The Life of Wine

 |  February 29, 2012

Portugal is famous for three things: The most dangerous drivers on the planet, a footballer named Eusebio, and pastries. But there is a fourth thing for which this sliver of a country on the west coast of Europe is also known. It’s one of the fruitiest, fullest, sweetest, velvetiest, floweriest, perfumediest drinks it is possible to make with today’s technology, and it is called, quite simply, port.

Those who care are at odds over the precise origin of this inky drink, but it all started with the English and the French having yet another spat over something or other and a war kicking off. This was a little short-sighted on the part of the Brits as it did mean time-at-the-bar was called on their beloved Bordeaux wines.

This meant England had to turn to its old chum Portugal for help in a time of crisis. The fabulously beautiful, but largely inhospitable, Douro Valley in the north of the country was producing some intense red wines and English merchants were quick to jump on their ships and set sail for the region. In order to stabilise the fermented wines for the journey home a dash of brandy was added to the barrels. Unfortunately this did not go down well in the wine bars of London.

However, (and I have chosen the more romantic version of history for you) legend has it that the sons of a London wine merchant were sent off to find a new source of wine for his thirsty customers. Hiking through Douro they stumbled across a monastery where the shot of brandy was being added by the abbot to the wine before fermentation was complete. This had the affect of stunning the yeasts, halting the fermenting process and creating a fortified wine which was sweet, fruity, well rounded and acceptably high in alcohol. London was well pleased, and thus started an extraordinary relationship between the English and port which was to last for centuries.

Port can generally be broken down into ruby port, tawny and vintage. After the shippers in the town of Oporto have assessed the quality of the wine in the barrels which have travelled down river from the hills of the Douro Valley, the least impressive will go to make ruby port. This is aged in barrels for a couple of years, bottled and drunk. Tawny is aged for a decade – or several – in barrels and gets its name because oxidation over the years drains it of its deep red colour. Vintage port only happens in the years the shippers decide that the crop has been exceptional. Although only aged for two years in casks it is after some decades in the bottle that this king of wines achieves its ultimate potential.

It is most important to understand at this point that over the years vintage ports develop a tremendous amount of sediment and must always be decanted, never swigged straight from the bottle – that’s always going to end in embarrassment and a hefty bill from the dry cleaners.

It is still the sun scorched terraces of the Douro Valley which produce the finest port wines. However, countries with climates to match, such as Australia and South Africa, are producing extremely passable sweet, deep coloured, fortified wines of a similar style.

Although port still retains an image of gentlemen with moustaches and starched collars sitting round a table after a rather fine pheasant dinner smoking cigars and talking about the situation in India – having dispatched the womenfolk to tinkle on the piano or catch up with a backlog of embroidery – more and more chefs are finding themselves reaching for the port when they can’t put their finger on the right wine to accompany their latest idea for a main course.

It is a treat with game dishes, but, that being said, it’s always going to be next to the cheese platter that a 1963 Fonseca really looks its smartest. And chocolate, a chocolate mousse accompanied by a glass containing something the colour of a Maharaja’s ruby is a bit special. And driving like a maniac around Lisbon, talking animatedly about the Black Pearl and his silky skills, while munching on a sugar-sprinkled tart, without a glass of Quinta do Noval, is just a waste of time.