13 November 2015

Port’s Golden Age


“It’s not too far,” says Alastair Robertson, chairman of port shippers Taylor’s as he points to a small classical folly, jutting out on a high ridge above the river Douro. It’s dusk and having just arrived, via train, to this remote outpost of the upper Douro valley I’m keen to stretch my legs. Besides, Alastair has promised a drink at the top, so off we head, his dog Sharpe leading the way.

We’re at Quinta de Vargellas, the jewel in Taylor’s portfolio and one of the great port producing vineyards of the world. Walking along the dusty, narrow road which leads up to our destination, a little pagoda built to celebrate the ruby wedding anniversary of Alastair and his wife Gillyane, we pass the steep sided slopes of Vinha Velha an immaculate terrace of vines known in English as the old vineyard.

If we were anywhere else on the fine wine route: Napa, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barossa such a prestigious vineyard would probably have a handful of wine enthusiasts milling around taking pictures, but not here. All around us is silence, the mountains dropping down to the river which lies still, like a dark, marble floor. Stopping to drink in the view I can’t help but feel Port really is the fine wine that everyone has forgot.

A quick flick through any auction catalogue or brokers list underlies the point. Taylor’s, along with Graham’s, Fonseca, Noval, Niepoort and Warre’s, is one of the leading port houses and yet it is still possible to pick up a bottle of its 10-year-old tawny for as little as £10 or $25. Their premier product, vintage port a characterful, intense wine which in texture and taste is light years away from the thick, mellow ruby ports served by the glass in bad wine bars, sells for a fraction of its fine wine counterparts. Take Taylor’s 1985 vintage port, which is just starting to reach maturity and will provide an awful lot of pleasure over the next few years, it presently sells for around £65 $70 a bottle. Compare this with the leading wine in Bordeaux, of the same year, Château Lafite-Rothschild, and the difference is more than £300 $455 with Lafite retailing for around £375 $570. When it comes to fine wine, port really is a steal.

Quite why it is such a bargain must sit in the craw of the port shippers because it is not as if its cheap to make. One of the reasons the Douro valley is so quiet is because it remains one of Europe’s last wildernesses. Although its only 120 kilometers from the Atlantic city of Oporto, like the Scottish Highlands, it feels like the edge of civilization. Some of the small villages only received electricity in the 1960s, wifi and a mobile signal? Forget it. In the summer temperatures can rise by as much as 40C, in the winter they drop to below freezing. This is a tough place to make wine. As David Guimaraens, head winemaker at Taylor’s explains, the Douro valley is ‘mountain viticulture in a hot climate.’

From where I am standing, peering over the terraced vineyards, one has to wonder why anyone would plant vineyards here in the first place? It was the Romans who were the first to introduce agriculture into the region, but it wasn’t until the seventeenth century that the sweet, smooth red wine we know today as port was created for export. English merchants had been trading in the north of Portugal, exchanging wool for wine and olive oil, since the 14th century yet when Charles II, in reaction to Louis XIV protectionist policies, restricted the import of French goods, the wines really found an export market.

The English wine trade, starved of their beloved claret, looked to Portugal where in the vast canyon of the Douro a robust red wine was found. They shipped it from Oporto, which lent its name to the wine which was abbreviated to port. The first shipment was recorded in 1678 after two English brothers, sent to Portugal to set up a wine business stopped off at a monastery in the town of Lamego, along the Douro valley. There the Abbot served them a rich, sweet red wine. Delighted with what they were drinking they enquired as to its origins only to be told that the Abbott had a habit of adding local brandy to the cask, thus stopping the fermentation, preserving the sugar content and the wine at 20% alcohol, a practice that continues to this day.

If any wine in the world can be claimed to be invented by the British, it is port. As Ben Howkins writes in ‘Rich, Rare & Red – A Guide to Port” it is impossible to ignore the role played by three British families, Croft, Taylor’s and Warre’s, in its invention. ‘The fact is,’ he writes ‘that they invented it, were the first to export it, intermarried because of it and are still, over 300 years later, the trustees of it throughout the world.’

Today port is hopelessly unfashionable, compound this with a decade of discounting by British supermarkets, the growth of table wine from the Douro, the decline of the long ‘City lunch’ where port was traditionally served at the end of the meal and a lack of interest by a younger generation of drinkers more interested in craft beers and gin and we arrive where we are – a fine wine, chronically undervalued. All this of course is excellent news for the canny connoisseur.

Both vintage Port and Late Bottled Vintage are good buys but where I feel the real value lies is in tawny port, where the wine has been aged in barrels for between 10 and 40 years. At their best they possess a clean, nutty, silky style. I like to serve them slightly chilled, around 10C. Their strength is that they can be served as an aperitif, digestive with both pudding and cheese. They truly deserve their place among the great wines of the world.

Back at Vargellas we have reached the folly where, from a cool box, Alastair produces that drink he promised, white port mixed with tonic, ice and a slice of lemon. It’s surprisingly refreshing and in another world could rival gin and tonic. The problem is we need a name, he says. ‘WPT’ I suggest? Although I can’t see it ever hitting the mainstream. Port will always be the canny connoisseurs little secret.


1985 Taylor’s, Douro Valley, Portugal

This vintage port, described as the Latour of Portugal, is just starting to reach its drinking window. Mid ruby in colour, it has an evocative fragrance of wood smoke, cassis and spice. Soft and silky in the mouth, nevertheless once swallowed it has a powerful kick and leaves a sensation on the tongue of tingling freshness.

Grahams 10-year-old Tawny Port, Graham’s, Portugal

Graham’s is famous for its big, deep, rich style and this certainly doesn’t disappoint on that front. I would slightly chill this and serve it either as an aperitif or with a cheese board. Ripe with a distinctive nutty, honeyed aroma and a smooth figgy taste. This is a long satisfying drink.

Fonseca 10-year-old Tawny Port, Fonseca, Portugal

The style of Fonseca is perhaps a little more voluptuous and forward than its parent company Taylor’s. This is smooth, polished and ripe, a generous glass of port in every sense and one for a brilliantly cold day, that one can enjoy cosied up by a roaring log fire.

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Will Lyons is an award-winning wine writer, journalist and broadcaster.