Somebody in Motown had to be thinking of Port when they wrote the classic song: “ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby”… cause there’s only one place that real Port comes from….and that’s Oporto Portugal. California, South Africa and Australia try but don’t quite make it. Their attempts remind me of a comment I once heard: “when I hear Tom Jones sing I realize how good Elvis really was.” As Champagne comes from a specific place and is produced in a traditional way, Port is more so. There are 48 authorized grapes varieties for Port, and the Douro is THE place on earth to find them…..end of story.
My introduction was Christmas 1974 in a restored Welsh farmhouse on the island of Anglesey, owned by my future mother-in-law Marjorie Craven-Walker. ‘Hafod Wen’ overlooked Red Wharf Bay and the Irish Sea. With glistening whitewashed stone walls, slate roofs and glass fronted living room, it nestled into a hillside positioned to catch the sun and avoid the winds that drove so many 18th and 19th sailing ships on to the rocky coast below. If you’ve ever had Christmas Dinner and Boxing Day leftovers with the Brits you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say… “Just when you think you can’t possibly eat or drink another thing”… a wheel of Stilton and spoon appear, surrounded by bottles of Port… what a hardship! I knew then I had come a long way from Brooklyn, whether I’d be invited back was another story.
The Stilton was from Melton Mowbry, family tradition was to purchase a wheel, cut it horizontally storing one half and serving the other….leaving it out for days to be spooned mercilessly until all that remained was a fragile craterous shell. When the: “wretched thing looked unappetizingly pathetic with bits of blue and white clinging for dear life”…the second wheel was summoned. The Port on the other hand was constantly renewed. Thankfully Bim (her nickname) was a true aficionado, there seemed to be an endless supply of all types of Port including two cases of a 1947 vintage “put down” way before I came on the scene. I shall spare you all the details I learned about the family that weekend… things like Great Uncle Gronway who once fell out of an airplane, was run over by the same car twice (backing up to see what they hit) and was locked in a refrigerated cargo hold of a ship crossing the Atlantic…
I shall now pass on what I’ve learned about Port:
There are 10 different styles of Port, let’s ignore most of them and concentrate on what we see in most stores. Ruby, Tawny, Late Bottle Vintage (LBV), and Vintage.
Ruby is the least complex and the least expensive. It has virtually no bottle age and is a blend of young wines from different years all of which have been barreled or tanked for two to three years.
Tawny has two categories, young and aged. Young Tawny is less than three years old and is uncomplicated and light colored….Aged Tawny is either 10, 20, 30 or 40 years old. It’s a blend of the highest quality ports left to mature in the barrel where over time they take on a nutty vanilla flavor and silky texture, then bottled to age gently. Their color changes from a deep ruby red to Tawny. Experts tell me 20 year old Tawny’s are the ones to drink.
Late Bottle Vintage Ports are of a single vintage from good, not great years. They’re aged in the barrel four to six years then bottled. Though LBV’s are in the wood for 2 years longer than Vintage Port, they are not substantial enough to age for long periods of time (decades) in the bottle. I think these are good value.
Vintage Port represents only two to three percent of total production. They are the most expensive and most sought after, and are produced in only the best years. All the grapes without question come from the finest vineyards in the Douro. Bottled at 2 before it’s had a chance to shed its harsh tannins, it requires an enormous amount of bottle aging. Anything before 20 years and you’re considered impatient. I’ve heard stories about 70 year old Port…can you imagine the amount of sediment?
Deb and I have travelled quite an arc since that Christmas in ’74. My mother-in-law, who I loved so very much, embraced me with the elegance and grace of a most extraordinary life. Bim’s war time diaries chronicling her years in the WRAF were posthumously published and are a constant reminder of a life well lived… and when I see the video of my daughter Elinor, on her last visit together with her Nain (Welsh for granny) drinking a glass of wine on a patio in Tuscany, I hear that wonderful English accent as she leans close to her, and says with the same wry smile the words she said to me all those years ago: “drink slowly my dear….this is the good stuff.”
All the best,