On vacation days and port wine

So here it is, people, FINALLY, I know. My first blog post coming at you straight from the cornfields of Colorno. It really has taken this long for me to come up with a suitable format for “Best I Ever,” but I think I’ve got it, and it’s dump simple, of course. As a follower (read: Die Hard Loyal Reader), you’ll be treated to three new gastronomic definitions, ideas or facts that I’ve learned in the past day, week, month, basically whenever I get my act together.

I’ve also decided not to stress too much about my writing on the blog. It’s going to be pretty raw, so if you have questions, comments or criticisms about content or can make improvements to my VERY out of practice writing, please please please write me. This is a year of growth for me, and hopefully not just of my waste line. So, hi, and welcome to “Best I Ever.” But, being the rebel that I am, this first post already breaks all aforementioned set rules. There really is just too much to say about port, so please forgive the transgression. Alrighty here goes nothing! Blog entry numero uno.

Port wine is like unused vacation days. They’re both something you want, even crave, but a lot of times end up forgotten; shoved into the “Damn, I really wish I got around to that,” category. They’re both adventurous, a step out of the ordinary, and a great way to end a week or start a long weekend. But in truth, I guess they really aren’t completely similar because I really do love vacation days, and before my trip to Porto, Portugal I didn’t not love port, but that’s about as far as I went (sorry, Dad).

Porto, Portugal, the birthplace of port, fell into my lap thanks to Ryanair flying direct from Milan for less that 35 Euros (really not kidding). For Carey, Reena, Catherine and me it was the perfect starting point for our two week long “get as far from Italy as possible” two week long Easter Vacation/action-packed adventure. All I can say is, thank you Ryanair Gods of the Sky. Thank you for insisting that I spend 48 hours steeping myself in three hundred year old wine tradition and history.

Porto is the northern most major city in Portugal and hosts a population of about 1.7 million. Lying along the Douro River, it is also considered the economic and cultural heart of the north, sometimes referred to as the “capital of the north.” On one side of the river lies the city center, restaurants, shops etc. while across the river sit the port producers artistically perched one next to the other, large white signs ensuring no passersby is left wondering which producer is which.

She’s pretty, ain’t she?

Our first full day in Porto began at Taylor’s, a three hundred year old producer and one of the last to remain fully independent. Job Bearsley, one of the first port shippers and traders, started Taylor’s back in 1692. Job was definitely a smart guy since he quickly noticed that the British settlers that frequented Portugal had a taste for spicy, rich Portuguese wine.

Port is actually another one of those “created by accident” stories. British settlers loved their Portuguese wine so much they were constantly on the hunt for easy ways to ship it back to the homeland. As a result, entrepreneurial Portuguese like Bearsley began adding wine spirits to the wine, to help extend shelf life. In the beginning cognac or brandy were used, but today grappa is the only spirit used in all Portuguese Port by law.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself with all this talk of spirits. Much like the specificity of wine spirits, the process of producing port is similarly precise. Starting with the vineyards from which the grapes are grown. Top port producers acquire the five varieties of grapes essential for port production from the Douro Valley, a dizzyingly steep valley protected by the Marao Mountains. The climate moves from blazing summers to severely cold winters forcing the grape bush’s roots to push down as much as 25 meters into the earth to find water. Taylor’s most famous vineyard is Quina de Vargellas, which is one of the very few vineyards owned by the production house.

Harvesting is a three-day process and done only in September. Grapes are gathered, and then quickly moved into the treading phase. Yes, it’s true, maceration by human foot is actually the preferred method since it’s believed that the foot (or skin, or both?) brings out the flavor of the grape skin and maximizes color.

A little foot grease (ha?) adds to the overall flavor and color of the port.

Next, the port is fermented only until half of the natural grape sugars are converted to alcohol, to maintain the sweet flavor of the grape. At this point the grappa is added and the product is stored and aged in huge oak barrels. There it remains until master tasters deem it ready for public sale. The aging period depends on what type of port is produced.

Taylor employee pouring port into a large vat…getting ready for bottling!

For example, a vintage port (the best port money can buy) ages in barrels for two years and then bottled, where it should continue aging for a minimum of 10 years and a max of 20. Vintage port is declared as such by qualified tasters and the producer’s board of directors. Taylor’s last vintage port was produced in 2007. We tasted the 2003 and it was like a ruby red explosion that tapered off into the smoothest chocolaty velvet finish.

The other notable type of port is tawny, which is made from a combination of young and very old port. Since port actually lightens in color as it ages (more exposure to oxygen over time that seeps through the oak barrels), tawny is lighter since it’s made from approximately half old port (anywhere from 10-40 year old port is used).

Port is a special drink and Porto was a special city. While a vintage port should be saved for a special occasion (unless you have big bucks lying around), my traveling buddies and I agree that incorporation of port into our daily lives is a must. Which makes me think of another way the wisdom of my port to vacation days metaphor may be lacking. Unlike port, vacation days don’t get better with age. So after posting a comment to “Best I ever,” request a vacation day and promise to cap it off with a glass of the good stuff. Cin Cin!

The grand library at Taylor’s and the girls in their element.

Tips on how to drink port:

1)    If you’re lucky enough to have a bottle of vintage, allow at least two hours for the wine to breathe and also settle. Since the bottles are aged horizontally, this time is necessary for sediment to settle to the bottom.

2)    Serve with Stilton cheese. While I haven’t yet tasted the combination, it’s apparently outrageous.

3)    Port should be the very last thing digested at the end of a meal. Eating anything after inhibits the digestive qualities of the wine.

Note: During our tasting and Taylor’s, we also were served white port called Chip Dry (literally means dry as wood chips). It was absolutely incredible, but unfortunately not sold in the states. I have a small bottle for someone special (yes, you Dad!) but take a look at Binny’s maybe and see if they have something comparable. You won’t be sorry.  It should be served chilled and is actually served as an aperitif; best in warm weather I’d think.

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2 Comments

Filed under Independent Travel

2 responses to “On vacation days and port wine

  1. Steve Sudekum

    Yum, love port …fortified wine, as I’ve heard it called. Nothin better after the evening dishes are done and I’m perched in my laz-ee-boy for a little R&R.
    Salut,
    Steve.

  2. Wonderful start to a very interesting blog. Your trip brings back memories of my visit to the Jameson distillery in Dublin. I too share your appreciation for Ryanair!

    Clete

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