Tasting port in Porto

October 8, 2012 • 12:32 am

The two greatest sweet wines in the world are, in this order:

1. Sauternes (and their cousins, Barsacs). The greatest sweet wine I ever had was Chateau d’Yquem 1976.

2.  Vintage port. While good specimens of these sweet wines are expensive, they are still greatly undervalued compared to their quality, for America (a huge market for these wines) is not a land where people like sweet wines.

Other sweet wines are even more undervalued. Here are the two greatest bargains in sweet wine that I have found:

3. Late-harvest muscats and tokays from Australia.  The Aussies call them “stickies,” but they’re worthy of a more dignified name. A good sticky like Chambers Rosewood Muscat, for example, is a world-class wine, and will set you back no more than$15 per half-bottle.

4.  Pedro Ximenez sherries.  These intensely sweet sherries from Spain taste like you’re drinking liquid raisins and prunes. The Pedro Ximenez grape is often used to add color and a bit of sweetness to other sherries, but can be vinified on its own to make a terrific after-dinner drink.  There are several makers selling these in half- and full bottles. A good specimen, like that of Emilio Lustau, costs only about $20 for a full bottle, and will afford you hours of sipping pleasure.

Since I was in Porto, where ports are blended, how could I resist spending a morning trying them?

Before I headed up the Douro Valley, I visited several of the famous port lodges of Porto. These are large buildings where the wine produced upstream in the valley is blended into various types of port: vintage port, ruby port, late-bottled vintage port, white port, tawny port, and so on.

To get to the lodges, one crosses the river Douro from Porto on a pedestrian bridge; the lodges are right on the other side of the river:

The lodges are all close by near the river. Here are a few; you can recognize some famous names here:

A bit of graffiti along the way tells you what you’re in for:

I visited Graham’s first, as that is my favorite port. I love their sweet, fruity, and rounded style:

It is a commercial operation, and geared for tourists. That morning there were many Germans who came in in buses and quaffed a glass or two as part of a tour. But then they left, leaving me alone to wander in the lodge.  There’s a display of all vintage ports from the mid-nineteenth century. “Vintages” are declared only about every third or fourth year, when the weather has been especially salubrious for producing good grapes.

Here’s an old one, probably now an undrinkable vinegar but still worth many hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars. Wine collectors buy and sell these bottles and never open them, something I don’t understand:

Because nobody was in the winery, I got a one-person tour, conducted by a nice Russian emigrant named Anastasia from Novosibirsk.  We saw the huge barrels containing vintage and other types of port:

Here’s a barrel destined to be an “LBV” or late-bottled vintage port. These aren’t quite as good as true vintage port, but are nevertheless excellent; they are left to mature in barrel for a few years longer than the 2-3 years experienced by true vintage ports:

Graham’s, like all big companies, maintains a stock of vintage ports going way back. Here is their “library.” These bottles are almost never opened.

Because I know something about vintage port, and Anastasia was so nice, I got try try some special ports beyond the three mandated by the 10-euro ticket I bought, which normally allows one to try three kinds of single-quinta vintage port.  She replaced one of them with a very expensive true vintage port from 1994, added a glass of expensive 40-year old tawny port, and threw in a free glass of “white port”, often used in France as an apéritif. Here are the big four. Remember, I was drinking at 11 a.m, and these are big pours (port is 20% alcohol):

And the wines I tried, with the per bottle price:

  1. Quinto do Bonfin 1999 32 Euros
  2. Graham’s Quinto dos Malvedos 1999 40 Euros
  3. 1994 Quinto do Vesuvio 109 Euros (spectacular; the only port now crushed entirely with people’s feet), 130 Euros
  4. Graham’s 40 year old tawny 118 Euros
  5. White port (inexpensive, no price listed).
My host, the affable Anasatasia, who slipped me fancy wines:

I then visited another spot, Taylor’s which makes a favorite of mine, and had two more glasses. It was not as friendly, and I left after a short while. But I was very tipsy, and it wasn’t yet noon.

In that state, one needs food. I chose to have a francesinha, the local speciality sandwich of Porto. (It means “little French woman”). The students at the institute where I spoke the day before recommended that I try this comestible. As Wikipedia describes it:

[It is] made with bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça, fresh sausage like chipolata, steak or roast meat and covered with melted cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce served with french fries.

Yes, yes, I know it’s a coronary on a plate, but I don’t eat like this every day, and it’s just the ticket for sopping up alcohol. And it was good. (If you’re tempted to lecture me on eating healthy, please refrain.).

A closeup for the brave of heart:

After this I headed up the Douro Valley to explore where and how port is made. I have some beautiful picture of this area, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and will post those as soon as I get a chance. Today I will do some more exploring and then head back to Porto.

40 thoughts on “Tasting port in Porto

  1. Notice the very strong British connection with the Port trade? You can thank the French for that. The story goes that during one of the innumerable Anglo-French wars (think this one was in the early 1700), the Brits couldn’t get their regular tipple (claret) so took to drinking Portuguese wine fortified (for the voyage) with brandy ….

    The Treaty of Windsor (1386), btw, between England and Portugal is the oldest extant diplomatic treaty still in force. It is not just of historical quaintness. It was invoked as recently as WW2 to allow the Allies access to airfields on the Azores as part of thae anti-submarine campaign.

  2. This sandwich looks somewhat familiar, and supposedly it is an adaptation from the French one, Croque-Monsieur, for the Portuguese palate, hence the sauce. It looks quite the treat.

    It’s perplexing that some people cringe at sweet alcohol just as some do with mixing fruit and meat together.

    1. I like sweet sherry much better than dry. What is it with Americans? They eat far too much sugar in food but turn up their noses at sweet alcohol.

  3. Yum. A few days ago I saw a picture of some sort of custard tart on a post here. I was just at the supermarket and saw something that looked like it called “Portugese Tart”. It was very nice. I also like Port but am not much of an authority.

  4. If I were drinking port before noon and caught a nice buzz, no doubt I’d feel like having a francesinha, too.

    Then, later, maybe I’d take her out for a sandwich.

    1. Hey, you’re not dealing with a tyro here! I love both Rieslings and Gewürzs, esp. the TBAs of the former, but of course my rating above is subjective. Most Gewurzs that I like are Alsatian, and hence not sweet but perfumed.

      I could add many more great sweet wines, but the two above are my favorite. Tokay Esczensia Aszu is another good one.

      1. Yes, on Alsatian Rieslings, hoo baby!

        And I LOVE TBAs oh man. I am totally with you on the sweet wine choices (though I have been disappointed with Aussie wines: Based on your recommendation, I will try some of the one you mentioned.)

  5. My experience with Port wines is limited, but I’ve bought the $15 jugs by Taylor (Port and Tawny Port), several times over, plus a $60+ bottle from a winery in CA. The latter was definitely better, but not enough better to avoid the cheap-o $15 jugs of Taylor.

    1. Just buy the Grahams LBV or Six-Grapes (Vintage Character) which should only set you back about $20. Lovely stuff.

  6. One of the great sweet wines of the world that you must try if you yet haven’t is Loire Chenin, e.g. Vouvray Moelleux and Coteaux du Layon.

    Do you prefer barrel aged Tawny or Colheita or the bottle aged Vintage style which doesn’t get such an oxidative character from the barrel ageing? Or do you like both styles?

    The more I’ve tried port, the more I prefer the oxidative styles aged for long in wood like 30 or 40 year old Tawny!

  7. You don’t mention Madeira in your list. Is that because it is not one of the best sweet wines or does it fall into the Port category? I like Port, but I don’t really know much about wine designations etc.
    As for the Francesinha – they make a similar thing in Mozambique (Portuguese influence obviously) and it is great – the sauce had peri-peri in it, mmmmmmm.

    1. Very unlike Port. Madeira is intentionally oxidized (like many Sherrys) whereas oxidation is usually a flaw in Port. (Usually!)

    1. Not really, Dom Luiz bridge was projected by Téophile Seyrig. Another Porto bridge, Dona Maria bridge, was designed by Seyrig in a project that included Eiffel.

      1. My bad then. I thought I saw a plaque on the bridge attributing the construction to him. I’m going there again next week so I’ll take a closer look.

  8. Talking about sweet wines with no mention of icewine or botrytized wines? You’re missing something amazing.

    1. What–you don’t think that Sauternes are afflicted by botrytis? And yes, I’ve tried every variety of sweet wine and rated just a few, two for quality and two for value.

    1. Yes, good Beaumes de Venise (I higly recommend Domaine de Durban, consistently excellent) is a wonderful drink; but never a substitute for Port. Different end of the stick entirely.

  9. I have quite a few 1994s waiting patiently in the cellar for the right year. Mainly Warre’s but also (I think) some Grahams and Smith Woodhouse. (Can’t remember, it’s sealed away in dated (year to open) boxes and covered by other cases of aging wine.

    BUT! I now know what to bring with me to Chicago when I visit! Vintage Port on the way. Not sure when, but when we come …

  10. You must try some of the Canadian Ice Wines

    Canada, Ice, Wine

    It’s a natural

    Try the Jackson Triggs 2008 Grand Reserve Cabernet Franc

  11. Port, Schmort. What I want to know is, did you finish that sandwich? I’d estimate that sucker at about 1500 calories!

      1. Yay! Looks a bit like poutine (at least the fries part of the dish.)

        Our local place makes poutine! But you usually have to ask for it. And they add one extra touch that I love: A slice of grilled foie gras on top of the whole mess. Oh, yummies!

  12. My favorite dish I had in Portugal was grilled lulas: Little thumb-sized squid, simply grilled over a charcoal fire. Hoo, baby! Eaten on a terrace overlooking the Atlantic. Good beer (we were on a tight budget), sunshine and a fresh breeze. Heavenly.

  13. Thumbs up and full moral support for devouring those fries and sandwich Jerry! I’d love to try those meals.

    I did some “stunt eating” at our local Canadian National Exhibition, the theme this year being “everything pork/baconized and everything else deep fried.” (Mars bars wrapped in bacon, battered and deep fried, that kind of thing).

    Best for me was the 3-layered red velvet pancakes with BBQ’d pulled pork in between, finished with Jack Daniels infused maple syrup. Many may recoil at such a description, but adventurous eaters know a good thing when they hear it 🙂 (I’m still dreaming of how damned good that meal was).

    But that’s much more philistine than the type of mmmm-good calorie bombs you occasionally post here. Your posts give me ideas of foods to search out so keep ’em up.


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