100 years of great ports

C0mposite Poças Wines

Making great port requires exceptional grapes and a deep knowledge of the production process. But most of all, it requires time, lots of time. Time for the nectars to lose the brashness of youth and mellow with age. That is why we cannot produce port wine by ourselves. We need our children and grandchildren to help. And if our great grandchildren can also lend a hand, even better.

The British port-wine families guarantee their longevity by leaving the business to a single son or daughter and compensating their siblings with cash. In contrast, Portuguese families generally sell their estates to divide the proceeds among the heirs. There is why there are almost no major Portuguese port houses left. The one remarkable exception is Poças, a company that celebrated 100 years in August 2018.

In 1918, Manoel Poças Júnior started buying brandy to supply port-wine producers. He was at times paid with barrels of port, so gradually he also became a port-wine merchant. In 1932, one of Manoel’s brandy clients paid a large debt with a wine estate called Quinta das Quartas. Manuel loved the estate which has granite tanks dating back to 1873.  Every week, he made the arduous trip from Oporto to Quinta das Quartas to visit the vineyards.

This passion is shared by his great granddaughter, Maria Manuela Maia, the viticulturist in charge of Quinta das Quartas and of the other two estates acquired by the family, Quinta de Santa Bárbara and Quinta de Vale de Cavalos. Even though today it is much easier to drive from Oporto to the Douro, Maria moved to the Douro valley to be closer to the vineyards.

We met with Maria in Vila Nova de Gaia, at the cellars where barrels full of precious nectars produced by past generations are stored. She shared with us some superb ports: a Vintage from 1997, a Reserva from 2014, and a Vale dos Cavalos from 2015. Our tasting ended with fireworks provided by a remarkable 1967 Tawny, full of freshness and acidity. We filled our glasses with this liquid treasure and made two toasts: to Manoel Poças for the successes of the past and to Maria for the successes of the future.

Click here for the Poças web site. To visit the Poças cellars email visitors@pocas.pt or call 223 203 257.

 

 

 

Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?

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According to an old British tradition, vintage port wine is served in a decanter passed at the end of the meal from right to left. When someone forgets to pass the decanter, instead of saying. “Would you mind passing the port,” the British like to ask: “do you know the Bishop of Norwich?”  They will then explain that the bishop was a very nice fellow except for his annoying proclivity to forget to pass the port decanter. Henry Bathurst, the Bishop of Norwich from 1805 to 1837, often fell asleep at the table, interrupting the flow of port that fueled the conversation.

The British port-wine merchants and producers gather every Wednesday for lunch at the Feitoria Inglesa, an elegant 18th century building in Oporto. It is a place where the slightest hesitation about passing the port results in a lecture about the Bishop of Norwich.

One day, two members of the Feitoria Inglesa conspired to invite the current bishop of Norwich to lunch. The bishop arrived incognito. One of the conspirators failed to pass the port and was promptly asked by his neighbor, “do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” He responded “I do, in fact I can introduce you to him because he is sitting at the table!” The bishop rose and told the guests that he was indeed the Bishop of Norwich and that he always passed the port.

Three lessons at Quinta de Vargellas

Quinta de Vagellas

It is easy to arrive at Quinta de Vargellas because this heavenly wine estate in the Douro valley has its own train station. The old carriages stop there with a screech, huffing exhausted from racing with the river waters. It is then up to the guests to walk up the granite steps that lead to the manor house.

We sat in the porch, mesmerized by the schist terraces built by generations of workers to create the perfect environment for the exuberant vines. It was here that we learned our first lesson: that the greatest beauty is created by man in harmony with nature.

Our second lesson, was about the importance of generosity. David Guimaraens, the head winemaker of Taylor’s Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft has an hectic schedule. But he takes time to share the magic of Vargellas with his guests. He explained to us the uniqueness of the terroir and described the vines as if they were his children. We drank his words and saw the brilliance of the vineyards through his eyes, green like the Douro river.

The grapes from the quinta are used to make the famed Quinta de Vargellas Vintage and form the base of the great Taylor Vintage Ports. We walked down to the cellar to sample the port made in 2018, which is still full of vigor but promises to age gracefully.

David discussed some of the intricacies of port-wine making and told us about the new vines he is planting so that his children can continue to produce great ports.  It takes 10 years for new vines to produce usable grapes. Between ages 10 and 20, the vines are adolescents, they have some good years but are moody and inconsistent. From ages 20 to 40, they mature and acquire consistency. From ages 40 to 60, the yields are low but the quality is great. Beyond 60 years, production dwindles but the few grapes that grow are drenched with wisdom.

A lifetime is too short to plant the vines and gather the knowledge required to produce great port. And so, we learned our third lesson: life is a relay race. We have to learn  from our ancestors and add to that learning to sow the seeds of the future.

It was hard to leave Quinta de Vargellas. But the memories of our visit stay with us. And from now on, every sip of the quinta’s holly wines will take us back to this paradise in the Douro valley.

Click here to see the Quinta de Vargellas web page.

Celebrating the passage of time at Ramos Pinto

Composit Ramos Pinto

Port wine used to be sold in austere black bottles with somber labels. Adriano Ramos Pinto, a maverick entrepreneur who entered the port wine trade in 1880, changed all that. He wrapped port wine with sensuous images, elegant packaging, and clever marketing.

One of Ramos Pinto’s publicity coups took place in 1922. Two pilots, Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral, planned to make the first aerial crossing of the South Atlantic, flying from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro. Ramos Pinto convinced them to take a bottle of his port wine on board to celebrate their landing in Rio de Janeiro. On the first two attempts, the airplane sunk near the coast of Brazil. But both the pilots and the bottle were saved. The third attempt was successful and the bottle was finally opened to great acclaim. This and other exploits made Adriano Ramos Pinto so famous in Brazil that a glass of port was often called an Adriano.

Tasting port wines at the cellars of Ramos Pinto in Vila Nova de Gaia is a sumptuous experience. You can try splendid tawnies, made by man with the help of God, and divine vintages, made by God with the help of man.

Tawnies are aged in 600-liter wood barrels where they acquire a golden color and the taste of dry fruits, almonds and nuts. As time goes by, some of the wine evaporates and the barrels have to be topped off. This evaporation has a whimsical name: the “angel’s share.”

A bottle of tawny is a blend of wine from different harvests. A 30-year-old tawny is made with wines that average 30 years of age, so it often contains wine that is 60, 70, even 100 years old. The passage of time is a key factor in the production of great ports. There are 4 million liters of port stored in Ramos Pinto’s cellars.  Master blenders use these nectars produced by older generations and save some barrels from the current harvests to be blended by future generations.

Vintage ports are produced from a single harvest in exceptional years. They stage for only two years in wood barrels called balseiros. These barrels are very old and very large, holding 60,000 liters of wine. They are used to smooth the tannins without imparting the taste of wood to the wine. Vintage port is bottled and stored in the dark to preserve its rich red color and the taste of fresh fruit.

Ramos Pinto also produces alluring white ports. We tried a 7-year white blend that has enticing notes of honey and citrus. There are also wonderful late bottled vintage (LVB) ports. Produced more often than the rare vintages, LVBs are aged in balseiros for 4 years and then bottled without being filtered, so they can continue to improve in the bottle.

In 1990, Ramos Pinto was acquired by Roederer, the producer of the famed Cristal champagne. But the company is managed by a Portuguese enologist, João Nicolau de Almeida, son of the legendary Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, creator of the iconic Barca Velha. In addition to wonderful ports, João Nicolau d’Almeida makes two impressive table wines: Duas Quintas and Bons Ares.

It is traditional to buy a bottle of port from the year in which one’s child is born for them to make a toast when they come of age. Buying this birthday bottle for your children is a great excuse to visit the Ramos Pinto cellars and a beautiful way to celebrate the passage of time.

Click here for the Ramos Pinto web site. The cellars are located at Av. Ramos Pinto 400, Vila Nova de Gaia near Oporto.

Quinta do Vallado

Quinta do Valado Composit

We wonder whether god created the Douro as a test. It gave the region poor soils and a mountainous terrain, scorching Summers and freezing Winters. But if humans persevered and made a living in this land, they would be rewarded with magnificent wines.

The soil, composed of schist and granite, forces the vines to struggle and produce small grapes that are full of flavor. No one believed more in these grapes than Dona Antónia Ferreira. She made a fortune producing port wine in the beginning of the 18th century and reinvested it all in the Douro, owning at one point 37 vineyards.

This Summer we had the privilege of visiting one of these vineyards, the Quinta do Vallado,  which dates back to 1716. We toured the cellars and tasted some of the quinta’s great table wines.

At the end of our visit, we drank some wonderful old tawny port. With our glasses full of this golden nectar, we toasted the people of the Douro and their magnificent wines.

Quinta do Vallado is located in Vilarinho dos Freires, Peso da Régua, tel. 254 323 147. Click here for their web site.

Ruby, Vintage or Tawny?

2 Port winesPeople in the Douro valley say that babies and port wines are often born at night. Port producers let the grape juice ferment for about three days. They choose the perfect moment to add a neutral grape spirit (aguardente) that stops the fermentation before the yeast eats all the grape sugar. This moment often comes in the middle of the third night.

Most of the Douro grapes are used to produce ruby ports. These inexpensive ports are first stored in cement or stainless steel vats to prevent oxidation and then bottled. The result is a wine that retains a dark ruby color and fresh fruit flavors.

When the quality of the grapes is exceptional, port-wine producers declare a vintage year. These ports are stored in wood casks for one or two years and then bottled. With little exposure to air, the wine is dark red. Aging brings out complex flavors, such as notes of vanilla, chocolate, and blackberry.

The best grapes are also used to produce tawnies. These ports are aged for many years in casks made of Portuguese chestnut and oak. This aging process creates complex flavors and gives the wine a silky mouthfeel. The small amount of air that circulates through the tiny pores of the wood oxidizes the wine slightly, changing its color from red to amber.

It is wonderful to share a glass of ruby port with new friends. But there’s nothing like drinking old vintages and tawnies with old friends.

Barca Velha

Barca Velha is a mythical wine, the first Portuguese table wine to acquire an international reputation. Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, Casa Ferreirinha’s enologist, adapted the techniques used to produce vintage ports to make superlative table wine. After years of experimentation, he produced the first Barca Velha in 1952 with grapes from a vineyard planted by Dona Antónia Ferreira.

Since then, Barca Velha has been produced only 12 times, when the sun and the clouds joined forces to create exceptional grapes.

How did Nicolau de Almeida decide whether a vintage merited the Barca Velha name?  He relied on his wife. He took an unlabeled bottle home to share with her at dinner. If they finished the bottle by the end of the meal, the vintage was a Barca Velha.