Any Port in a Storm – as long as it’s Portuguese

My parents always offered guests a thimble of sherry before dinner. And one of port after. But ever since the 1970s, fortified wines (port, sherry, muscat, etc) have been in decline. They are slowly disappearing, although the best examples are still among the world’s great wines and very important in quality terms, if not in sales volume.

We live in the age of table wine, when still (ie. non-sparkling) white and red wines are the preferred tipple. It’s hard to imagine today, but in the 1950s, tastes were very different and fortified wines were out-selling table wines.

Australians’ purchase of Australian fortified wine has slumped by a third in the last 13 years, from 25 million litres to 16. At the same time, the total wine market has grown enormously: the net result is that fortified wine’s market share has halved – from 0.08 to 0.04 per cent.

But still, the great fortified wines are an important story – none greater than Portuguese vintage port. It’s one of the world’s longest living wines, with a fascinating evolution from dark purple, brightly fruity and quite tannic young wine to a wonderfully subtle, finely nuanced mature wine of matchless complexity. Its lifespan is well over 50 years. Demand for these wines is still healthy. Hence, the man behind Graham’s ports, Rupert Symington, visited Australia recently to sign up a new importer, Deja-Vu.

The name is English, but the wine is unequivocally Portuguese – from the wonderfully scenic Upper Douro Valley. Many names in the port-wine trade are British because the British involvement dates back centuries. The Symingtons’ ancestors were among the first British to ship port from Oporto 354 years and 13 generations ago. They own several port companies, including the famous brands Warre’s (tastings), Dow’s (tastings), Graham’s (tastings), Gould Campbell, Smith Woodhouse, Quinta do Vesuvio and Quarles Harris.

Déjà vu is wholesaling four Graham’s ports (tastings) in NSW. They are the fruity, youthful Fine Tawny Port ($37), 2005 Late Bottled Vintage Port ($49), 10 Year Old Tawny Port ($66) and 2007 Vintage Port ($161). Older vintages are available, too, as are the 20, 30 and 40 Year Old tawnies: contact your fine wine retailer.

The vintage ports and LBV will be easily understood by Australians used to our own equivalent wines; the tawny (wood-aged) ports perhaps less so. These are quite different to our own, tending to be paler in colour, less brown in hue and more floral in aroma – but most notably, they are lighter in weight. Their mouth-feel is less rich, less dense, less opulent, but no less intense in flavour. As my tasting note on the entry-level Graham’s 10 Year Old Tawny Port reads: “Lean, elegant and stylish; not rich, fat and jammy like an Australian tawny port.”

Both are great wines, but we should celebrate their differences.

The youngest wine, the Fine Tawny Port, is quite fruity and seems a little immature in comparison with a good Australian wine of similar price. But the flavours are attractive, and different enough to make it a worthwhile choice.

I wrote: “Grapy aroma, clean and bright, with red fruits and spices, hints of bitter citrus peel and angelica. Palate is light and dry, savoury and lean, with a lot of early sweetness which dries off with tannin on the back-palate.”

Of the 10 Year Old: “Aromas of old leather furniture and polished timber panelling. More mature, savoury and complex than the Fine Tawny, and a much more serious wine”.

The 2005 Late Bottled Vintage is marvellously rich in primary fruit aroma and flavour, with licorice, spices, red fruits and floral brandy spirit aromas. It’s plump and fruity, with lots of sweetness and soft tannins. The tannins are a subtle nod towards vintage-port style.

And the 2007 Graham’s Vintage Port: “Very deep purple-red, great colour. Marvellous depth of berry fruit aromas, floral spirit beautifully harmonised with the cherry, raspberry, turkish delight and blueberry aromas. A very fruit-filled palate with ample sweetness, neatly balanced by tannin and spirit warmth, but the tannins are so supple and fine that they’re barely worth remarking on. Delicious now and for decades to come”.

And that’s the story of modern vintage port: improvements in viticulture and winemaking mean the tannins are softer than in the past, giving wines that drink well young and can con the taster into thinking they won’t age well, but they will. As Graham’s winemaker Jorge Nunes told me: “Young vintage port is now so well-made, it’s lovely to drink when released. The grape maturity is more even (than it used to be), robotic treaders are better for extraction and the wines are better balanced than back in 1977, when wines were still being made on farms in rustic conditions.”

Graham’s has led the refinement of automatic fermenting techniques, the latest and most exciting of which is their robotic treader. Historically, port was fermented in broad, shallow stone ‘tanks’ called lagares, in which rows of workers would link arms and walk back and forth over the must in time to accordion music, crushing the grapes with their feet and gently extracting the tannins and colour pigments. With the exodus of people to the cities and declining rural populations, it’s increasingly hard to get treaders. The first mechanical fermenters were invented in 1964 but automatic treaders weren’t being trialled till the late-’90s. The first Graham’s vintage port to include wine made this way was the 2000.

They’ve come a long way. The first treaders worked inside the old stone lagares, but the latest Graham’s treader is a complete, stainless-steel unit and is temperature controlled and can be emptied mechanically. Says Nunes: “The first time we used (the original model) it walked out of the lagar and kept going, which was a bit alarming. But we can leave the new robotic lagar working when we go to bed.”

Graham’s is gradually converting to this system and now has 17 robotic lagares. They are used for vintage port and LBV.

No-one has any illusions that it will become fashionable again, but port remains an important part of the wine world, and the quality is better than ever.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 10 May 2011. 


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