a brooding red, powerful, on its way to an elegant old age.

 

The vineyard

For contrast we sampled a domestic port, Terra d’Oro, made from Zinfandel in Amador Count, northern California. There’s no way of telling vintage, but I judge it to be from late harvested Zin dating back to 2014. Terr d’Oro follows the traditional “solera” formula, allowing the winemaker to blend several vintages. It’s a fine, basic level port, rich in aromas of raisined berry fruit, dates, caramel, chocolate, and orange peel, with cocoa and chocolate dominating on the palate. Ready for consumption at any stage. It shows the quality of Calfornia Zin and is not meant to reproduce a Portugese style.   ($20)

 

Churchill's Vintage

Returning to Portugal and a higher price level we tested a 10-year-old Tawny from Churchill, (SRP $34) one of the region’s more distinguished producers. It is a blend of native grapes from several vintages in the Douro. The goal is to achieve the complexity of age, while offering the freshness and acidity of young wine. Churchill’s Tawny is red brick in color, with scents of dried fruit and offering flavors of chocolate, dried fruits, and orange peel on the palate , all melded together nicely after a decade or more in oak. At about $10 less, Churchill offers a white port aged for 10 years in wood, a rarity not often found on  retail shelves. This type fits more into the aperitif category and its balance and smoothness show best when served cold.

 

 

Calem. another major Portugese producer, showed a 2000 Colheita, about $30. Ah, the benefits of maturity. This one is very close to peaking and hard to resist now. It’s a deep, dark beauty with hints of mulberry cherry and oak on the nose, and richly cherry flavored on the palate. It is a promising edition and one I would enjoy tasting again a few years down the road.

 

There are many varieties of port beyond those mentioned previously. It is a fascinating, often neglected wine category.

 

 ALL PHOTOS are courtesy of  THE PRODUCERS.

 

 

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