In Which I Drink Some Port

Earlier in the week I wanted to buy a bottle of wine by way of thank you to someone who helped me with getting my tax number and introduced me to an estate agent here.  I stumbled into what I mistook for a wine shop in Ribeira, and found instead the most wonderful little pub which offers only ports – over 200 available by the glass, and all strictly single quinta independent producer ports, none of the big shippers’ wines.  I needed to be responsible that day, but today I had no obligations, so I returned.

I had glanced briefly at their menu, for lack of a better word, which described a number of tastings that could be arranged – a glass of each type of port, for example (white, tawny, ruby) or vertical tastings of vintages and colheitas, and so on.   When I returned, I asked to try three ports, of the same style, but from each of the major regions:  Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo, and Douro Superior.  I was curious if I could taste the differences in climate and terrain.

In a way, I didn’t taste what I wanted or expected to, but I certainly enjoyed the wines, they were wonderful.  My mistake was twofold:  first, I chose ten year old tawnies, which by nature are multi-vintage blends, so though all the wines blended in would be of the terroir, I imagine the aging would mask or change some qualities that might stand out in a single vintage wine.  Second, not a mistake, but just a fact of life – there isn’t a single quinta producer  really deep in the Douro Superior – the nearest or most different from typical Cima Corgo was a quinta on the Rio Torto, which runs south from Pinhão.  So, I may have to repeat this all with rubies to try out my idea of tasting climate and terrain (shame!).

Meanwhile, the wines I tasted were wonderful, and beautifully presented.  The bartender gave a lot of thought to selecting the wines for me, offering two choices for my not-quite-Douro-Superior, and I chose the organic one.  He then set out three glasses, with a glass of water to the right, and asked if I wanted almonds (warning me they were salted) or chocolates – I chose chocolates, and he set a small dish of bitter dark chocolates on the left.  As he poured each wine, he set the bottle on the table behind the glass, and left it there so I could consult it as needed.

The line up was as follows, all ten year old tawnies:

Quinta das Lamelas 10 YO Tawny, bottled 2009, 19.5%.   This one is from near Lamego, which is about 15 km south of Regua.  Beautiful warm golden tawny colour, slightly paler mid gold rim.  The nose was heavenly, it simply SMELLED tawny, like a warm summer day, just too intense and complex to parse out individual scents.  It was a pure fruit scent, I definitely did not spot the sort of secondary or tertiary scents like wood, smoke or leather.  On the palate, I was more aware of sensations than flavours – it simply expanded in your mouth, had a wonderful backdraft, and wonderful acidity and length.  When you are learning to taste wine, you are taught that a wine has good acidity when it makes your mouth water – if you open your mouth slightly and breath in through your mouth, the insides of your cheeks should salivate – that’s acidity.  This was a truly mouthwatering wine – wonderful acidity.  The only tasting note per se I have is very dark honey.  I will also note that after two hours spent pondering and tasting all three wines in turn, I felt I could only finish up one glass and still walk home safely after dark – this is the one I chose to finish.

Quinta de Val da Figueira 10 YO Tawny, bottled 2008, 20%.  This one is from Pinhão, it’s actually the next quinta down river from Quinta de la Rosa, which I visited in October.  Colour was deeper, darker, more opaque than the previous – it reminded me of a beautiful newly laid and varnished cherrywood floor I had once seen – so a deep red-tawny colour – with a quite narrow clear strawberry rim.  Nose was warm orchard and stone fruit, dark honey and a whiff of smokiness.  Palate – again fabulous acidity and length.  I used to buy apricots that were dried without preservatives and so were much darker and gooier and chewier and far more flavourful than the “preservatived” ones that were still pale orangey and had a decidedly dry texture – this wine was definitely reminiscent of the former.  Of the three wines, this one held up against the bitter dark chocolate best – the other two seemed to lighten up when contrasted with the chocolate, this one was in no way diminished by contrast with the chocolate.  Later, on repeat tasting, a slight cedar-y aroma came up on the nose, which didn’t entirely please me (but that could just be bad memories of cleaning out the gerbil cage as a child).

Casal dos Jordões 10 YO Tawny, bottled 2009, 20%, this is the one from down the Rio Torto valley, which runs southeast from near Pinhão.  Colour similar to prior, deep opaque red-tawny, wider strawberry rim.  Nose was initially the most delicate, had the most finesse of the three, later, my last whiff of the evening, it definitely rose out of the glass to meet me – which was a joy!  Palate was most complex and concentrated, if the others brought to mind some fruits, this brought to mind the whole fruitcake – intense, melded fruit and spice flavours.  Good acidity, but not as overt as the other two, ditto the finish.  Overall, this one had more going on for flavour, but less going on for sensation in the mouth.

When I went back for a nose of all three in quick succession, there was a distinct crescendo of density and complexity.

All told, a really enjoyable two hours of wine.  As it was late afternoon and no other customers at the time, the bartender and I were talking about the wines and wine making.  One factoid that stands out in memory is that there are 39,100 growers in the region cultivating 45,700 hectares of vinyards, of which 26,000 hectares produce for port wines, and most of that goes to supply the big port shippers – and only 37 independent single quinta producers.  Vinologia (this pub) focuses on the ports from these 37 producers, both by the glass in the bar, and for sale by the bottle (so I wasn’t entirely off, it is a wine shop too…).  The pub is on the corner of the Rua do São João and Rua do Infante Dom Henrique, just above the Praça da Ribeira, on the Oporto waterfront.

For a completely different experience, Friday morning I visited the IVDP – Instituto do Vinho do Douro e Porto.  This is the governing body for the port trade and recently merged with another entity responsible for protecting and promoting the broader concerns of the Douro wine DOC.

Every wine that wishes to carry DOC status must be tested and approved by the IVDP – their stamp of approval is that white label secured under the seal of the cork with a specific number that can be traced back, if there are any concerns.  Producers must submit samples of all their wines for testing shortly before bottling, and the IVDP also conducts random sampling, both at the producers’ and by buying bottles off the shelves from shops.  All testing is conducted blind.

The first sort of testing consists of a great many terribly high tech scientific chemical analyses for sugar and alcohol content, levels of various chemicals, testing for contaminants or micro-organisms, etc. and you peer through a window at a terribly modern laboratory with all kinds of machines and test tubes and white coated scientists.

Then you go round the corner and you see testing done by good old fashioned tasting – although these scientists also are white coated, and the samples are still blind, what you see through the window is a man seated in a rather 90’s office cubicle, with a computer screen before him, a patch of natural white light in which to appraise colour, and a line up of 10 glasses of wine, each numbered.  Their job is to confirm the good old fashioned way that the wine is, or tastes like, what it purports to be – e.g. a ten year old tawny, and that it does not taste “off” or faulty even if all the chemical analyses show it shouldn’t.  Interestingly, in any given lineup, ten percent of the samples will be wines previously tested by that taster – a master taster reviews their findings for consistency, as a quality assurance review.

After this very brief tour you are offered a tasting of one wine from a selection of five or six possibilities, all from the big shippers (one wine free with tour price – for additional price, you can taste various multiples and combinations of the available wines).  Only, I got lucky and got a double dip – since my first choice had only a thimbleful left in the bottle, my guide allowed me to taste a second one, and I got a proper serving with which to sit and watch a video tour of the Douro and some regional restaurants.  It felt very decadent to be sitting there drinking port at 11:30 in the morning…

The first small sample was Fonseca Bin 27 Finest Reserve Ruby.  From my very tiny sample it was a deep dark opaque garnet colour, with some precipitation of course from the end of the bottle.  Flavour was the apotheosis of strawberry jam, pure and concentrated – and that was a very good thing.  It’s possible an entire glass could become cloying – but I would be very willing to try it and see!  I could think of a recipe for a chocolate cake that might go well with this, too…

My second proper serving was Sandeman’s Imperial Reserve Tawny.  This came straight out of the fridge (first serving of the morning) and the nose was pretty whiffy – it seemed to be all secondary flavours of smoke and wood shavings, and no fruit.  Later, having warmed it a bit in my hands, more fruit came up both on nose and palate.  It was pleasant, but it probably suffered from the contrast, being consumed less than 24 hours after those three ten year old single quinta tawnies at Vino Logia.  On the other hand, I did finish the glass whilst watching the food and travel videos, so it wasn’t bad stuff at all.

The website for the IVDP is in Portuguese, English, French, and Spanish, and there is quite a lot of information on there about the wines and the region generally, as well as the work and role of the IVDP.