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The Mysteries of Porto
from the Douro Valley, Portugal

Probably the world’s first officially demarcated wine region since 1756, the Douro is one of the most beautiful places in Europe, 16 miles wide and almost 100 miles to the Spanish border. It is poignantly beautiful to see how grape vines cling to terraces carved into the mountain and follow their contour like corn cobb tresses on a girl’s head, as the Douro River unfurls like a ribbon of life around the hills specked with sprawling quintas or estates.

To listen interviews with Porto’s major players please click or log on to FOOD & WINE TALK

By Simone Zarmati Diament

It is amazing how some people’s misfortunes are another’s bonanza. It took a declaration of war against France in the 17th century and the fierce trade blockade against Britain during the Napoleonic wars in the 18th century to develop one of Europe’s great wine regions.
The beloved Porto – the golden hued deliciously complex fortified wines that exudes concentrated richness and intense flavors – that English gentlemen imbibed with dinner and enjoyed as an after dinner drink, behind closed doors, with a cigar and talk unfit for ladies, was born from the remote vineyards in Portugal's Douro Valley out of necessity.
Deprived of the wine and brandy traditionally supplied by France, and having no grape producing abilities, Britain turned to Spain and Portugal for their wines. This became a fortune maker since the 17th century for many Englishmen, and even Scotts, like George Sandeman who, in 1790, started importing wines from Portugal. When they realized that the voyage by sea and the motion of the ships didn’t do much for the taste of the wines, which to start with were a far cry from the fine Clarets of Bordeaux and other French wines, not only they started adding "a bucket or two" of brandy to the barrels of wine to stabilize them, but they discovered that bottles were somehow more suitable to the retailing of the product, and they developed the glass bottle industry. Double whammy!
Thus was born Port wine, or Oporto, which, as the 7th generation George Sandeman explained on a visit to the Sandeman headquarters in Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto, (in an interview you can hear by clicking or logging on ) comes from the British degeneration of the Portugese, “Oh... Porto!”
If the British wanted good wine, they were going to have to oversee the production themselves. They started to buy harvests in the Douro Valley, vineyards were literally carved into the mountain, transportation of the barrels down-river was organized, and the shippers built warehouses or "lodges" in Vila Nova de Gaia to store their wines.
Vila Nova de Gaia, the main suburb of Oporto at the mouth of the estuary of the majestic Douro River, is since the 17th-century the "nerve center" of the port trade. This is where the Port is aged, blended, bottled and shipped. It is here too, where the shippers will declare a vintage.
Looking at Vila Nova de Gaia from across the river you can see the names of all the Port Houses on the buildings’ facades; Warre, Croft, Taylor, Sandeman, Offley Forrester, Kopke, van Zeller, Burmester, Graham, Guimaraens, Cockburn, Dow….it is like reading labels on the giant shelf of a world size wine store...

The Region. Extreme climates in one of the most beautiful places in Europe

One can best understand Porto when approaching it from the air after flying over the Iberian Peninsula. Dry mesetas and arid mountains give way to emerald green vineyards and meadows. Cozy villages nestled in nooks of woodsy hills are blanketed by shrouds of fog which slowly dissipates under the heat of the sun. From the air, the Douro Valley looks more like British manicured country side than rugged Portugal. Upon landing, the hyper modern airport is one of the best organized and the most sophisticated in Europe.
Probably the world's first officially demarcated wine region since 1756, "the Douro," is one of the most beautiful places in Europe, 16 miles wide and almost 100 miles to the Spanish border. The Serra do Marão mountains cut the rainfall from the Atlantic to create a weather barrier, and a climate of extremes with hundreds of microclimates developing along. Summers are extremely hot and dry often reaching 110°F, and the winters can be quite cold as the temperatures often drop below 30F.
Only 10 to 12% of The Douro Valley 618,000 acres are cultivated with vine. These are planted in man-made terraces carved in hard schist that retains little water and features few nutrients -- the roots can furrow down 65 feet through the fissures in the schist -- on the harsh, rugged mountains that rise up from the Douro River and its tributaries. At times the inclination increases from 35% up to 70%, which makes mechanized harvest impossible.
But it is poignantly beautiful to see how grape vines cling to these terraces and follow the contour of the mountain, like corn cobb tresses on a girl’s head as the Douro River unfurls like a ribbon of life around the hills specked with sprawling quintas or estates.


There are over 90 different varieties of grape permitted to be grown in the Port wine region, but only 5 are considered to be of exceptional quality. Touriga Nacional which gives Port its deep color and longevity., Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão, and Touriga Francesa. White Port, is made from white grapes — Viosinho, Malvasia Fina, Gouveio, Cédega, and Rabigato.
Port making is very strictly controlled by the IVP Instituto do Vinho do Porto: Vineyards are graded by the IVP and classified into six different categories labeled "A" through "F" according to productivity (the lower the yield, the higher the mark), gradient, aspect, soil, exposure, and vine varieties.
Only a certain amount of wine is allowed to be made into Port in any given year based on the grade the vineyards receive. An "A" grade vineyard is allowed to make up to 600 liters of Port per 1000 vines.
Port can only be processed in Porto and exclusively from grapes planted in the three major sub-zones of Port Wine Region:
The Baxio Corgo is the smallest region, but because of its close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean it gets the most rainfall, is the most fertile, and thus tends to produce the lightest wines. It produces almost 50% of all port made.
The Cima Corgo in the Upper Douro, is more than double in size with approximately 235,000 acres, about 14% planted with vines. Here, there’s only about 28 inches of rainfall a year – and it is where most of the high quality tawny, LBV, and Vintage port is made. This region accounts for about 36% of the port produced.
The Douro Superior which extends to the Spanish border is the largest of the three sub-zones but the most arid and the least developed. Only about 13% of all port is produced here.


It is around the town of Pinhão, one of the Upper Douro's finest Port-growing regions, that most of the famous wine growing properties or quintas have been built. Between Pinhão and Pocinho, a small town 40 km eastwards along the River Douro, the railway line passes within view of some of the most famous Port vineyards. Croft’s Quinta da Roeda, Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos and Cockburn’s Tua are all within sight of the train. Further along are two of the grandest of all vineyard estates: Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas and the Symingtons’ Quinta do Vesúvio, both of which have their own private railway stations.

Quinta do Noval, the first producer to introduce vintage labeling on Tawny Port and Late Bottled Vintage Port - One of the most sought after and a rare port is Noval's single vineyard "Nacional" - is situated in the very heart of the Douro valley. The Quinta's 173 acres of vines, the majority between 25-40 years old, range in altitude from 100 to 350 meters, providing a wide range of flavor characteristics, perfect for blending.
The first English port house was Warre in 1670, and Warre's Quinta da Cavadinha is one of the finest vineyards in the Pinhão valley. An important source of fruit for Warre's vintage Port, it is also the location of Warre's experimental vineyard which was created to assess new planting material, rootstock and clones.

Today it is owned by the Symington family, a leader in Premium Ports and the British-Portuguese descendants of the house’s founder who also own Graham’s, Dow’s, Quinto do Vesuvio, Smith Woodhouse, Gold Campbell, and more labels.

To listen to an interview with Ruppert Symington who hosted us for lunch at Quinta da Cavadinha which built at the end of the 19th century and modeled after a Ceylonese bungalow designed to keep the heat out of the tropics, please click or log on to


Making Port
In the Douro Valley, it’s as if time stands still. The wine industry is much the way it was over a hundred years ago, even if since the 1960's, most everywhere the pressing is done mechanically and many of the great houses of Porto have acquired modern wine making techniques and fancy equipment.

But at the famous 164-hectare Quinta de Vargellas, one of the highest vineyards in the Douro, things are done the old-fashioned way. The grapes at Quinta de Vargellas are 100% crushed by foot against 3% across the region.

How is this done? Harvest time is exciting and festive. After five weeks of hard work in the steeps hills of the douro, everything must come together — man, equipment and nature. Teams of villagers carry the grapes in baskets from the steep terraces to the press-houses below. As the wineries get into high gear, the equipment now runs 24 hours a day.

After a full day’s work in the field, the villagers come down to tread the grapes barefoot as it has been done for hundreds of years – a system first introduced by the Romans – in open granite lagars (18 x 18 x 3 foot high troughs). For two consecutive days, two rows of eleven people holding each other by the shoulder march with military precision at the beat of a manager’s whistle. In a strange cadenced choreography, the two rows of red footed people meet half way and retrace their steps backwards. This is serious business, no music, no fooling around, just march…

The smell of freshly pressed grapes soon fills the air. When the pressing is done in the lagers, the skins rise to the top and on the third day it must be carefully pressed down with flexible paddles (macacos) so as not to damage the caps or skins. This extracts the color and tannin needed for the wine.

David Guimaraens, Director of Taylor Fladgate and Fonseca, sixth generation of the founder of Fonseca Guimaraens and eldest son of the legendary winemaker Bruce Guimaraens, is currently spearheading an effort to develop fermentation methods able to match the quality attained by traditional foot-treading of grapes.
After crushing, the grapes are placed in closed concrete or stainless steel tanks for fermentation. When about half of the grape sugar has been turned into alcohol, the juice is run off into barrels containing brandy (traditionally 1 part brandy to 4 parts wine), and the fermentation stops instantly. The fortified wines lay dormant all winter, oblivious to what awaits them or to whether they will be declared a vintage or not, waiting for spring, when the porto is moved to the shipper's lodges in Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. For hundreds of years this was done down the Douro River on flat-bottomed boats called Barcos Rabelos. Today, most Port is transported by tanker trucks.

To hear first hand what goes on in the lagars from Taylor Fladgate and Fonseca spokesperson Anna Margarida Murgado please click or log on to (second interview)


Port: the art of blending

We know by now that Port takes its name from the lovely city of Oporto in Portugal, at the mouth of the 560-mile long Rio Douro or River of Gold. Although many port-style wines are made around the world –Australia, South Africa and the United States – the strict usage of the terms Port or Porto refer only to wines produced in the Douro Valley in Portugal.
Once the Port arrives in Vila Nova de Gaia, it is left to mature for a year. In the beginning of the second year after harvest, the careful process of blending begins. During this time the shippers will evaluate and blend wines from hundreds of bottles. It is now in the tasting room where the shipper's reputation is made.
It is only after the final blend is made that it is submitted to the Instituto do Vinho do Porto which analyzes and tastes a sample from every Port shipment.
With its approval, it is bottled and the IVP's black and white seal of guarantee is attached to the neck, and shippers may publicly “declare a vintage.”
To declare a vintage a shipper must have, in their opinion, an outstanding wine. Again, this is serious business as their reputation is at stake. Some houses wait to see what some of the major shippers will do before they declare a vintage on their own.
One can learn all about Porto with a visit to the Sandeman Cellars Visitors Center and Museum, where you can also taste different Ports and different vintages. Largo Miguel Bombarda 3 inVila Nova de Gaia.
Sandeman was among the first wine companies to label and advertise its wines with the Zorro-like Don in the Cape, an image which appeared in 1928 and has taken great care to record every progress of the industry.
Port should be served slightly chilled between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit — or 18°C and, preferably finished on the same day it has been uncorked, said George Sandeman at a lunch served at his headquarters, each course superbly paired with a different Port, Ruby or Tawny.
For tips on cocktails, aperitifs and food pairings and Port from Mr. George Sandeman, Board Member of the corporation please click or log on to h (third interview)

The many styles of Port

Ruby is a blend from the produce of several harvests, that spends two to three years in stainless steel or wood before it is bottled. It is the most basic and least expensive style of Port.

Tawny is aged a few years longer than ruby – at least six years – in the cask before it is bottled. Though some tawny is simply a mixture of ruby and white ports, the best tawny Ports have acquired their pale color – an amber brown or tawny hue – from longer wood ageing. The flavor becomes drier and nuttier from the oxidation.

Aged Tawny are the best tawny Ports. They give the average age of the wines that have gone into making the blends. They are available in 10, 20, 30 and 40 year versions with a corresponding increase in price. A 20-year tawny may give you the most enjoyable experience for the price. Aged tawnies are made from high quality wines and are the byproduct of a master blender.

Colheita is a tawny but from a single vintage. It might be though of as a vintage tawny. It must receive a minimum of seven years in wood, but most are aged much longer. Also the wine should indicate the year of bottling and should be drunk within a year of that date. This is the rarest of all Port.

White Ports range from very dry to very sweet. The sweetest is designated as Lagrima. These are served straight up or on the rocks, most often as an apéritif.

Vintage Character Ports might also be referred to as Super or Premium Ruby. It is a blend that has been aged from four to six years before it is filtered and bottled. They characteristically have more body and fruit than a tawny but they lack the concentration and complexity of a true vintage Port. These are usually marketed under brand names like Sandeman's Founders Reserve, Warre's Warrior, Graham's 6 Grapes, Fonseca's Bin 27, and Taylor's First Estate.

Single-Quinta Ports are made in both tawny and vintage styles but with the distinction that they come from only one vineyard. They are generally produced in years that are not declared. In declared years, their grapes often form the backbone of the Vintage Port blends.

Late Bottled Vintage or LBV, unlike Vintage Character, are actually the produce of a single vintage. A vintage not deemed good enough to make a Vintage Port, will go into the making of a LBV. It is left in wood for four to six years, then fined and filtered before bottling. It is ready to drink earlier than Vintage Port and they do throw little sediment in the bottle.

Vintage Port is the finest and most expensive of the Port styles. At most, it accounts for about 2% of all production and is one of the most sought after wines in the world. Vintage Port comes from a single harvest of exceptional quality, as stated on the bottle, and is bottled after two to three years of cask ageing. The wine then spends many years maturing in the bottle. It may take 15 to 50 years for a good Vintage Port to be ready for drinking. Each shipper must decide within two years of a harvest year if that particular year will be of enough quality to be released as a Vintage Port. This is known as "declaring the vintage". The first vintages were declared around 1734. The best vintages from this century include 1994. 1992, 1991, 1985, 1977, 1970, 1963, 1955, 1948, 1945, 1935, 1931, 1927, and 1912. These wines must be decanted before serving.

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