A journey through Porto

PortoA few weeks ago the training team were lucky enough to visit the Douro Valley in Portugal for a few days.

Our trip started in Oporto (aka Porto) and despite regularly telling our students that due to the proximity to the Atlantic, the climate here is wet and humid, we were still surprised… and somewhat unprepared for the grey skies and rain! However, the weather was soon forgotten as we made our way through Porto’s beautiful, winding cobbled streets towards the river.

Villa Nova de Gaia, which is technically a separate town to Oporto, sits on the south side of the river Douro. It is a Mecca for wine enthusiasts and this was where we made our first stop, at Graham’s Port Lodge. Part of the Symington Family Estate, they’ve been making wine at Grahams since 1820 and among the thousands of bottles, casks and vats seen on our tour was their oldest vintage port dating from 1868…

As we were taken through the cellars by our very knowledgeable host, Bruna, we were given an explanation of the production process. The grapes are grown in the Douro Valley, where steep terraced vineyards blanket the slopes on either side of river. These vineyards are protected from the Atlantic by a series of mountains just outside the city and as a result the weather is more extreme. Dry, sunny and warm, it’s not unusual to see temperatures reaching 40C in the summer months.

A wide variety of Portuguese varieties are permitted for port production, although Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cao are the most widely planted. Our visit coincided with the harvest, which seems like particularly hard work: it’s not unusual for pickers to spend eight hours in the vineyards and then, after a short break for an evening meal, spend a further four hours crushing grapes by foot.

The Symington’s are credited with inventing the “robotic lagares”, a machine designed to replicate the human food, which is ideal for grape crushing. However, the traditional method is still used for some of their grapes. Whether human or robot, colour and tannins need to be extracted rapidly before fermentation is stopped by fortification, to retain port’s characteristic sweetness.

 Back in Porto, we toured some of the thick-walled cellars, which are cool and dark to protect the wines as they age. White stones and sand are strategically placed underneath the vats and barrels: the stones to detect any leaks from the very old oak vats, while the sand is there to be dampened in order to cool the temperature should the summer in Porto become unusually hot.

Our tour ended with a tasting of ports from Warre’s, another of the Symington’s port houses, or “quinta”. We started with Warre’s Ruby Reserve, which is aged between four to six years before release and is simply a sweet, soft and fruity style. We then moved on to the 10 year old and 20 year old Tawnys, so named for their tawny colour. They are aged in oak barrels, which provide exposure to oxygen and sees them loose colour while developing flavours of coffee, toffee, dried fruit and nuts.

We finished our tasting with two vintage ports – one from an officially declared year and the other a so-called “Single Estate Vintage”, which can be produced by individual quintas in intermediate years. Vintage Ports are aged in the bottle, rather than in oak, and decades later the best will still retain their ruby colour and fruity character.

The rain had finally stopped and the sun was beginning to shine by the time we left Grahams and set off across the river to continue our adventure in one of Porto’s many charming riverside wine bars…

1st October 2015

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