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  • Writer's pictureF.W. Hume


"Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men"

Samuel Johnson (truncated and out of context)

Port is one of the most misunderstood wines in the world. Very much akin to Champagne which is also misunderstood for many of the same reasons.

Here’s some background music for your reading if you like….

Vast amounts of money are spent on packaging and leveraging the prestige of the regions’ names to sell a breathtaking quantity of mass-produced blended beverages. These concoctions are the product of careful blending of different vineyards, harvest years and ageing treatments which have a generally consistent flavour profile from year to year. But in both regions the greatest of the wines are so sublime as to bear very little similarity to the mass-produced wines which share their names. (Another similarity is that both Champagne and Port have been going through some exciting changes in the past decade and just as the rise of some of the "grower" Champagnes is adding a challenge to the entry-level high-production wines of the great houses, there are now some fantastic dry whites and reds from the Douro. And some of them may even more of a bargain than Vintage Port as they are truly great wines that are currently still off many a wine trader’s radar.)

All of the Rubies, Tawnies, Vintage Character, etc, which represent the vast majority of the production are basically blended industrial drinks trading on the glory of the reputation of their regions. All port wines, regardless of labelling, are fortified wines made from authorised grape varietals (there are lot authorised but only a few used principally) in the Douro Region of Portugal.

Duoro valley vines

“Real“ Port (by which I mean the kind that resembles what became one of the most prized wines in the world in the 17th and 18th centuries) is principally only Vintage Port and Single Quinta Vintage Port (SQVP) with some close up occasional support from Colheita, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) and old tawny.

Vintage Port is wine that is made only in certain “declared” years designated by the vineyard and approved by the IVDP (Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto) and usually from the produce of the best selected vineyards. The wine is made and bottled complete with its lees. It continues to age and mature reacting to them. It requires patience. Too sweet and jammy (though there are those that have a taste for young Vintage Port) in its youth it needs long ageing, generally at least 20-25 years and often much more. It has a “crust” this thick deposit of material made up of the aged lees in the bottom of the bottle. SQVP is similar to Vintage only from a non declared year and made from a single selected vineyard that the producer believes had production every bit the equal of a vintage from a declared year.

Colheita (Which ironically means Vintage in Portuguese) is also special; the wines are from non-declared years and aged in barrels like tawny but it is still from only one year. When bottled it is filtered and so without lees, marked with the year it was made, often in very small print somewhere other than on the label with the date it was bottled. It does not improve in the bottle (not really which is why that bottling date is interesting, it tells you how long it has aged like the date of Dégorgement for a Champagne). It is cheaper than Vintage, has a similar character, and because it ages in wood instead of a bottle it gets more oxygen in the wood and ages faster, so a 1978 Colheita will ne much more mature than Vintage of a similar age. Only it is significantly cheaper and has the greater oxidation and favour profile of the barrels.

Vila Niva de Gaia Port Shipper Warehouses

Most people go to the cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia and are tipsily awash in all the glasses of freely offered misleading cheaper blends; Ruby and Tawny, Reserve, Vintage Character. But if you stick with Vintage, SQVP, Colheita, Garrafeira and LBV your palate will quickly start to become habituated to their magic...when you go back and taste the worst of the blended stuff later you will recognise it as the vile soda pop that most of it is.

While Vintage and Colheita are much more expensive than the dreck, they are still among the least expensive truly great wines in the world because sweet wines have largely fallen out of favour. A 1/2 bottle of 1985 Burmeister Vintage can be found for around 70 Euros bo and a 1985 Kopke (a house that also is making some interesting cask-aged white ports) Colheita can be had for under 50 euros. A1/2 bottle of a comparable year of Chateau Lafite or Vosne Romanée or Chambertin (if could find it in half bottles), would start at around 250…..

And a mature vintage or colheita with a strong hard or blue cheese, and maybe a handful of dried figues might be the ultimate coda to a magnificent meal.

DOC restaurant in the Duoro valley, one of the finest wine lists, and restaurants in Portugal perfect place for the aforementioned magnificent meal

Lastly: Extra Credit. The legend. For those of you hunting down those much-longed-for rarities in the world, the Pappy Van Winkle bourbons, The Vielle Vigne Françaises of champagne...the port to hunt down is Quinta Do Noval Nacional an SQVP made from pre-phylloxera vines!

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