A bottle of port is seldom far away from most Christmas dining tables, usually savoured after dinner with a piece of Stilton. The French and Spanish, however, enjoy port throughout the year, offering as it does an array of styles and food-matching possibilities. Like sherry and Madeira, port is, we believe, not just for Christmas.
Port drinkers have access to a wealth of flavours, complexity and diversity, thanks to a number of different styles. A drink with a rich history, port’s story is a complicated one.
(You may need to click the image once again to magnify it, depending on your browser)
Alternatively, you can view the infographic in PDF format here.
In it you’ll find a basic rundown of the different types of port and how their ageing differs from one style to the other, as well as the main criteria for ports’ different classifications and what they mean.
For those members that are wanting to pick up some ports especially for Christmas we also include ratings of the best recent vintages. We hope you find it useful.
Trainee Campaign Manager
You can view our range of ports under fortified wines on our website.
I am reminded on my latest visit in glorious winter sunshine how Porto would make a wonderful destination for a grown-up city break, not least as it is so steeped in the history of port production (with plenty of tasting opportunities too).
The old lodges across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia, where port wines have been stored and matured for generations, have all been spruced up to receive visitors, none more so than Graham’s.
Jo Locke MW
When thinking of the Douro Valley, most will picture the steep walled vineyards and famous port quintas perched precariously above the meandering river below.
But a surprise to me was the extent of this wine region; I hadn’t realised that as well as the principal valley with its terraces, there are so many tributaries and side valleys with high plateaux and rolling hills, and vines seemingly everywhere.
This region is vast. The Douro vineyard area is divided into three sub-zones, Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior and there are more than 40,000 hectares in total. Compare this, say, to the whole of the northern Rhône, made up of just 2,700 hectares.
Buyer Joanna Locke MW and I had just two nights and three days in December last year to travel the length and breadth of the valley and beyond. The main aim of the visit was to go and see our Exhibition Douro suppliers, Quinta do Vale Meão at Vila Nova de Foz Côa in the Upper Douro (read more about this here), but we were also going to make a side-trip to the rather forgotten region of Beira Interior to visit Rui Madeira, catch up Rita Ferreira Marquès of Conceito and visit some prospective suppliers in an area known as the Douro Verde – vinho verde’s southernmost enclave, and we were to discover, the home of the avesso grape.
Douro – no longer just about port
Despite the region’s long history of making wines, port has dominated the trade until relatively recently, but the Douro is building a reputation for its table wines, with estates like Vale Meão at the vanguard.
Douro table wine now accounts for 30% of sales from the region, compared to just 3% ten years ago. This proportion is growing all the time and with winemakers gaining better insight into the best grapes to grow where, quality is bound to improve, as Francisco Olazabal, winemaker and owner at Vale Meão says: ‘The best vintages are the most recent. Styles are changing, partly because of vintage differences and changes in weather patterns but also because we are getting to know our vineyards better and learning how to control alcohol levels better.’
Perhaps somewhat ironically it is the knowledge gained from site selection for table wines which is now feeding back into the production of port too.
Rui Madeira at Beyra Wines in the Beira Interior, on the other hand, wouldn’t change his field blends. His vineyards, some of Portugal’s highest, just 30kms from the Spanish border on the start of the meseta, are made up of very old vines, crucial for getting flavour and complexity into the wines.
The Beira Interior area is known for its whites. In the past the wine from this region was sent in bulk west to Bairrada – the high natural acidity made it perfect for use as the base for sparkling wine production. But Rui, whose family is originally from this region, could see the potential for making high-quality wines from the old vines grown on schist, granite, clay and quartz soils.
Rui was brought up in Lisbon but had a bad accident while at university and came back to the family home to recuperate. While he was convalescing he helped to make wine at his friend’s winery and became smitten with the idea of becoming a winemaker and realising the potential of his home turf. He made his first wine here in 1987. In 2011, after travelling and gaining experience in wineries around the world, he was drawn back and bought the Vermiosa winery from his friend, completely refurbishing it.
This area is quite desolate. Many have left and those that are left are poor so there is no market locally for the wine, neither is there workforce for the winery. Rui is the main winemaker but lives in Porto (like many we met), and his cellarmaster commutes over from the Douro.
Because this region is little known, Rui has made a point of putting a map showing exactly where they are on his labels. It was also his way of making the point that this region still has a connection with the mighty Douro river.
But it is the altitude and old vines (some as much as 120 years old) which make his wines really special. The freshness captured in the wines means that it isn’t just the whites that work well with fish as we were to discover when we retreated to a local rustic restaurant for lunch.
Presenting a different face to the world
A common theme that came up with all those we spoke to was the need to make their mark on what is an already crowded market place. This is something that Rita Marques of Conceito has undoubtedly achieved with her dramatic-looking labels (Conceito means ‘concept’).
Rita is one of the new generation of winemakers. A protogée of Dirk Niepoort, she came back to the Douro in 2005 after travelling as far afield as South Africa and New Zealand learning her craft. After finishing her studies, Rita built a winery with the intention of making wines from vineyards owned by her mother and grandfather. Previously the grapes were sold on to producers so Rita is the first winemaker of the family.
Rita’s winemaking philosophy is quite straightforward: ‘You should always make wines that you like to drink.’ She then goes on to admit rather candidly that, at first, she didn’t like the Douro table wines finding them too heavy and powerful! But now she says that she loves them: ‘Wines are becoming more elegant… more people are making table wines in the Douro so we’re all getting to understand our region better and there’s more competition, so everyone’s improving.’
Returning to the theme at the start of this post, the land here is not what you’d immediately picture when thinking of the Douro. Despite the high altitude (300-400m), this is a land of gentle hills rolling down to the Teja valley, a tributary of the Douro. The mild micro-climate here means that grapes ripen more slowly here bringing freshness to the wines (her entry-level red Contraste, £11.95 per bottle and designed for early drinking, exemplifies this beautifully). And Rita is lucky enough to have access to some really old parcels of vines (the oldest around 80 years old with two hectares of pre-phylloxera vines at 600m).
From the Douro’s upland vineyards to the valley floor
Winding your way down from Rita’s winery to the valley floor of the Douro is an ear-popping, stomach-churning descent – even by night and despite the considerate driving!
Our next destination was in the southernmost vinho verde subzone of Baião, in what is called the Douro Verde and a stopover at Quinta de Guimarães to taste the fresh, nervy Cazas Novas wines based on the avesso grape.
Anyone for avesso?
I have to admit that I hadn’t heard of this grape before or realised that the vinho verde region came down as far as the Douro or this far inland. But as we were to discover, avesso is the grape of this area where it is increasingly bottled as a single varietal.
Quite unlike the other vinho verde grapes, avesso is low in acidity but is relatively high in potential alcohol and can have almost tropical-fruit like aromatics and a roundness to the flavour. To distinguish these wines from the more traditional vinhos verdes, the wines are often bottled in Burgundy bottles. Avesso in Portuguese, by the way, means ‘opposite’.
The avesso grape thrives in the warmer and drier climate here, planted as it is on south-facing slopes that run down to the Douro. Here the granite soils are also less fertile than those of the vinho verde subzones further north and west.
There’s a real excitement about this grape – and you can see why – it offers something a bit different while retaining that enticing freshness that makes all vinho verde attractive. Buyer Joanna Locke MW has shipped the 2014 vintage for members to try (£6.95 per bottle).
Cazas Novas has been in the hands of the Mourinho family for seven generations. Carlos Mouinho makes the wine in collaboration with Diogo Fonseca Lopes and winemaking super-stars Anselmo Mendes, and Vasco Magalhães. Carlos tells us that like many other families, they used to sell their grapes but noticed that the wines were winning awards and his father thought, ‘why not have a go ourselves?’
Much to the delight of his father, Carlos has stepped up to the plate. His father meanwhile, looks after renting out their beautiful old manor house Quinta de Guimarães. The house, built in 1720 and with its own chapel (which Carlos informs us is typical of this style of property), is used for weddings, holiday lets and bed and breakfast. ‘It’s one way we can continue to keep these old houses going,’ says Carlos and it would make a lovely first spot to stay on a wine tour up the Douro.
More and more quintas are opening up their doors to visitors, so if you’re thinking of taking a trip up the Douro, I’d recommend spending more than three days and researching the possibilities of staying where the wine is made.
It was a huge pleasure to join my colleagues Liz and Mark and our super group of members and their guests in Portugal back in October.
There is such a wealth of history here, as these old journals at Taylor’s illustrate, and the small ‘museum’ at Graham’s lodge portrays so vividly. Both are well worth the detour for tasting as well as a history lesson, with the added bonuses of Graham’s restaurant Vinum and Taylor’s top-notch hotel to hand if you’d like to linger longer.
Our first-ever Exhibition Douro red is available now with introductory savings until 8th February)
Jo Locke MW
Of the many questions our Member Services team get asked, at this time of year, how to decant is one of the more popular. There are two reasons to decant – to remove the deposit (or sediment) from older bottles and vintage port and to aerate the wine. We publish tips on decanting on our Serving Wine page, along with answers to other frequently asked questions, but we thought that we would share the tips below from fellow member David Richards who feels that the whole process is rather over complicated by some. His approach is sound and one that we sometimes adopt (tights are often used instead of filters), what’s critical, of course, is that everything is clean!
Having just bought a couple of cases of The Society’s Côtes-du-Rhône containing tartrate crystals and with the festive season fast approaching, I thought I’d share a tip that never fails. When decanting a wine, there is no need for silver funnels, candles, torches, white backgrounds or whatever other mystical practices you may have read about. All you need is a kitchen-grade plastic funnel and a coffee filter paper of suitable proportions, plus a decanter, of course. No need to stand the bottle upright overnight either.
Pop the funnel into the neck of the decanter, fold the bottom and side of the filter paper over and place it into the funnel, then simply remove the cork and pour the whole thing into the funnel. You may need to do this in two or three stages to allow the wine to run through. The resultant liquid will be crystal clear, I promise you.
If you are at all nervous when you see the sediment pouring out of the bottle, you can transfer the funnel to a tumbler of sufficient height and allow the final dregs to drain into that, but do not fear, it will be just as clear as the rest. This trick works equally well on a cheap Côtes-du-Rhône or an £80 bottle of port. I have done both. And if you get caught by surprise by a bottle that delivers sediment into your glass when you weren’t expecting it, simply set up the equipment and pour everything through the filter, including what was in the glass. It works a treat and your meal (and drinking pleasure) will barely be interrupted. Simples! Go on, give it a try.
Sadly my dwindling stock of mature vintage port is not readily available this Christmas, so I decided to opt for a 20-year-old tawny port comparison.
Port because the gathered assembly regard it as essential to Christmas as it is traditional, perfect with nuts, cheese and those splendid preserved fruits that sit in the sideboard and taste even better at leisure on Boxing Day or the day after.
Indeed, my colleague Janet Wynne Evans has also pointed out in the video below that tawny port is often a better match than vintage for cheese.
20-year-old because it is the perfect age for tawny port. A comparison because there will be several of us and one bottle would simply not have been enough – and besides which some of us need little if any excuse to compare different wines.
They will be served cellar cool to an eager audience, and my guess is that Taylor’s (£34) may win for finesse and class. Graham’s (£37) will score well on account of its depth and rich fruit, and that Noval (£40) will seduce us with its charm.
I look forward to finding out.
Sebastian Payne MW
After visiting Taylor’s Port Lodge, we wound our way up the Douro Valley and arrived at Quinta do Vesuvio – at its very own railway station!The property is set amidst orange and olive groves, orchards and, of course, vines, and we were welcomed to this beautiful setting by Johnny Symington and João Vasconcelos.
Johnny is one of the five Symington cousins who share the responsibility for all aspects of the company. The Symington family has owned Quinta do Vesuvio since 1989 and has been directly involved in port for five generations, since 1882 in fact, when the first Symington, Andrew James, moved from Scotland to Portugal to work for W & J Graham’s.
Johnny hosted our tour of this impressive quinta which boasts the largest house and some of the biggest traditional stone lagares (time-honoured fermentation vessels) in the Douro. It was exciting to find that they had only just finished foot-treading the grapes the night before our visit so the lagares were full of the grapes that would become the 2014 vintage.
After our tour, we tasted Quinta do Vesuvio’s range of Douro DOC red wines, including Pombal do Vesuvio 2011 and Quinta do Vesuvio 2010 and 2009, and the intensely rich Quinta do Vesuvio single-quinta vintage ports from 2009, 2011 and 2012. The Wine Society currently lists Quinta do Vesuvio 2004 (£36 per bottle).
Following a wonderful lunch of a delicious Portuguese speciality Bacalhau Fornado (a fish pie made with dry, salt-cured cod) and local cheeseboard accompanied by an exclusive 1992 Quinta do Vesuvio tawny port, taken direct from cask at the Quinta, we were in for another treat.
It was time for my ‘James Bond moment’: a speedboat trip with Johnny at the helm down the Douro river with wonderful 360-degree views of the surrounding terraced vineyards.
Thank you to Johnny, João and the Symingtons for such a wonderful day in this idyllic part of the world; great company, setting and wines – life couldn’t get much better.
To find out more about Quinta do Vesuvio and the Symington Family estates visit their excellent website.
Recruitment & Retention Manager
Our whirlwind prize-winners’ Portugal trip started with a private tour and extensive tasting at Taylor’s Port wine cellars in the heart of the historic area of Vila Nova de Gaia.
Established over three centuries ago, in 1692, Taylor’s is one of the oldest of the founding port houses – The Society being a mere baby in comparison!
Set in beautiful gardens with views across the Douro River, Taylor’s Port lodge is in a stunning location. Although we arrived in the rain, we were soon given a very warm welcome from our host Chris Forbes, Taylor’s marketing projects manager. We started with a refreshing glass of ‘Chip Dry’, usually served as an aperitif in the Douro, ‘Chip Dry’ is a mixture of one part of white port with two parts of chilled tonic water served in a tall glass, with lemon and ice. Delicious.
Chris showed us Taylor’s long cool, dark cellars which house the casks and vats where the ports age, giving us a history of Taylor’s along the way (to read more about Taylor’s history visit their excellent website). The cellars’ thick granite walls and high ceilings keep the port casks at an even temperature, particularly important during the hot summer months but not such an issue on a rainy October afternoon!
Taylor’s wines come from their three quintas in the Douro valley, each with their own unique character: Quinta de Vargellas, Quinta de Terra Feita and Quinta do Junco.
It was clear that Taylor’s still embrace the traditional methods of making port from the hand-picking and selection of grapes in the vineyard through to foot treading the grapes in lagars (wide thigh-deep granite tanks) in the quinta.
Prior to visiting the Douro, foot treading conjured up visions of fun and frivolity. However, in reality it is a very physical, laborious process lasting between 2-3 hours. Taylor’s still see this as the best way to achieve the gentle yet complete extraction of juice and pulp from the grapes without crushing the pips that would release bitter tastes into the wine.
Following our tour, Chris treated us to an extensive tasting of some outstanding ports. Chris explained the differences between what makes a Vintage, Crusted and Tawny port (Mark Buckenham, The Society’s port buyer gives a guide to different ports in our How To Buy Port guide).
Alongside tasting our very own Exhibition Crusted Port and Exhibition Tawny Port, 10 years old made for us by Taylor’s, highlights included the Fonseca Guimareans 1998 Vintage Port, Taylor’s 1985 Vintage port, Taylor’s 20-Year-Old Tawny and the fine, silky Taylor’s 1964 Single Harvest Port.
It was a wonderful start to our Douro trip. Thank you, Taylor’s!
Recruitment & Retention Manager
At last week’s International Wine Challenge Awards, The Wine Society won the Specialist Merchant of the Year award for Portugal for the first time.
We are absolutely delighted that our ? and your ? support for Portugal over the last few years has been recognised in this way, and also delighted for Portugal, and for all our producers whose wines have been over-delivering (whichever way you look at it, on quality, interest and value) for years.
This is a mark of just how far Portuguese wines have come, especially since joining the European Union in 1986. (I remember in my early years as a wine student, Portuguese wines were among the easiest to spot in blind tastings, along with Italian wines at the time, for their often rude tannins and oxidised fruit. They are now long gone).
Over the years many retailers have made admirable attempts to support Portugal’s traditional and emerging wine industry, but our unique status as a co-operative populated by wine enthusiasts has allowed us to make steady progress and establish Portugal as a small but increasingly important part of our range and tastings programme.
Earlier this year (and arguably long overdue) Decanter Magazine made Paul Symington, MD of the Symington group responsible for many of the best Port houses as well as the Altano, Chryseia, and Vesuvio wines in the Douro its Decanter Man of the Year, and Paul is our guest at The Society’s Festive Dinner in December.
At the start of this year’s harvest, it is too early to say whether 2012 will turn out to be a “vintage” year for Portugal, thereby creating a celebratory hat trick. In the meantime, for members who have followed our exploration into Portugal’s wonderfully varied wine regions to date, and to others who might now feel more tempted to do so, there is plenty more to come, including our next offer and tasting dedicated to Portuguese wines in November.
Jo Locke MW
137 years later we have gone back to our roots – 49 Portuguese wines, accompanied by many winemakers, were poured for 350 members and guests at Merchant Taylors’ Hall last week. The place was buzzing, and we had to extend the finish time of the tasting, such was the enthusiasm among the tasters!
From Minhão in the north to Alentejo in the south, by way of Dão, Douro and Lisboa, among other regions, every shade of red, white and rosé, plus Port and Madeira, were on show. We are most grateful to the growers and their representatives for making the journey to the UK purely for this event.
Many of the wines feature in our current Portuguese offer (which runs until 15th December).
Raymond Reynolds, the country’s top importer of Portuguese wines summed up the enthusiasm of the growers concerning working with The Society (and we have to concur!):
“Q – Where else in the UK does Portugal get 350 good and keen people pitching up to taste?
“A – Nowhere.”
For information about our Tastings & Events for early 2012, check out our Tastings & Events pages. And if you were at the Portuguese tasting, tell us about your particular favourites.
Head of Tastings & Events