Port is one of the world’s great classic wines and no meal, formal or informal, is complete without it.
Like any great wine producing region Port is the result of a unique combination of climate, soil and grape which generations of human skill and dedication has allowed to express itself as great wine. Like other classic wines its appeal is timeless, as relevant today as it was over three hundred years ago when the first Croft Ports were made.
Some people may hesitate before serving Port to their guests because they are afraid of choosing the wrong wine or making a mistake. The following paragraphs are intended to explain the basics of port and dispel some of its mysteries.
The way Port is aged will shape its character and style.
Broadly, Port falls into two categories: Wood-aged and bottle-aged. The vast majority of Ports are wood-aged, meaning that they are fully matured in oak casks or vats and are ready to drink when bottled. Bottle-aged Ports, on the other hand, are those that spend only a short time in wood and then continue to age in bottle. Vintage Port is by far the most important category of bottle-aged Port although, as it represents only the very finest wines of the best years, the amount produced is very limited.
The main type of bottle aged Port is Vintage Port.
Vintage Port is the finest and rarest of all Ports, the most sought after by wine lovers, collectors and investors. It is a selection of the very best wine from a single exceptional year and represents only a very small proportion of the crop. A bottle of Vintage Port must always be stored lying down so that the cork is in contact with the wine and does not dry out.
Vintage port remains for only two years in wood, usually in a large vat. It is then bottled and continues to age for many years or decades in bottle, gradually developing the sublime complex aromas which are the hallmark of a great mature Vintage Port.
Declared Vintage Port
Declared’ Vintages are the best Vintage years which produce wines of great concentration and longevity. They are usually blended from the best produce of more than one estate. Croft’s declared Vintage Ports, although based on the wines of Quinta da Roêda, sometimes also contain wines from other top estates. Croft is one of the most famous Vintage Port houses and its declared Vintage Ports are among the most sought after Ports.
Single Quinta Vintage
Single Quinta Vintage Ports are made from the best produce of a single estate in years when the wines are softer, rounder and more early maturing. Whereas a declared Vintage may take twenty or thirty years to reach maturity, Single Quinta Vintages are normally ready to drink ten to fifteen years after the harvest. Single Quinta Vintages represent superb value for money and are an excellent choice for immediate drinking.
Within wood aged Ports it is possible to distinguish three broad styles.
Firstly, there are the fruity and full bodied Ports which include Ruby, Reserve Rubies (like Croft Distinction), Vintage Character and Late Bottled Vintage. These wines generally age for no more than five or six years in large oak vats, where contact with the wood is relatively limited. As a result they retain their deep red colour and their fruitiness, vigour and intensity. They are the perfect choice for the classic marriage of Port and cheese or for drinking at the end of a meal.
Next there are the rich and mellow, complex Ports which have had the benefit of greater contact with the wood, being aged in small oak casks and for longer periods. These include Tawny Ports, including the sublime aged Tawnies such as Croft’s 10 and 20 Year Old. They also include a small category called ‘Colheita’, which is a Tawny bearing a harvest date. The characteristic of Tawny Port is its seductive amber hue and its opulent nutty, spicy, plum-pudding flavour. Tawny ports make superb dessert wines, particularly delicious with a crème brûlée or a plate of figs. Tawnies are an excellent choice for Summer drinking as they can be served slightly cool.
Finally, there are the white ports. These are usually aged in cask or vat for a relatively short time so that they develop mellowness and complexity but keep their fruity freshness. There are sweeter and drier styles, the dry white ports making a perfect aperitif served chilled with a plate of olives or roasted almonds.
A bottle of wood aged Port requires no special handling but care should be taken to store it upright in a dark, cool place, if possible away from direct light. There is no need to decant a wood aged Port. It will remain in good condition for six weeks or more after the bottle has been opened for the first time.
The grapes used to produce Port are grown in the upper Douro Valley in north eastern Portugal, one of the world’s most beautiful wine regions. It was the first wine region to be demarcated and regulated by law, in 1756, making Port the oldest controlled denomination of origin. The upper Douro Valley lies about 100 kilometres inland from the coast and is protected from the influence of the Atlantic winds by a range of mountains called the Marão.
Consequently it is cold in Winter and very hot and dry in Summer. Because the region is mountainous, most vineyards are planted on terraces, many supported by ancient dry stone walls. As elsewhere in Portugal, a vineyard estate is known as a ‘Quinta’.
The vineyard soil of the Douro Valley is very stony and is made up of a flaky ochre-coloured rock called schist. This soil is rich in nutrients but is free draining, obliging the vine to push its roots deep into the soil and down through fissures in the bedrock in search of water. The hot dry climate and the rocky soil mean that yields are very low – not much more than half a litre per vine in top estates like Quinta da Roêda – and the juice extremely rich and concentrated.
Thirty or so grape varieties may be used to make port, but nowadays only five or six of the best varieties are used in new plantings.
Most of these are native to the Douro Valley and are specific to Port. They include the dense and concentrated Touriga Nacional, the full bodied and aromatic Touriga Francesa, the firm and finely-constituted Tinta Roriz and the rich and fragrant Tinta Barroca.
The grapes are picked by hand and the harvest generally begins in the second half of September, although it may start earlier in the hotter eastern areas.
November – February
Over the winter, after the last vine has fallen and the young wines are starting their slow maturing process, the vines take a well-earned rest. There’s little rest for the growers, however. All the vines must be pruned in readiness for the next vintage. In most cases this is done by hand. It is a long, arduous task that can take the whole winter. And it’s a cold one, too: the Douro can be bleak and wet and the schist slippery. A good pruner will treat each vine as an individual, pruning according to whether it looks tired or vigorous, and coaxing it to produce just the right number of bunches next summer.
As the spring sun makes its presence felt and the average daily temperature starts to climb, the vines awaken and the sap begins to rise. This is the first sign of the vines dormancy coming to an end and the beginning of the growth cycle. A little later the buds will push their way past the hard scales that have protected them during the winter.
This is a time of growth, with new shoots greening the vineyards. All this growth must be tied to the wires by hand, to ensure that the grapes won’t be too much in the shade, and that the wind can blow through the vines, keeping disease away. Mildew and oidium (powdery mildew) are a threat, though less here, in this hot, dry climate, than in many regions. Nevertheless, the grower must be vigilant.
Flowering begins in May, one of the tensest times for the grower.
It’s grass-cutting time, too: the grass that grows between the rows of vines, and on the walls of the terraces, must be trimmed. The grass is useful because it protects against erosion on these steep slopes, but it musn’t compete with the vines. The warmer and drier the spring, the earlier it will be cut. By June the vineyard is lush and thick with leaves, and hidden among the canopies are clusters of hard, green berries. The grower must be in the vines day after day, monitoring stress and watching for the early signs of disease or pests.
The sun blazes down, sucking moisture from the soil and, perhaps, threatening the vines with drought: a shower of rain can be welcome, but too much humidity brings the threat of rot. The grapes have grown to the size of large peas. Around the first week of July they begin to change colour: just a hint of browny-purple at first, which spreads and deepens. This is verasion, the colour change that signifies the beginning of ripening. By late July they won’t grow any more: now it’s all about packing in the sugars, acids, tannins and pigments that will shape the future wines.
It is late September and vintage time. Year after year, the pickers return to work in the vineyards by day and tread the grapes to the sound of an accordion through the evening. The grapes are briefly crushed, then tipped into wide, shallow granite tanks known as lagares. Feet washed, the treaders climb in and tread rhythmically backwards and forwards. The air is pungent with the smell of crushed grapes. At the right moment, when the yeasts have turned about half the grapes’ sugar into alcohol, it’s time for fortification. Colourless, neutral, young grape spirit is added – and the fermentation stops, leaving the unfermented sugar as luscious sweetness in the made port.
The focus moves from the wineries up in the Douro to the tasting room in Vila Nova de Gaia. The young wines must be assessed and their style judged: are they suitable for Aged Tawny? For LBV? Or perhaps for Vintage? They are the very best wines of the harvest, displaying the finest and most complete aromas, the most consistency with the Croft house style and the depth and stamina to allow them to age for many years in bottle. But it’s no easy task. The wines can be tough and inarticulate at this stage, with perhaps only very subtle differences between them.
The young ports are brought down from the Douro Valley to the Croft lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia. In the past, the wines travelled down the river in the traditional boats, the barcos rabelos. Today they come down by road. The wines that have been selected as having Vintage Port potential are then stored in oak vats where they will remain until the spring of the following year. At this stage no decision has yet been taken as to whether they will be bottled as Vintage Port. This will only happen a year later after the wines have stood the traditional test of ‘two winters in the wood’.
Early March, One Year Later
Another tasting, and all wines set aside the previous year are tasted. Some won’t make the grade as potential Vintage Port material and will be eliminated from the selection process. Those that pass the test go forward to the next stage, the blending exercise. A series of blends are made up on a small scale in the tasting room. Each component wine is selected for its specific contribution to the blend. Some wines may be chosen for their aromatic character, others to provide structure or depth. The aim in each blend is to combine the components in the most harmonious way so that the result is balanced, complete and consistent with the Croft house style.
Late March, One Year Later
Now it’s time to taste the blends. The tasting panel assembles, and tastes everything blind. Tastings are often ‘triangular’, with the same blend being included twice in the same series to test the participants’ accuracy. Each taster must award a score to every blend and write detailed notes. At the end of each session, the panel meets to discuss the wines and determine which blends are preferred. If none are deemed satisfactory, the blenders may go back and create new blends or make adjustments to those already presented. By a process of elimination, after several tasting sessions, the choice is narrowed down to one blend.
Early April, One Year Later
But is the blend good enough? The decision must now be taken as to whether the chosen blend merits a vintage declaration. This is one of the most important decisions in the life of the company and the firm’s reputation as a Vintage Port producer depends on an accurate judgement. For a vintage to be declared, the wine must be of outstanding quality and possess the depth and stamina to allow it to continue improving in bottle over many decades in the cellar. This means that it will be relatively austere in youth, with a firm structure, plenty of body and tannic ‘grip’. Intensity and concentration of flavour are also required if the wine is to continue revealing layers of complex aroma over many years, the hallmark of greatness in a Vintage Port.
If it is agreed that a declaration is warranted, the selected blend will be made up in the lodges where it will be allowed to ‘marry up’ in large vats prior to bottling. Historically Croft has only declared about three harvests in ten. The alternative, if the wines are judged to be of Vintage Port quality but not long lived enough for a full declaration, is to release a Single Quinta, or single estate Vintage Port.
April 23rd, St George’s Day, is one of the most eagerly awaited dates in the wine calendar. It is the date on which Croft and many other of the ‘first growth’ Vintage Port houses announce their intentions in respect of the last but one harvest. On 23rd April 2019 for example the announcement related to the 2017 vintage. The hope among wine merchants, collectors and Vintage Port enthusiast around the world is that Croft and other classic houses will declare. It all or an overwhelming majority of Port houses decide to declare a vintage, this is known as a general declaration. But not all houses necessarily declare the same years. Stylistic considerations, the geographic location of a house’s vineyards and the effect of climate on individual grape varieties may mean that one house is able to make an outstanding Vintage Port in a year when another is not. Croft has always taken a strictly individual and independent view, judging its wines on their own merits and sometimes declaring vintages not declared by the majority of other houses.
The final blend has had a chance to rest and marry together, and it’s time to show them to the world. Tastings are held in all the main markets for trade, consumers and press. In the case of a full vintage, most of the wine is sold ‘on declaration’.
Decanting is a simple and enjoyable process. It involves pouring the wine slowly and gently into a decanter or jug so that the sediment remains behind in the bottle.
It is best not to worry too much about the correct number of hours between decanting a Vintage Port and drinking it. A good plan is to open and decant the bottle shortly before the guests arrive, or shortly after if you were not expecting them. This should give it plenty of time for the aromas (also known as the ‘nose’ or ‘bouquet’) to open up by the end of the meal and for the wine to be enjoyed at its best.
If the bottle has come straight from your cellar, or wherever you have been keeping it, there is no need to leave it standing upright before decanting. However if you suspect that the sediment may have been recently disturbed it is best to give it some time to settle.
To avoid any particles of sediment passing from the bottle into the decanter, some people like to decant the wine through some kind of strainer or filter. Decanting funnels incorporating a metal strainer are useful for this purpose but not essential. A metal sieve will serve equally well. Very clean muslin or plain white cotton cloth also makes a good filter if available. Whatever kind of strainer or filter is used, it should be thoroughly rinsed beforehand with hot water, never washed with soap or detergent. Paper coffee filters should not be used as they affect the taste of the wine, even if thoroughly rinsed.
Some older bottles of Vintage Port have a white chalk mark painted on one side of the bottle. This indicates that the bottle has been stored with the white mark uppermost and it is best, although not essential, to hold the bottle in the same position when decanting it. If there is no chalk mark, hold the bottle with the label uppermost.To be enjoyed at its best, a bottle of Vintage Port should be drunk on the day that the cork is first drawn, before the delicate and complex aromas which develop in the hours after the bottle is opened begin to fade.