Know your Port

The spectacular Douro valley is one of the world’s most breathtaking vineyard areas.

The Douro’s origins are in Spain (known there as the ‘Duero’) from where it carves its way through Portugal before finally dispersing into the Atlantic Ocean at Oporto.The vine spreads like a rash over 165 kilometres of its slopes, which are sheer enough to make working on them a fatally dangerous experience. This is why a tasting at any one of the hundreds of Quintas is often interrupted by the thunderous echos of dynamite as men try to blast out rock from the hills, paving the way for more workable terraced vineyards. The prime area of the world’s oldest demarcated wine region (its limits were set in 1756) is known as the Upper Douro, an area east of one the tributaries – the Río Torto. Rainfall is at its lowest and the sun at its strongest here, where the harvest brings in Port’s thickest and sweetest of local grape varieties (these include Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz,Touriga Francesca and Tinta Barroca). This is the birth place of Vintage Port, a staggeringly dense fortified wine only released in the best years when Port houses have enough grapes of high quality to pick from their many vineyards or ‘Quintas’. The area is dominated by the big port houses such as Dow’s, Warre’s, Graham’s, Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft, whose flagship wines are these vintage bottlings. Some houses still use a proportion of granite ‘Lagares’ for fermentation (traditional vats accommodating several people who use their feet to crush grapes), these are the most effective way of extracting maximum colour and flavour in the shortest time possible, vital for a wine to be fortified by clear spirit. Gradually these are being replaced with modern thermo-controlled stainless-steel tanks because of the difficulty of regulating the temperature in them. The Douro’s lighter grapes are used in the production of Late Bottled Vintage and Tawny Ports. The former is a wine from one vintage that is kept a little longer in wooden vats than vintage port, usually two or three years, that is then filtered before bottling to assist immediate consumption. Tawny’s are given extended ageing in cask to produce wines of complex oxidative aromas and flavours of nut and dried fruit. The very best of these are usually over 20 years old, providing subtle and sophisticated after-dinner drinking.