Life | A Date With Port

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A Date With Port
Text by Sheetal Wadhwa Munshaw
Published: Volume 20, Issue 7, July, 2012

Narrow cobbled streets and geometric terraces...riverside cafés and wine cellars…barrel baths and sensory treatments.... Sheetal Wadhwa Munshaw explores the spectacular landscape and unusual offerings of Porto and discovers what makes Port wine so distinctively different from any other

For most Indians, the first tryst with Portugal is through Goa. This is the state where remnants of 450 years of Portuguese colonisation still manifest themselves through its architecture and traditional Portuguese tiles incorporated in its rustic villas, its culinary influence with infusions of palm vinegar, spice and love for seafood, its susegad attitude and joie de vivre, making Goa more a ‘state of mind’ than a mere state and, of course, its love for wine and more importantly Port wine.

All things Portuguese have been embraced and adopted in Goa and wine is no exception. This is probably the only part of India where wine is consumed effortlessly with food. It’s almost second nature to Goans to serve wine as an aperitif, as a companion to their meals and to end on a sweet note with dessert. And while their love for wine is much like the Portuguese, one can’t quite say the same about the wine itself!

It would in fact be safe to say that Goan Port is nothing like its wine of origin which is among the finest wines in the world with a viticulture that is both distinctive and inimitable. But sooner or later Goan ‘Port’ wine will no longer be recognised as such as the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto, the regulatory body of Port wine in Portugal, is protecting the appellation of ‘Port wine’ much like the case of ‘Champagne’. Soon Goan ‘Port wine-makers will have to take recourse to an appellation akin to the South Africans who now produce Cape Tawny and are no longer permitted to classify it as Port.

All my life I have loved Goa and found solace and refuge in its beguiling beaches and buzzing cafés, and after two decades of having travelled to Goa extensively and repeatedly, it was finally time to trace back to its origins and, of course, to sample some very exquisite Port wines.

As soon as I set foot into Porto, or ‘OPorto’ as it is often referred to, history began to fact, Porto lends its name to both the wine and the country. Its importance in culture and history has led to it being classified as a World Heritage Site.

The headquarter of the wine industry in Portugal, Porto has been the home of British wine shippers for over three centuries making it the historic centre of Port. Famed Port houses continue to have cellars in Porto and most of the wine ageing happens here. Cellars allow travellers and wine enthusiasts from around the world to sample premium Port brands, offering an unparalleled wine and gourmet experience with vibrant riverside cafés and restaurants on both sides of the River Douro.

Like most cities, Porto is best discovered on foot as you meander through its narrow cobbled stoned streets with a multitude of sightseeing spots. This charming city adorned with amber rooftops and azure skies is entrenched in history – with baroque churches, cathedrals, museums and monuments. Even its Sao Bento train station is nothing short of a museum with its traditional Portuguese tile work depicting significant moments in the history of Portugal.

I started my day with breakfast at the Majestic Café. Founded in 1921, it is an iconic mélange of culture and cuisine. To get to the other side you could take a funicular ride that takes you from the riverside of Porto’s old town adjacent to the Dom Luis Bridge that is a symbol of the city’s skyline, and then onto the other side of the city.

My next stop was my abode in Porto, The Yeatman Hotel, the first luxury wine hotel in Portugal! Part of the Relais et Chateaux Collection, the Yeatman is family-owned by the Fladgate group that includes the famed Taylor’s Port brand. It has unmatched panoramic views of the Duoro River and the city. A veritable wine destination, wine is the leitmotif running through every corner of the property – be it the caricatures in the rooms depicting wine tasting, its signature Caudalie wine spa offering a bouquet of sensory wine treatments or the indulgent barrel baths and, of course, its bed etched out of a barrel in its master suite!

The hotel’s wine cellar – for private viewing only – is home to 25000 bottles and has walls adorned with trivia on Portuguese wines. The most intriguing are photographs of wine glasses with the note profile denoted through flowers or fruits that correspond to the tasting profile of the wine. Only two years into its existence, this property has already won accolades and received a Michelin star for its restaurant that invites you to sample exquisite food and wine pairings every Thursday orchestrated by sommeliers of top Portuguese wine brands.

But the feather in its hat according to me is its envious setting in the very heart of Port wine country, a few steps away from a multitude of signature Port wine houses and primarily from the legendary Taylor’s wine cellars. Taylor’s dates back to over 302 years, it is one of the oldest of founding Port houses and remains dedicated to the production of Port wine and in particular to its finest styles. Most of the grapes are still trodden in the traditional style by foot in large stone tanks called ‘lagares’. The maceration by human foot brings out the concentration of flavour from the grape skin from which deeper hues are drawn that set their wines apart. The highest average Parker scorer of any wine producer in the world at a whooping 98 points, Taylor’s is known for its vintage Ports and for pioneering the Late Bottled Vintage style and the Chip Dry style of white Port (more dry to sweet one). The group has three premium estates in the Duoro valley including the Quinta (Estate) de Vargellas, Quinta de Terra Feita and the Quinta de Junco.

So what makes Port wine so distinctly different from any other? To begin with the vinification process, grapes are crushed to release the juice, fermentation starts and the grapes are trodden by foot or now in some cases using a mechanised system using Piston technology dubbed ‘Port toes’. The process extracts colour, aromas and tannins from the grape skins. Next, brandy is added to stop the fermentation before all the natural sugar of the grapes is turned into alcohol...making this a fortified wine style that is ideal for aperitifs and dessert wines. These wines usually have 20 per cent alcohol content making them fairly robust.

Major styles of Port include Porto Blanco Whites, Tawny (from 10 years to Colheita – the 50-year-olds), Full-Bodied or Ruby or LBV (Late Bottled Vintage) and, of course, the Vintage that is only declared in the best years. Most Port wines are classified based on ageing with white Port being the exception to the rule. Port wines are usually blended wines (of several years) with the exception of Colheita in Tawny style and the LBV or full bodied or Ruby and the Vintage. Ports are typically aged in vats or barrels with the exception of Vintage wines that are aged in the bottle after spending two years in the vats.

And it is the ageing process that lends the wine the versatile character and flavours, making Tawnys more complex, with the barrel ageing and maximum interaction with wood giving them a nutty, spicy character and amber colours, while full-bodied (LBV) wines or Rubies aged in vats are fruitier. The Vintage wines are extremely complex with unparalleled elegance and delicacy due to their next to nil interaction with oxygen and ageing in the bottle itself.

We start our tasting with the Chip Dry Port Porto Blanco Extra Sec, a dry style wine ideal for an aperitif. A fairly versatile wine style, it can be topped up with tonic, lime, ice and fresh mint leaf accompanied by salted nuts or olives.

Our next wine is a serious dessert wine with an intense amber tawny colour true to its style. This is a 20-year-old Tawny with a voluptuous nose, oodles of jammy nutty aromas, concentrated flavours and an elegant finish. Ideal with figs, crème brulee or caramel or even better had on its own! We concluded our tasting with the last declared 2009 Vintage Port. These bottles when opened must be consumed within a day or two as they have been protected from oxygen for long – and interaction with air after a while can have nasty effects on the wine. These wines should ideally be decanted before serving. Dry fruits and particularly walnuts are an excellent accompaniment to Vintage Port, as are blue veined and other richly flavoured cheeses. The opening is on a vigorous note with fragrant and complex citrus, fruity and herbacious notes.

Next morning my Portuguese friend Luis and I headed into the Duoro wine region – the first demarcated wine region in the world back in 1756! About an hour and half from Porto, along the stunning Duoro River, the vine-filled valley is classified as a world heritage site. The river was given the name of Ouro (gold) because it brings the water that the sun-drenched vines rely on to produce the Port wine.

Wines in Portugal are planted in the form of firm terraces in an almost geometric style and their contoured lines are completely different from anything I have ever seen before. The vineyards are spread over about 45,000 hectares along steep granite slopes, some that grow defying the laws of nature. A must-visit on a wine enthusiast’s itinerary, Duoro is home to some of the most distinguished ‘Quintas’ wine estates in the country.

You can make your way to Duoro fairly easily from Porto by road, or on a scenic helicopter ‘sky gourmet’ flight, or take a boat from the quay in Porto and leisurely cruise up the river or go by train from São Bento station and travel on the single track line. For a wine aficionado, I would recommend at least an overnight stay to savour the wines and experience the spectacular and unusual landscape.

In terms of wine tasting, the most popular region within Duoro is Pinhão that houses most of the premium wine estates. Our pick was the spectacular Quinta do Seixo, part of the Sogrape group, which is the largest wine producer in Portugal. It also owns the famed Mateus Rose brand now christened `Mateus Rosé Tempranillo’. This winery is state-of-the-art replete with modern technology both for wine making and tasting. A touch of drama resonates as you are ushered in by your wine tour escort dressed up in a ‘Sandeman Don’ costume, a major icon in the wine world, with his black cape and Spanish style ‘sombrero’. A video speaks about the vinification of Sandeman, the flagship brand of the group, the first company to brand its name on a cask with a hot iron, ending with the maceration process.

The tasting room and boutique are enhanced by a view of sun-kissed vineyards. We tasted the famous ‘Apetiv’, the signature chip dry style, a 20-year-old tawny which interestingly makes for a delicious cocktail with old whiskey and orange rind, an LBV and, the most interesting ‘Vau Vintage’ or the ‘now Vintage’ that encourages you to enjoy the wine young within 12 years of age.

As my sojourn drew to a close, my friend Luis had saved the best for the last. Our next stop was lunch at the DOC restaurant, the gourmet address of the Duoro region, opened in 2007 by Chef Rui Paula. This is a contemporary minimalistic building perched over the water’s edge on the Folgosa pier with stylish wooden deck and ceiling-to-floor glass walls that add to the aura of space and expanse.

An award-winning restaurant, DOC has won several gold and silver medals for ‘Dining with Port’. Chef Rui Paula’s cookbook, A Kitchen in Duoro, has won the coveted Gourmand World Cookbook Prize among others. And needless to say then that the cuisine certainly does match the elevated standards of the scenery that surrounds it. It is a traditional Portuguese cuisine with a very nouveau and sophisticated style of preparation and presentation. I would definitely recommend a sampling of one of the Chef’s tasting menus.

The Duoro region produces some delectable table wines not to the same glory and grandeur of its Ports but which team beautifully with local delicacies. To round off, you could well choose from some of the precious Ports.


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