O VINHO DO PORTO

by Giovanni PereiraClick on the SEARCH icon and enter his ID number (22763) to be taken to his personal page

First published in the UMA News Bulletin under the pen-name "Caramba"
("Hovering" the cursor over a Portuguese word will often reveal the English translation.)

O vinho do Porto está de parabéns. In 1997, the Wine Spectator, an important American publication included two Ports amongst the Best Wines of the Year, namely the 1994 Vintage Ports of Taylor and of Fonseca. It is apt that an English House and a Portuguese one were chosen, for the story of this unique fortified wine is about the exceptional relationship between England and its oldest ally, Portugal. An alliance that traces its origin to the Treaty of Windsor in May of 1386 allowing for mutual assistance and privileged trading relations between them and which was reinforced a year later by the happy marriage of Dom João I to his English bride, Philippa of Lancaster which produced eight children including D. Henrique the Navigator.

Vintage Port is only declared by producers in exceptional years and obviously this is an endeavour that puts the reputation of the House on the line. Only some two percent of Port produced is of this variety, so it is no wonder that it is much appreciated.

The river Douro which starts in Spain is a quick flowing 560 mile waterway winding through narrow gorges on its way to Porto and the Atlantic, forming the largest basin in Iberia. The rugged valleys and steep hillsides were producing wine well before Portugal became a nation as the Romans encouraged viticulture during their occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. It was demarcated officially as a wine region as early as 1756 and is, no doubt, the world's most difficult wine growing terrain: in places appearing like a lunar landscape in terms of its isolation and lack of fertile soil. Moreover it is accompanied by scorching summers and bone chilling winters.

Over time, the sides of the mountains have been fashioned into terraces by smashing the schistose rocks up to a depth of three feet and the roots of the vines have to travel up to sixty feet down through fissures in the schist in search of water.

The British had come to what they call Oporto to trade as far back as the 17th century, exchanging for instance, bolts of cloth and codfish for wine, honey and fruit. Wine making in Portugal was not as serious an endeavour as in France. The wine was dry and pretty rough. Plonk. Moreover it didn't travel well. Hostilities between England and France denied the English access to their favorite Claret from Bordeaux and forced them to turn to their old ally for their sustenance, as merchants and shippers.

With typical missionary zeal, their involvement grew and many British traders settled permanently in Porto, carrying out their business in Rua dos Inglêses – now called Rua do Infante Dom Henrique – and built their own 'lodges' alongside the Douro's mouth in Vila Nova da Gaia, opposite Porto, where they store the wine brought down the treacherous river in flat bottom boats called Barcos Rabelos, designed similarly to ancient Phoenician ships. Anywhere from 30 to 70 pipes or casks of Port are piled high and lashed to the deck of these boats with just one sail and six oars. Today, most Port is transported by tanker trucks!

The Anglo community in the early days teemed with colorful and resourceful characters like Scot George Sandeman who arrived in 1790 with 300 pounds sterling to his name and built it into a fortune as one of the largest Port houses and who is also involved with Sherry in Jerez.

Then there were others like Joseph James Forrester who as a surveyor, cartographer and artist, charted the Douro wine region and river for which he received a baronetcy in 1855 from D. Pedro IV. Tragically, he drowned in his beloved river six years later when his boat capsized in the dangerous rapids of Valeira, since dammed. One of his two lady companions, Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira, founder of the House of Ferreira, survived apparently by floating to safety in her voluminous skirts!

Other English names that feature prominently in the Port business are Taylor, Graham, Dow, Warre, Croft, Cockburn, Offley. The descendants of these early merchants continue to do well in Porto. They remain very English up to this day, playing cricket, celebrating the Queen's birthday, sending their children to the British school they set up, attending services at their Protestant churches, and so on.

For over 200 years, the British Business Association met every Wednesday – there was no mail by steamer on Wednesdays – to discuss their business over lunch and of course a generous libation of Port. On weekends, they would often retire to their Quintas with spectacular views of the Douro.

Nobody really knows who really first produced a fortified wine in Portugal. Some claim a wine merchant from Liverpool came upon a monastery in Lamego where the abbot was adding brandy to the wine they were producing during, rather than after, fermentation, thereby halting the process and resulting in a wine that was sweet, fruity and strong.

Port is still very much considered an Englishman's wine. Many an English connoisseur, with an understanding and appreciation of a fine aged Tawny or a noble Vintage, can become misty eyed over Port's luscious body and richly developed bouquet.

The French actually buy the most Port but mainly Ruby, the least expensive style. There is apparently a growing American interest in the top quality range like Vintage – the veritable jewel in the crown, the black, purple superior quality wine from a single year and which has to be bottled between 2nd year and 3rd year of making. Only a Vintage Port improves in glass and precisely for this reason, bottles should be stored on their side, with little or no light, ideally at temperatures between 12°C and 15°C with the minimum of variation and in a not too damp or too dry place.

Whilst White Port makes for an aperitif par excellence when served chilled – especially accompanied by lightly salted almonds that have been grilled with butter in the oven or sautéed in olive oil – there's nothing like a Vintage port with cheese. The British associate it with their Stilton. On the other hand, the Portuguese prefer a soft goat's cheese such as Queijo da Serra or one from cow's milk like Queijo da Ilha São Jorge from the Açores.

It goes without saying that an aged port must be decanted but this needs to be done with care. Which vintages to buy depends on whether one wants to lay it down or serve it in the near future. Young vintages that can still be had at reasonable prices include '94,'95 and keep an eye out for the excellent '97 Vintage which has just been declared. You may drink some now but be sure to keep some for future occasions. If you are looking for something now, try 1978, 1983 or 1984.

Saúde!