It is hard to think about imbibing at the start of the new year. Pockets are lighter, or empty, and your body is saying, “More, really?” As people with jobs that don’t include tasting wine and developing recipes embark resolutely on new diets and workout regimens, those working in the food and wine industry typically spend these first few weeks of the year thinking about what will be the next big thing in the coming year.
I took advantage of a long weekend and hopped over to Porto to see what is new in port wine. Safe to say that not much has changed in two hundred and fifty years. The legend goes that a wine merchant from Liverpool sent his sons in 1678 to Portugal in search of wine. They stumbled upon a monastery above the Douro river in the village of Lamego. Here monks added brandy to the wine during fermentation rather than after. Previously, traders stabilized the wine with a spirit before shipment to London. The early importers realized that not only was the wine preserved from spoilage in transit, but it tasted better than traditional table wine.
Port is a fascinating beverage that takes a rustic version of brandy, called aquardente in Portuguese, and adds it to the must, killing the yeasts and thereby arresting the fermentation. Sugar remains and is balanced by tannin, alcohol and a range of aromas in ruby to vintage ports. This tannin and alcohol along with a decent acidity, make vintage ports some of the longest lived wines in the world. Ferreira has a vintage port from 1815 that was recently auctioned. As Stephan, our Ferreira guide, said, “You only invite your best friends over that night…and vintage port should be consumed within 48 hours.”
The wine used to make port comes from the Douro Valley. D.O.C. Douro is one of the oldest quality regions anywhere in the world having been established in 1756, just five years after the establishment of the first Port winery Ferreira, which we visited. Yields in the Douro are among the lowest in the world with just 500 to 750 g per vine or 1.5 kg from newer, 20 years or more vines. The most common grapes are touriga nacional, tinta barroca, touriga franca, tinta roriz, and tinto cão for red port and gouveio, malvasia and viosinho for white port.
The grapes are grown upstream, east of Porto in the valley where their flavor phenols develop rich berry character the further east you go and the more extreme the climate becomes. At the Spanish border, temperatures regularly exceed 35°F in the summer. Many ports are then sent downstream to age in the caves across the river from Porto in an enclave called Vila Nova de Gaia, where all the port lodges can be found. On a beautiful albeit cold January morning, it was a nice place to be. After all, Wine Spectator gave the 2014 Wine of the Year title to Dow’s vintage port 2011.