Story and photos by Manos Angelakis

Oporto Wine Barges on the Douro River

Port Wines

The city of Oporto, as Porto was known in earlier times, was the export  harbor from where barrels of Portuguese wine were shipped to London wine merchants beginning in the late 17th century to replace French Claret from Bordeaux, as England and France  started warring in a series of extended regional conflicts.

Claret, a red wine, was a beloved beverage of the upper classes of the Kingdom  but a replacement was needed to deny France the considerable wine  income, so English wine merchants boycotting Claret set up offices and  warehouses in Oporto and Jerez, to purchase, age and prepare for  shipping to the Kingdom local wines. That’s the reason that still most  of the better Port merchants have English sounding names -- Sandeman,  Warre, Churchill-Graham, Cockburn, Osborne, etc -- even though most of  these companies have been in Oporto for hundreds of years.

When the first shipments arrived to London, the merchants discovered that a  number of the barrels had turned to vinegar during the long voyage on a  rocking ship, so to avoid spoilage the shippers started to add alcohol  “fortifying” the wine. Alcohol is a byproduct of fermentation where  yeasts digest the sugar in the grape juice and convert it to alcohol.  The fermentation stops when the alcoholic content of the wine reaches a  certain level, usually around 18%. Adding alcohol in the form of brandy  to the fermenting wine stops the fermentation, but also keeps much of  the must’s sugar in place, which is why fortified wines have higher  alcohol and are much sweeter than regular still wines. They also don’t  spoil as readily and can have a much longer life.

Oporto Night Shot

The name of the shipping point, Oporto, was simplified into Porto and the wines were labeled as “Port(o) Wines”€.  

Port producers declare their successful vintages. When a producer decides to “Declare a Vintage”, they mean that the wines produced in a given  harvest possess the characteristics of an excellent Vintage Port. The  regulatory body of the Port Association assesses a sample of the wine,  ratifies the decision or not, and if they approve the wine can then be  sold as Vintage Port. Not every producer declares a vintage every year.  The decision to declare a Vintage or not lies with each and every  individual port producer or shipper every year -- this is not a joint or  trade-wide or regulatory-imposed decision.

Portugal Roman Vine Teraces on the Douro

During my recent trip to Portugal, we picked up our river cruiser, Viking Hemmimg, in Porto and sailed up the Douro River to Salamanca, Spain. The Douro  Valley reminds me of another river-created valley famous for its wines,  the Mosel in Germany, where the best German Rieslings grapes have been  growing and world-famous wines are created since the middle-ages.

The Douro Valley is also known as Ribera del Duero within Spain, and the  wines produced in both the Portuguese sector and the Spanish sector are  considered some of the better wines produced in the Iberian Peninsula.

House of Sandeman Cellars Xmas Promotion

As part of the cruise program, we visited the House of Sandeman that has been, for more than two centuries, producing and ageing one of the world's most recognized Port wines. The cellars are situated next  to the Douro River, in Vila Nova de Gaia, the sister-across-the-river  city to Porto and they boast one of the best views over Porto. The  location next to the river was advantageous because in earlier times,  the harvest would be loaded on barges and transported from the valley to the winery. The company has also extensive holdings in Jerez de la  Frontera, in southern Spain, producing Sherries.

The 1928 Sandeman iconic logo of the company shows the silhouette of a  nobleman dressed in a Portuguese student's black cape and wearing a wide Spanish hat; it connotes that the company has both Portuguese and  Spanish holdings. Nowadays, Sandeman is owned and managed by Sogrape  Vinhos, S.A., one of the largest Portuguese wine producers, with  wineries through practically every Portuguese D.O.

House of Sandeman Port Barrels

Port styles differ, each one with its own unique sweet fruity character.

Some of the main styles include Tawny Port, the most recognizable, which is often described as having a nutty quality due to aging in oak barrels. Ruby Port is a younger wine that’s usually aged in vats and then bottled; it has not been aged as long as a tawny. White port is made from white grapes, and is usually drunk as an aperitif. Vintage Port is made with grapes from a single year and is quite harsh until it matures, aging in oak barrels. Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), is most times left unfiltered; it is wine from a single year’s  production but bottled four to six years after the harvest. There is  also Crusted Port, a rare style of port that is only made by a  small number of producers and is characterized by total lack of  filtration or fining; the wine forms a “crust”  in the bottle, very unpleasant to the mouth, so it has to be carefully decanted before  drinking. Made with a blend of wines from two or three vintages, this  well-rounded style balances the best characteristics of a number of  harvests.

Non-vintage Ports that have been aged for a long time in wood pick up a lot of complex  flavors and are a blend of wine from numerous harvests. These bottles  are sold as 10, 20, and, if one is lucky to find one, 40 years old. The  better ports have strong flavors and aromas of black fruits, figs,  dates, fruitcake, prunes with hints of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, dark  chocolate and nutmeg. Most have a very long, slightly salty finish. 

Some of the ports we had during our voyage included:

Warre’s Otima 10-Year Old Tawny; a vibrant, ruby-colored lighter port with flavors of brown sugar,  marzipan, prunes and orange water with a nutty long finish and well  structured tannins. This is a departure from a classic port but very  enjoyable. We rated it at 91/100.

The next was Graham’s 10 Year Tawny port, a viscous reddish-amber colored port with a nose of orange peel  and marzipan and palate of brown sugar and maple syrup, dates, allspice, dried black fruit and dried red cherries. It is ready to drink when  purchased. We rate it at 90/100.

Another was Osborne’s 20 Years Old Port, a classic port. It had a palate of dried orange peel, apricot and  chestnuts, cream and dried tropical fruit. Mocha, cocoa and spice  accents lingered on the long finish. It was truly vibrant and complex.  Again, ready to drink on purchase. We rated it at 91/100.

Even though 1999 was a pretty poor year in the Douro Valley, Osborne “declared” the 1999 vintage and the wine we had I consider as a borderline one.  Black cherry and chocolate flavors proliferated and it was clean and  well made, but it just didn’t show much depth or complexity. We rate it  at 88/100.

Though Cockburn”s Special Reserve Porto is produced from grapes from a single vineyard, Quinta dos Canais,  handpicked at the height of ripeness it is a rather inexpensive Port  bottle that has no pretensions. It is fairly clean but has little depth. I rate it at 84/100..

We enjoyed very much our Douro River journey and the Port wines we had.

To your health!

 

 

 

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