I WAS fortunate recently to spend a week in Porto and the Douro Valley. For British drinkers, it is sometimes difficult to appreciate that, in port-wine production, there are almost parallel styles of wine made: those produced by the traditional British-owned companies, and those by their Portuguese colleagues.
The British names, such as Taylor’s, Dow, Graham, and Cockburn, rely for their reputation on the quality of their vintage ports, although these account for only a tiny proportion of the total production. They select the finest wine from outstanding years, age it for up to two years in oak casks, and then bottle it. At this stage, it will be tannic and deeply coloured. It will then mature in bottle and soften, to reach its peak in perhaps 40 years.
The Portuguese-owned producers’ reputation rests on their Colheita ports. Again, they select the finest wine from the best vintages, but they then age it in vast casks, many of them 100 or more years old. The wine will remain in these casks for decades, and will be bottled when they are ready for market release. At this stage their colour will be russet-tawny.
I was fortunate to taste a range of Colheita wines, going back to 1963, in the cellars of the Messias company. They were a wonderfully harmonious blend of vanilla, spices, dried fruit, and nuts, with contrasting sweetness and acidity. I find the delicacy of these wines dangerously appealing to my taste.
It is not easy to find Colheita wines in Britain, although I see that Tanner’s of Shrewsbury offer half-bottles of Niepoort 2001 Colheita for £21.95. For a broad selection of these wines, besides an outstanding range of vintage ports, it is worth consulting www.vintagewineandport.co.uk. Based in Hampshire, they deliver all over the country.
More widely available in Britain are dated old tawny ports. These are labelled ten-, 20-, 30-, or 40-year-old. They are aged similarly to Colheita wines, but the casks contain blends of wines from different years; so there is continuity of style, as opposed to the individual characteristics of the different vintages.
Interestingly, these wines do not have to be necessarily of the age mentioned on the label. Under Portuguese wine law, they have to be submitted to a tasting panel, and have to be of the character and style of wines of the age mentioned; and the shipper has to be able to show that they have in their cellars a matching quantity of the wines of that age. Again, I was fortunate to taste a Noval 40-year-old. I was told that 20 years is, perhaps, the optimal age for such wines, but tasting older wines is a rewarding experience.
These age-dated wines, particularly the ten-year-old, are widely available on the high street. For example, Waitrose lists ten-year-olds from Warre’s, Graham’s, Taylor’s, and Quinta do Noval at prices from £11.99 to £24.99; 20-year-olds from Graham’s and Sandeman around £37, and Taylor’s 30- and 40-year-old on request.
Although port may not seem a summer drink, a glass of chilled old tawny can round off an evening surprisingly well.