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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 http://southfloridagourmet.com/newsite/talkradio.html
By Simone Zarmati Diament
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 http://southfloridagourmet.com/newsite/talkradio.html ) 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.
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.
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 http://southfloridagourmet.com/newsite/talkradio.html
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.
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.
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.
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 hhttp://southfloridagourmet.com/newsite/talkradio.html (third interview)