Memory has its own mysteries. Some things are clearly remembered, even if not particularly relevant. Others are shrouded in fog, so dense we cannot reach them, no matter how hard we try. I do not know when my love for Port blossomed, and perhaps never will, unless the passing of years fills that gap with a false memory. That is, at least, how we start to remember so many things as we age.
I know that like so many of the best things in life, it was an acquired taste. Oh, but what a taste! Oh, but what a smell! If Champagne with its elegance and bubbly seduction, is the queen of spirits, then Port wine is the king. At least, I always looked upon Port as belonging to the nobility of spirits. It has a full-bodied noticeable presence, a strong character that can sometimes be austere; other times mellow and others, still extremely seductive. And all of this combined with supreme statesman-like elegance.
I love it in every inflection, and pleasure can be found even when least expected. Have you ever eaten roasted pork with port wine sauce and dried plums? Surely you should, but please do not expect to find a vintage sauce (Ruby Port does the trick). And have you ever tried “drunk pears”? Well, if not, that is another divine pleasure you are missing out on. And what about a nice dry White Port with tonic? I bet it beats gin & tonic by far. And who said LBVs are “lesser” Vintages? Just try a nice one, unfiltered and not stabilized before bottling, and confirm its ability to age beautifully (by the way, I am delightfully sipping 2005 Quinta do Noval LBV as I am writing this post).
Oh, but I do love a good old Vintage! How could I not? But, even so, there are two other Port categories which I both love and admire. The first is 20 Year Old Tawny Ports, because keeping them balanced and fresh requires a true master blender, which is something that cannot be taught in books. It is pure artistry.
The other is aged single vintage tawnies known as Colheita. To understand why, let me take you on a small tour around the Douro and the making of Port. Douro is one of the hardest places in this world to grow grapes. With precipitous slopes descending to the river, vineyards have been built on steep terraces carved into the hillsides. This involves a huge stone-breaking effort, for the land is hard and mainly made out of schist. The climate is harsh, with low temperatures in the winter and three months during summer of high temperatures of 30 to 40 degrees Celsius.
Most importantly, due to terrace width and steep inclinations, the machinations of the industrial revolution cannot operate in Douro. And the entire vintage is handled by men and women alike under harsh vintage conditions. The grapes are then, as has been done for centuries, mostly foot trodden in granite “lagares”. As you can imagine, this is a very labor intensive process. And it does not end there. The wine is then carried downriver to Vila Nova de Gaia, (on the south bank of the Douro River, facing Porto), where it is stored in the famous Port lodges. In the old days, the path was done by boat, and the barrels were loaded and unloaded by hand.
By now, you must be thinking that up to this point, I am not making any sense, since this is a common process to almost all Port wine. The thing is, imagine going to all these lengths to produce Port wine and then picking your best wine and aging it for decades in wood, instead of transferring it to bottles after 2-3 years to make Vintage Port. You will not be able to sell it quickly, and you will lose 2 to 3% of the wine per year in the first years through evaporation, and then keep losing at a smaller and slower rate afterwards, year after year after year. And now imagine leaving it there until your grandchildren are of age, or the grandchildren of your grandchildren, without knowing if the wine is going to make it so far, to make matters worse.
I believe that, at the same time the angels take their share of the wine, what is concentrated is not only the flavor but also the pain, the joy, the passion and life of all those who produced the wine and tended to it ever
since. And this is what you end up relishing when you taste such a wine. It is not even wine anymore, it is a piece of history in liquid, an homage to humanity produced by thousands of hands over the years. I have had the privilege of tasting a few of these wines. In fairness to them and to all those who produced them, I will name the two that always come to my mind, Andresen Colheita 1910 and Niepoort VV.
May you also experience a similar pleasure, and share the collective history of my people.