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Port Wine and Experiences.

December 11, 2013
Port Wine and Experiences.

The Port Wine Visit.

The climate is hot, very hot, whilst walking through the vines in Quinta do Panescal already feeling the hot dry sun beating through my shirt and withering me at each footstep. I shuddered to think how life was for the original people that gouged out these terraces (patamares) from a un compromising schist and granite rock. It wasn’t 40°C but we were getting close and the immense fires stretching from the Alvao National Park over thousands of hectares, equally closing in, couldn’t be helping. When you think that there is barely 845mm of rainfall, 45mm more than in the Charente’s and Charente’s maritime for Cognac for almost double the average heat.

With 40,000 hectares of land along both sides of the Douro, the area is separated into 3 Regions from the West to East... The view is splendid near the river the climate is delightful, but up into the hills…

The regions:
Baixo Corgo: Here falls the greatest amount of rain. The weather is also slightly more clement. Slightly! It spreads over 14,000 hectares. It would appear that one has to suffer to get great wines. This area is therefore reputed to offer wines of lesser quality than the other two regions.

Cima Corgo: This is the largest region with 19,000 hectares of planted vines. This is the area where I spent a lot of time. Reputed for its numerous Quintas and their quality around the town of Pinhao.

Douro Superior: 8500 hectares of a more recently planted region. Hot and dry but offering wines of excellent quality.

Port-The Early Years.

Port really starts with William of Orange, shortly before his death, asking the British Diplomat and Ambassador to Portugal, John Methuen to develop English and Portuguese commercial possibilities. The signing of the “Methuen” Treaty on the 27th December 1703 favourised the development and exchange of Port wines for English woolen goods. Whether by choice or due to the French King Louis XIV and Colbert’s’ attitude encouraging the English King Charles II to put up taxes on French wines before stopping their commerce altogether, this hailed the start of a very fructuous relationship favoring these marvelous wines over those of France.

Except that the Portuguese wines were not that marvelous.

But the English didn’t mind. It was the beginning of the industrial revolution and England needed to sell its wears with an objective of rendering its partners dependent. There was a bit of military cooperation tied into the treaty too.

An earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 and its aftermath coupled with a certain popularity of Port wines encouraging a tremendous drop in quality, led to a downward spiral in sales and commerce in general.

They had been adding Elderberry juice to the wine!

The solution was an “Appellation d’Origine Protégée’, well before France was to use the same method, The Marquis de Pombal, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, then the Prime Minister set up a group of specialists to determine the criteria for the quality of Port wine.
The 1756 decree listed the rivers of the Douro and on a six point system analyzed the climate, soil, altitude and angle of the land and went on to grade the grapes for their age and type and delimited the area with 344 granite Pombal stones (Marcos Pombalinos). Of course, Elderberry trees were banned from the area!

Job Bearsley did not create Port wine as we know it. He created the Taylors Port Company.

Job Bearsley was working with Portuguese non muted wine called Red Portugal. He is famous for being the founder of the Taylors Company circa 1692. His son, Peter, was instrumental in finding the more powerful red wines deeper inside the Douro valley.

But if indeed, at the beginning of the 18th century Port wines had added alcohol to re enforce them for travelling, the actual “Mutation” of Port wines during the fermentation was not universally accepted until the middle of the 19th century. Not everyone agreed upon the process and certain detractors had strong personalities.

I once read that the “English like their wines dry, provided they are sweet enough!”

This was definitely the case towards the end of the 18th century. Not only did the wines have a pleasing taste but also their stability and aging potential became more and more apparent. With the ever increasing wine production this would offer the opportunity to stock Port wine. Ageing the wine increased its complexity, depth and flavor and would lead to an increase in appreciation.

Once the Port wine was made it would be transported by boat to Villa Nova de Gaia for aging. This was where all the great companies were and still are.

Port is a blend of a variety of grapes. Principally:

Touriga Nacional. Gives a deep and concentrated wine if used in small quantities.

Tinta Roriz: A star of the vines slightly in the shadow of the Francesca grape.

Touriga Franca: Subtle aromatic wines from this widely used grape.

Tinta Barroca a sweeter more round grape full of color ‘anthocyanes’ which will keep the wine a deep red color for many years before finally fading to pink.

Tinta Cao. This is a small grape variety but one of the oldest and most resistant of Port grapes.

However there are at least thirty other grape varieties that can be used.

Although some older parcels will be a mixture of several different grapes all mixed up. One Quinta, not Panescal, brought in a specialist to try and define which grapes they actually had!

It was a refreshing surprise to see, in certain quintas, as you will see in the photos that efforts are made to vinify separately each grape type. Although I’m told that the grapes, in general, are all picked together, heaped together and pressed together in the “lagare”, the granite basin.

The grapes are picked by hand and transported in plastic boxes to the main building where a specialist will survey the quality of the grapes on a large table. The stems are taken off and the treading of the grapes can begin. This traditionally is done by teams with their feet moving to music in a traditional and fun atmosphere.

However there are also machines that do the work. Some say though that human treading is the best.

There are two stages in the crushing the first cut ‘La Corte” is a precarious shoulder to shoulder slow walk across the grapes to explose the skins. The “Liberdade” which is the second part of the crushing literally liberates the juice from the grapes. This part does not require the pressers to be linked together. They can work separately walking on the grapes keeping those skins under the must. They can use a wooden plunger called a “macaco” to push the skins down as well.

It would seem to be after 48 hours that a good half or more of the sugar in the juice has turned by fermentation into alcohol. The people pressing the must can now get out and let the skins slowly float up to the top of the surface forming a sort of hat over the juice.
The juice is then piped off into a vat. For 400 liters of wine, 100 liters of Grape alcohol at 77°abv will be added to mute, or kill the yeasts, thus halting the fermentation.

This could have been Bagaceira, a Portuguese eau de vie, but not anymore as it is appreciated in the area and bottled in its own right. I saw quite a few bottles in the supermarkets and this eau de vie is not at all expensive. I tasted a couple of them and found the alcohol to be a bit rough.

At one time the Quintas would have to reserve, from what I understand, 20 % of their recolte to be transformed in one of two distilleries, into eau de vie. One distillery stopped production and this whole eau de vie ‘who’s who and where’ situation has become very secret. Eau de vie from France and Spain is being used too, it would appear.

Although some Quintas will do their own aging now. In general, the muted Port will stay in the Douro until the spring of the following year. It will then be taken by road, unlike the many years before where it would be transported on the Barco rabelos, a flat boat so popular in the 19th century that up to 300 were in use, but that slowly came to an end in the early 1960s. A few of these boats are still on show silently floating a few meters from the road in Vila Nova de Gaia. It is here that the Port will spend a minimum of two years in huge barrels to perhaps 40 years before being bottled.

I had spent the better part of a week visiting Quintas between Peso de Regua, Pinhao, and Valenca do Douro and driving to ViIa Nova de Gaia. I now found myself driving in the direction of Chapa Amarente where the vines of Vinho Verde were very apparent. The fires had become more and more spontaneous. Indeed, several times I had found my route blocked by police, firemen, flames and smoke.

A young firefighter had just died. She was 21 years old. She was one of 6 firefighters that would perish to the flames, that August.

As I drove through a village I could see the smoke and fire eating the ground within 15 meters of a house. I stopped and ran into their garden, grabbed a metal bucket and spent the next 3 hours with people of all ages pouring water, throwing water, picking up buckets. Finally the firemen arrived they had been there all the time on the other side of the fire 250 yards down the hill with thick forest separating us.. In the evening the ham and Vinho Verde was very good.

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