Douro and Port
Portugal is, of course, best known for port, the great fortified wine made from grapes grown on steep slopes in the dry, warm Douro Valley. At a Portuguese tasting at the swanky Palace Hotel in San Francisco, I sampled some extraordinary old ports, which showed just how ageworthy the finest ports are. I also tasted a number of table whites and reds from the Douro - in this case demonstrating the quality of Portuguese wines, but also the difficulty in selling them to consumers used to French grape varieties.
Portuguese white wine has a lot going for it, as the wines I tasted from the Douro confirmed. The grape varieties are fairly aromatic and share a crisp acidity, and blending adds different characteristics and qualities. The wines are refreshing and approachable, with structure added by lees ageing and maybe a little old oak. The downside is that there are so many grape varieties used, often unfamiliar to the consumer, that it's difficult to get a handle on the many subtly different styles of wines. Some wines, grassy and herbaceous, reminded me of Sauvignon Blanc; the most interesting were reminiscent of the best Italian whites, with smoked almond aromas and a really dry, mineral mouthfeel.
Porto Réccua Branco 2015
From a new winery, this was a good example of how Italian the Douro whites can feel, with stone, peach, mineral aromas, and a very refreshing acidity. ✪✪✪✪
Portuguese - and especially Douro - reds are so distinctive that it can take some getting used to for those trained on New World wines. The tannins are unavoidable, and I have to note that there was a stinky, Brett character to a lot of the reds I tried that wouldn't sit well in California. Furthermore, the many different indigenous varieties don't have an easy international comparison. But these wines are worth persevering with, with ripe red and black fruit and floral aromas and a rich, almost sweet intensity.
There are a couple of important labelling terms that can be easily confused with neighbouring Spain. Reserva simply refers to a wine that's been aged for one year (like Riserva in Italy), without denoting the nature of that ageing. Grande Reserva (pronounced more or less like Gran Reserva in Spain) is a term I hadn't previously encountered; the wines, I was told, must be aged for at least eighteen months. Unlike Spain, this term does not denote a style but refers, a little tenuously, to quality.
Vieira de Sousa Reserva 2014
I preferred the Reservas to the Grande Reservas, as they kept a little more of the youthful fruitiness. This wine had a year's ageing in used oak, allowing the red and black fruits to shine, backed up with dry, grainy tannins and high acidity. ✪✪✪✪
J Rosas Quinta da Touriga-Chã 2013
Tannic, smoky, spicy, with black fruits, and a long, complex finish. ✪✪✪✪✪
the white ports
White port is such an obscure category that it was surprising to see that most producers at the tasting poured it. Not only that, but there were some old, serious bottles too. The best wines were almost like madeira, but without that baked fruit character, and almost like sherry, but much sweeter. I'm not sure when I'd want to drink these intense wines, dominated by fudge and toffee aromas, but they showed an individual quality that in some cases was truly astonishing.
Vieira de Sousa Fine Very Old White Port
Perhaps one of the most extraordinary wines I have ever tried. With wines up to sixty years old, this was an intense, sweet wine with grapey, aromatic aromas that almost made it taste like a brandy or a grappa - the winemaker commented that the grape spirit in the wine gets more concentrated with time. There were plenty of dried fruit aromas too, with fudge, toffee, and caramel. Like a sweet version of palo cortado, and then some. ✪✪✪✪✪✪✪
Equally extraordinary were the red ports, both young and old. 2011 is the standout vintage of recent years, and all the producers were sold out. A great alternative to vintage port is Late Bottled Vintage, which spend longer ageing in barrel before bottling. 2011 LBVs are wines I definitely recommend buying to drink now, with intense, rich dark fruits. Older vintage ports were also available to try: the warm 2009 year produced quite hot, but complex wines; 2004 still felt very fresh; 2000 remarkably tannic even now. The best wine of all, though, was Kopke's 1966 Colheita - a vintage tawny, which means deliberate oxidative ageing. Tasting a wine fifty years old brooks no comparison.
Ramos Pinto LBV 2011
An attractive, elegant, restrained, but tannic wine, with intense, sweet red and black fruit aromas. ✪✪✪✪✪
Kopke Colheita 1966
Old, nutty (walnut), spicy, with rich toffee aromas. Like an old, sweet sherry. Intense (a word I repeatedly wrote down during this tasting) and with layers and layers of flavours. Unforgettable. ✪✪✪✪✪✪✪ The 1978 I also tasted was a bit hotter, still very alive with aromas of dried fruits, fudge, and spice. ✪✪✪✪✪
There's no doubting the quality of Portuguese wine, particuarly from the Douro. The wines have distinctive characteristics that distinguish the wines from other countries, although a valid comparison would perhaps be the wines of Italy, both white and red, rather than Spain. But how to market those wines? The grape varieties are numerous and difficult to pronounce; the tannins and acidity are forward; and the fact that the wines are invariably blends makes it awkward to market the wines on the nature of those varieties. And it needs to be said that the Portuguese are not the best at marketing: whenever asked about the price of a wine, the producer had no answer.
There's so much foundation to work with, though. Port is one of the historical great drinks; the dry, table whites are crisp, approachable, with nice complexity; and the reds are great with heavy food. And there are few regions in the world capable of producing fifty-year-old wines that can hold up to further ageing. Explore Portugal: prepare to be perplexed, challenged, and excited, which is how wine should be.