Coming into port

The most fail-safe way to get a hangover; only to be taken at the end of the meal; undrinkable unless covered in thick dust; and always passed to the left? We debunk a few myths about one of the world's great wines xx
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Certain Wine names mean quite a lot: they give you a good basis for understanding any bottle that bears them. Claret = red wine made from one or more of five grape varieties in Bordeaux. Chablis = white made from Chardonnay around the village of that name in northern Burgundy. The wine may be sublime or ridiculous, but it has those things in common.

Port isn't nearly so easy. It is all fortified wine made on the Alto Douro river in Portugal, but there's so much confusing diversity within the appellation that merely calling something port isn't really good enough. The single word must always be qualified if it is not going to leave you in the dark as to its true nature.

Even after a trip out to the Douro (my second), courtesy of the Port Wine Institute, and even after a lengthy immersion in books, articles and producers' bumf, I still find myself struggling to explain succinctly what I know about the subject. I've resorted to the age-old trick of making lists, and herewith I share them with you. I call the list "25 Things I Think I Know About Port."

1. Port is made from grapes grown in an area covering around 45 miles of the Alto Douro river in Portugal. This is an area so difficult to farm that travellers may wonder why people ever settled there at all. At a certain point inland from Oporto, the region's capital, the lush green valley turns grey and inhospitable. Few crops, apart from grapes and olives, can be cultivated on these steep hillsides with any success. Access was possible, for centuries, only by the river itself. And the river still provides one way of transporting barrels of wine down to the storage and blending centres of Oporto.

2. Anyone travelling up the Douro by car must be prepared to lose three things: life, limb, and lunch. The main roads are easy enough, but once you start climbing to visit properties higher up the steep inclines of the schist hillsides, you are entering Vertigo Country. Narrow roads that can barely accommodate two lanes of traffic; hairpin bends; and then that sharp drop to the great river, if eternity doesn't get you first. Can anything be worth it? The answer is a resounding YES, if what awaits you is a visit to the Quinta do Crasto or Quinta de Vargellas, two of the most beautiful quintas (and producers of some of the region's best wines).

3. Because of the steepness of the growing slopes, the port vines have always been grown on terraces with dry stone walls. These are expensive to maintain and work, however, so almost all new planting is vertical - running up and down the slope. Although this doesn't look quite as picturesque as the stone terraces, it does allow for some mechanisation.

4. One thing they don't have to worry about at all in the Alto Douro is sunshine. You could wrap a vine in a tablecloth and it would still get enough sun. The ripe grapes therefore contain huge levels of sugar when they're picked, enough to make them, if fully fermented, incredibly potent table wines.

5. The proceedings don't get that far, however, because the fermenting juice is fortified with a colourless spirit called aguardente. This kills the yeast, thus calling an abrupt halt to fermentation, and ensures that the wine has a high level of residual sugar. If you taste the new wine at one day old, as I did at the up-and-coming Quinta do Passadouro, you can distinguish the harshly spirituous edge of the aguardente. One day later, the fruit and alcohol have begun to knit together. Things will continue improving from there, but immature port (a difficult concept to define) will often have that spirity quality.

6. Every visitor to the Douro at harvest-time is treated to the spectacle of old-fashioned grape treading. The traditional fermentation tank is a shallow, open lagar made of stone. Grapes are brought in from the vineyards with their stems intact, dumped in the tanks, and then trodden by teams of local workers in shorts and bare feet. There is a good reason for the method which has nothing to do with photo-ops for wine-writers: port needs maximum extraction of colour and tannins from the grape skins, and this long, gentle stir-and-crush operation achieves it. Of course, it's also expensive. The work is not fun, except for visitors, and treading in the lagares is used for only a small proportion of the best wine. The rest is crushed mechanically. Taylor's are now experimenting with a mechanical system for doing the stir-and-crush in stainless steel tanks, and if it works, we can say good night to the lagares.

7. The workers in the lagares may often be observed smoking cigarettes. This practice has absolutely no effect on the flavour of the wine, regardless of which brand they smoke.

8. Falling into a lagar with your mouth open turns your stomach into a portable fermentation tank, and is not to be recommended. It has not happened to me, but it did happen to someone I know. He did not enjoy it.

9. Historically speaking, port and the port industry are a British invention. Wine was made in the Alto Douro before English wine merchants arrived in the 16th century, and no doubt wine would be made there still if they had never arrived. But the fortified wine that we call port had its first great market here in Britain, and many of its best producers still bear names like Cockburn, Taylor, Graham and Dow. These companies have stayed in business for one very good reason: port, at its best, is one of the world's great wines. And the firms making it - many of them almost as old as the wine itself - know that they are in possession of a highly lucrative "brand name". When JP Morgan said that the most expensive words in any language were "unique au monde", he might have been referring to port.

10. Most port houses are now owned by larger companies - Ferreira by Sogrape, Noval by the AXA insurance group, etc. Churchill, one of the best producers, concentrating solely on higher levels of quality, sounds like an ancient family firm. It was founded in 1981.

11. In a world where wine-lovers increasingly devote their energies to varietals - wine made from a single grape - the word doesn't mean much in port. There is no legal definition of how many varieties must go into a single wine, but dozens are allowed, and in practice you will never find fewer than the five most important: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Amarela and Tinta Roriz. Roriz is the same grape as Tempranillo, which, farther up the river, makes the great wines of Spain.

12. Attempts have been made to produce varietal port. They are doomed to failure in the view of most producers, and I hope they do fail. In varietal tastings in Portugal, these wines had something of the unique port flavour, but they were noticeably incomplete to anyone who had ever tasted the real thing. Indeed, when we put just two varietals into the same glass and sloshed it around a bit, we got a drink that had been utterly transformed. There is some kind of synergy between the varietals that makes a good blend more than the sum of its parts. This is why Christiano van Zeller, of Quinta do Crasto, refers to the "soup" of grapes that makes port what it is. On the old-fashioned terraces, vines of different varieties would sit side by side and be vinified soup-style. New plantings are by varietal, each of which may be vinified separately. The wine will still be a blend, but the producers can study the individual varieties better.

13. All port, once vinified and fortified, is transferred to wooden casks called pipes with a capacity of around 500 litres. A small proportion are aged on site, where the high temperature is said to make the wine mature faster, but most pipes are shipped down-river to Oporto for storage in huge warehouses called lodges (lojas in Portuguese ); later on it's bottled. End of story.

14. Ha! If things were that simple, I'd already be downstairs making a pot of coffee and washing last night's dishes. Unfortunately, the full story is much more confusing. Port can be matured in several different ways, each producing a style of wine with its own unique properties. And the styles can confuse the living daylights out of you. They have their own list, which is on page 67.

15. At the dinner table, you always pass a bottle of port to the left. The origins of the ritual are now lost in the bottle-sediment of time, but it's taken with the utmost seriousness by traditionalists. Renegades can take it or leave it as long as they're not in mixed company.

16. Myth: you can't drink port without getting a life-threatening hangover. This is simply untrue. Port applies its day-after vice to the cerebral blood supply only if drunk in excess at the end of an already-excessive meal.

17. Myth: you only drink port at Christmas time. This is true of most people, but it shouldn't be. To paraphrase the notices about puppies that charities use at this time of year: port isn't just for Christmas, it's for all year round.

18. Myth: you shouldn't even think about opening a bottle till it's collected several decades' worth of cellar-dust. This may be true of the best vintage or single-quinta wines (see page 67), but some ports (good ones among them) will be at their best soon after you buy them. Alastair Robertson, supreme high chieftain at Taylor's, points out that even English traditionalists have always drunk young vintage port alongside the magnificent geriatrics. He thinks vintage wines should be drunk either very young, when their fruit is at its "most explosive", or very old. In between the two extremes lies a danger zone, it would seem, in which colour and flavour can fluctuate dramatically. Ideal drinking age can also be affected by the quality of the vintage. A 1970 Taylor's drunk recently was unforgettable but still has a good life ahead of it. Wines from the lighter 1982 vintage, by contrast, may be reaching their peak.

19. Myth: port is for the end of the meal. Not true. A 10- or 20-year- old tawny is one of the world's great aperitif wines, and so is Churchill's white port. See the box for more info.

20. Myth: port is expensive. Well, this one's not entirely a myth. Mature port from great vintages can run to a few hundred pounds per bottle. On the other hand, the best wines from the best houses do not look wildly pricey when you compare them with comparable quality in Bordeaux or Burgundy. I would much rather pay pounds 14.99 for Graham's 10-Year-Old Tawny (Oddbins), for example, than for either a so-so Meursault or Chambolle Musigny.

21. Myth: port needs decanting. This is true only of vintage, single- quinta, crusted and a few LBVs. See the guide box for more info.

22. Not a myth: there are nearly 40 port houses that sell their wines in this country. This translates into something like a couple of hundred different wines currently on release. I have tasted perhaps 50 of those wines.

23. A personal view. Certain producers seem almost incapable of making bad wines, and when you see their name on a label you won't go too far wrong - as long as you remember, of course, that cheaper ruby is never going to make anyone's list of Wine-Oscar nominees. My list of these producers reads as follows: Churchill, Niepoort, Taylor, Warre. The smaller Quinta do Crasto makes few wines but all at a high level of quality. Slightly behind them - so slightly you would hardly notice - come Cockburn, Dow, Graham, Fonseca, Noval, Warre. Other houses may be inconsistent but produce a certain number of outstanding wines. A good example in my recent portly outing was Ferreira: their Duque de Braganca 20-Year-Old Tawny and 1995 Vintage (one of only two declared) are worth killing for.

24. There is a lot of good port about. Smaller specialists may be stronger on older vintages, if you've got the dosh for them, but some of the chains, especially Oddbins and Threshers, sell plenty of choice for the rest of us. Supermarket own- label LBVs and Tawnies can also be very good - don't leave your local branch of Safeway without a bottle of their own-label 10-Year-Old Tawny (from Smith Woodhouse) at pounds 10.49. Safeway also sell the fantastic Warre's Traditional LBV 1984, which is a riot of rich fruit and full sweetness (pounds 13.99).

25. And finally ... If this list leaves you feeling hungry for information, take action by writing to the UK arm of the Port Wine Institute. They're happy to help. Contact them on 0171 409 0494, or by post at: c/o Spear, 121 Mount Street, London W1Y 5HB.

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