21 October 2011

Vinho do Porto, a Short Explanation

In 1703, the British were in a bit of a pickle. Embroiled in the War of Spanish Succession, they had just been denied import rights to French wines, leaving the nation thirsty and irritable. So, the English signed a treaty with Portugal, enticing the Portuguese to switch sides in the war and setting up a trade agreement that would allow the British Isles to begin buying wine from a small, underdeveloped viniculture region on the Douro river. Because the journey between the two countries took such a long time, the wine usually spoiled at sea, and the producers began fortifying the wine with extra alcohol to protect it. Thus, a peculiar wine and a strange union were formed; Port - that denizen of desert lists and decanters - isn't drunk much in Portugal, but is loved almost to excess in jolly old England. We did some exploring in the vineyards and cellars to find out a little more.
Porto is a beautiful city at the mouth of the Douro river, near the north-western point of the Iberian Peninsula. It has a long history, but was generally a sleepy place until trade between England and the Mediterranean countries picked up in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It wasn't until the British began importing port, though, that the town really boomed. New wine wealth paid for large mansions and a staggering amount of tile work on older facades. Today, it's still beautiful, even if most of its shipping industry is no longer active and some of the old estates have been left to decay.
The city faces the river on the northern side, soaking up the southern sun and shining in myriad colors. There are lace markets and tiny cafes, men playing cards or fishing along the piers. Ancient archways, once used as dockside storerooms, line the waterside, some with twisting alleyways behind. Old, flat bottomed river boats - native to the area - bob in the river, kept up by the wine houses as floating advertisements. Although many of the larger vintners keep offices here, the real wine action is actually across the water, in the sister town of Vila Nova de Gaia.
We visited one cellar in Gaia, operated by Wiese and Krohn. Huge drifts of casks were stacked in untidy rows, punctuated intermittently by mammoth aging barrels that stand nearly fifteen feet high. All port is aged in barrels for some length of time, but there is an important distinction to be made between two dissimilar types of the wine. "Barrel aged port" - most notably tawny ports - spend most of their existence in barrels, and are bottled when they're deemed ready to drink. Ruby, white, "late bottled vintage" and - most importantly - vintage ports are all known as "bottle aged ports," meaning that most of the aging process is done after the wine has been taken out of the cask. These wines are generally meant to sit before drinking, and are supposed to get better the longer they're kept.
The port classification system is extremely confusing, and not always entirely truthful. A "ten year tawny," for example, might not really be ten years old - it only has to acquire the character of a wine that age to be sold as such. Vintage ports, on the other hand, are attached to a single year, and may not even be produced if the harvest isn't perfect. Ruby ports are often marketed as similar to vintages, but are actually of much lower quality - they're usually "bottle aged" in cement tanks.
Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia may be the most visible wine towns, but they are actually not even in the production region. The grapes are cultivated and harvested about seventy-five kilometers upriver, in a strictly demarcated patch of land. The hills around the Douro are steep there, and the soil is dry and rocky. Traditionally, the slopes were terraced by hand, with rock walls between rows and narrow paths for picking. Today, much of the land has been broken up by bulldozer and dynamite to allow for broader terraces and tractor lanes. It's still pretty, though. The soil has a yellowish tint and the undulating lines of the grapes create beautiful patterns on the hillsides.
At Quinta do Panascal, a vineyard and winery on a picturesque bend in the river, the grapes had already been harvested when we visited. The wine house was empty of liquid, but the smell of alcohol and fermentation clung to the cement and seeped from the barrels. Here, the grapes are still picked by hand and mashed by foot - the only way, according to them, to treat fine fruits.
It's true that the Portuguese don't drink a lot of the stuff - in country, Port is generally only spotted in gift shops and in touristy restaurants. But in the actual wine region, some of the wine's mystique vanishes. As one man told us, "it's what I drink with dinner, with lunch, after dinner, whenever. It's our wine, so we drink it."

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