Portuguese take the art of making Port wine seriously
Stripes Travel reader
Next time you’re in Portugal, go to a solar and try some shipping wine.
Never heard of either? We’ll explain.
In the old days, any Portuguese manor house, or solar, would have a dark, humid cellar to store wine. And in those “slow” times no wine, except port wine, could survive a long sea journey, hence the reason why it is referred to as a “shipping wine.”
Shipping wine’s endurance was the result of the old technique of adding small amounts of alcohol into casks with wine once it had been fermented. In 1820, a new method was developed and that was to add brandy in order to stop the fermentation process halfway. This method created a much sweeter wine. The technique has been used ever since to produce the Port wines we know today.
The image of Port as a very sweet wine that can be drunk only with dessert is wrong for two reasons.
First, there is a great variety of Ports — from extra dry, which is white and not sweet at all, to tawny, which has a flavor akin to raisins, to the multiflavored and very sweet red vintage. (The degree of sweetness depends on the time when the brandy was added during the fermentation process.)
Second, Port is the only wine that is equally good before, during and after a meal.
The Portuguese are very serious about Port. To them, it’s more than a gift of nature. It’s a collective cultural heritage and an art.
To understand just how serious they are consider this: The Port Wine Institute, a public entity, exercises strict control over the quality of Port wines.
The significance attributed to the vinho do Porto is not a modern phenomenon. As early as 1756, the Douro valley in northeastern Portugal was demarcated as the growing region for Port — the first Demarcated Wine Region in the world. By law, the name “Porto” can be used only to label genuine port wine produced in this area. Because, like Champagne or Cognac, Port’s name is sometimes used to label imitations, EU has stepped in and defined the “real thing” through legislation. So, if you see port wines made in Australia, just know that those are not Ports but “fortifieds,” no matter how good they are.
Learning about Port wines is a most pleasant educational experience — it involves a lot of tasting. A good place to start this educational journey is the Solar do Vinho do Porto in the Bairro Alto in Lisbon.
Located in a charming part of the old town and occupying the 18th century Ludovice Palace, the solar — one doesn’t dare call it a bar — provides distinguished ambiance that the Portuguese associate with Port wine.
For the purpose of telling this story accurately, I talked with the solar’s chief barman, Ricardo Carmo. His method of giving an interview was to put five glasses of Port in front of me and teach me some “portiquette.” The glasses were arranged on a white paper place mat in the order of ascending quality from left to right and each had its type marked: “white dry,” “tawny 10 years,” “tawny 20 years,” “late-bottled vintage,” and, the king of them all, “vintage.”
While I was doing the hard work of tasting, Carmo explained what it was all about by using words like “nutty flavor,” “dried fruit overtones,” “aging potential,” “contrasting taste” and “closing the palate.” He also suggested I take a sip of water before moving on to the next sample in order to “clear the palate.”
He told me that for a fuller appreciation of certain flavors they could even be accompanied by things as varied as pâté, almonds or ice-cream. For example, almonds enhance the flavor of a dry Port and bitter chocolate goes well with tawny.
Two hours later, my head felt a bit heavy. It must have been all that newly acquired knowledge. Just think what a tough job professional enologists have: They taste up to 20 different Ports during their 9-to-12 workday, although it is true that they don't get to swallow.
Mary Jolly is a freelance writer who works for the University of Maryland and lives in Lisbon, Portugal. E-mail her at: email@example.com.
If you go ...
To join a wine-tasting, go to the Solar do Vinho do Porto in Lisbon and ask for a “prova” (don’t worry if you forget the word, they speak English). It costs 6 euros per person.
For those who won’t be going to Lisbon soon, a good introduction to Ports could be a bottle of 10-year tawny recommended for newer Port drinkers. Good Port in Portugal can cost anywhere between 10 and 50 euros a bottle. At the Lisbon solar, I saw a nice bottle of Krohn Reserva from 1900 for just 1,139 euros and 20 cents.
The Solar do Vinho do Porto is at Rua de S. Pedro de Alcântara, 45, 1250-237 Lisbon. It is open daily from 11 a.m. to midnight.
To travel the Port Wine Route — visit vineyards and wineries, taste wine and participate in viticultural activities, like the harvesting of the grapes and treading — contact Port Wine Institute in Régua at: Rua dos Camilos, 90. 5050 Peso de Régua, Portugal; telephone (+351) (0) 254- 320-130; Fax: (+351) (0) 254 -320-149; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more “scientific” information, go to www.ivp.pt.
— Mary Jolly