Sampling port wine in the Douro valley

For the last leg of our holidays we went to the Douro Valley and, finally, Porto. Impossible then not to go tasting port wine… To be honest, however, I had to force myself a little bit to do it. I still remember port from my days as a student, when I had a, let’s say, « younger » taste. Port was sweet and therefore I drank port, it was as simple as that. I drank cherry beer for the same reason… 

Luckily things have evolved! I never really came back to port, however. Even though I know there is so much more to it than the cheap supermarket ruby and tawny ports. Reason more why I had to take this chance to sample a few ports. 

So off we went! First stop was Quinta da Pacheca, a small winery (50 hectares) based in Lamego, which is situated in the Baixo Corgo, the first of three sub-regions in the Douro valley, being the coolest of the three and receiving more rainfall than the Cima Corgo and the Douro Superior.

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Map copyright of Court of Master Sommeliers

A boat trip from Pinhao to Tua allows you to get an impressive overview of the vineyards on the very steep slopes of the hills along the river. 

Pacheca prides itself of being one of the first wineries to bottle under their own label, well before the Douro became a demarcated zone in 1756, the first one in the world by the way. Despite the fact that Quinta da Pacheca is a relatively small winery, it is modern, having its own hotel (barrel rooms included) and fancy restaurant.

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Beautiful, but I hope they have airco!

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Groups who are on a boat tour have dinner in their vat room

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A certain Mr Sandeman is watching over

I was on an organised visit, and Pacheca also has still whites and reds, so the tasting included also two still wines, before the port wines. Of the latter we tasted a 20 year old tawny and the 2012 vintage. 

If you’re not familiar with the styles of port wine, these are the basics : tawny is an oxidized style of port (hence the color and the name) because it spends many years in small wooden barrels, up until 40 years! Ruby ports are not oxidized because they are bottled immediately (standard rubies) or spend a limited time in big wooden casks (vintages).  Vintage ports are top ruby ports and considered to be among the best wines in the world. These ports are at their best after several decades of bottle ageing, so you need to be very patient if you buy a vintage port…

Normally vintage ports are only declared in the best years, 2011 being such a year, and more recently 2016. Some wineries, like Pacheca apparently, chooses to  declare more often, the choice being entirely theirs. They do need to get the approval of the Port and Douro Wines Institute, because it’s the institute that decides whether the port is good enough to be declared as a vintage.

Back to Pacheca :

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Vintage 2012 :

Very smooth aromas and mouthfeel. Ripe cherries, surprisingly low in tannin for such a young port, good acidity. Very soft, velvety even. A bit too easy for my taste, honestly. A smooth operator! 42€

The 20 year old tawny

Very rich, opulent nose, with dried figs, date, brandy, and quite strong oxidative aromas here but I love how the walnuts complement the candied fruit and give extra depth, almoste create another level within the wine. Very long finish, with good acidity helping the port to linger nicely on your tongue. I will spill the beans a little bit : this was the best port I had in Portugal, and you will be astounded once you see which other ones I’ve tasted later on… 42€

Just a round of applause, by the way, to Quinta da Pacheca for letting us taste such beautiful and expensive wines on the tour. At other wineries, the better the quality, the more you paid. Not unlogical, and that’s why it makes the Pacheca tasting even more exceptional.

Once we were in Porto for the final leg of our holidays, we tasted a few more port wines.

At Quinta do Noval, on the terrace of their wine shop/bar, on the bank of the river Douro. Great setting to watch the sunset!

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Hey, what is Ronaldo doing here?!

Colheita 2003

A colheita is basically a tawny port from one particular vintage, 2003 in this case. On the label it shows when the wine was bottled, 2018 for this one, which makes this a 15 year old tawny. The oxidation here is also quite clear, but not in a way you’d expect it to be. This was the kind of nose of a wine that is slightly past its peak. Not much, I don’t want to exaggerate, but I think the time has come to drink this Colheita. Rather low acidity as well, probably explained by the hot vintage, which makes it a bit viscous. Not my cup of tea, I’m afraid.

Tawny 10 Years old

More balanced nose than the Colheita, ripe cherries, smooth, not very nutty at this stage. Good port. But what I often saw is that the price of the 20 year old tawny was not exponentially higher. If the 20 year old gives more complexity, what I expect it does, it might be worth spending a bit more.

The last winery we visited was Graham’s, a property of Symington. No tour, just tasting.

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Lot’s of people visiting Graham’s

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18€ per glass…

Tawny 10 Years old

Ripe cherries, the sweetness still quite present, but well balanced. You sense that this the youngest of the tawnies. Very smooth and rather easy-going.

Tawny 20 Years old

A bit more depth here, but it’s still the fruit that draws the attention. Very little nuttiness in comparison to the Pacheca. Good, but you know by now which one I prefer…

Since this was our last visit, and since Graham’s is a big name, I was very curious to taste a top port, so we decided to spend a couple of extra euros (this is an understatement) for the 40 year old tawny and the 1983 Vintage! 18€ each per glass. Tasting portion!

Tawny 40 Years old

This had to be it. The nec plus ultra, the wine that overarches all the others and keeps you silent for a couple of minutes. 1983 is considered a top vintage and we were told that it’s now in a beautiful spot to drink. The nose was definitely complex, with loads of candied fruit, dates, figs, you name it, but also quite a strong caramel aroma, which I found a tiny bit too present. The port was very much like nectar, liquid honey almost, and again little oxidation. Very nice, deep. But I suppose this is a slightly different style than the Pacheca. Different price also… 142€

Vintage Port 1983

Very fine nose, dried raisins, slightly herbal. This makes me think somewhat of a nicely evolved Chateauneuf, quite ripe obviously, but still elegant and persistent. Good balance and very soft. I expected a bit more length perhaps. But still, a very nice vintage. Unfortunately at the same price level of the 40 year old tawny : 142,50€.

The visit to Graham’s was a nice ending of my little port exploration. It gave me an idea of what top ports can offert. But am I now converted to port wine? Well… Hard to say at this point as I noticed that the styles of Pacheca and Graham’s differed considerably. So it would be nice to explore a bit further. Unfortunately, the better quality port wines come at a price (and prices are going up fast it seems), so you will not just buy a couple of dozens just like that. So I’ll start with laying my hands on a Pacheca Tawny 20 Years. Because that was a bottle that I seriously liked! 

 

Exciting stuff coming out of Portugal

I left on holidays today, yay! And Portugal is my destination. No wine holidays really, but I hope to squeeze in a winery visit or two. Or three… 

Most people will know Portugal for its port wines or for the still reds of the Douro and the Dao. Even though I can appreciate a good port, these are not the wines that I spontaneously look for when buying wine. My mistake probably. Maybe I will try and schedule in a visit of a port winery, we’ll see.

When it comes to Portuguese still reds, I generally find these wines pleasant to drink. These are generally very ripe and fruit-driven wines, great partners for a summer bbq. In Belgium, however, the Portuguese reds that you find in the supermarkets are often budget wines,  priced around 5€ or even less. Not bad per se, but also not the wines you really go looking for either. On top of that, my personal preference goes to wines that are a bit fresher, with a natural tension, higher acidity. The Portuguese wines that are commonly found in Belgium tend to be full bodied, very ripe and a bit too easy going for my personal taste. 

So not much to look forward to, you might think? Well quite the contrary, actually. There are quite a few hidden gems in Portugal. So, in order to get in the mood for my holidays, I did a bit of research and ordered a number of Portuguese wines of which I thought they might please my taste buds. And I found quite a few interesting bottles. Here’s a few recommendations :

Bairrada

If you have not heard of Bairrada before, that’s ok, this is not a region that receives alot of press attention. And that is a pity, really, because the wines from this region deserve to be better known. Why? One word : baga. This is the name of the local grape that is used to make red wine. For long it produced very rustic, tannic wines, but some wine makers have started making wines that are a bit lighter, with a lighter touch of oak, and tannins that do not condemn your wines to the cellar for 20 years. 

Filipa Pato is such a “new style” wine maker, with new style also meaning natural wine, use of amphorae, the whole lot. She is the daughter of Luis Pato, one of the leading names in Bairrada and someone who still makes wines in a slightly more “rustic” style, as I have been able to taste. Filipa Pato has several bagas and I have tasted two of them so far, and both deserved to be mentioned here! 

The first is called Post Quercus 2016, which is Latin for « post oak ». A very clear statement : no oak barrels used for this wine. They used amphorae for this wine, and the wine is made with as little intervention as possible. This gives a rather light, but compelling wine, exuding aromas of iron, cherries, and minerality. This wine has written cool climate all over it. And yes we are in Portugal. But on the Atlantic Coast… and that makes a big difference!

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This is a 50cl bottle!

The second baga of Filipa Pato I tasted was the Territorio Vivo 2015, partly aged in amphorae, partly in old wooden barrels. The nose is a very pretty, very noble and refined, with cherries, leather, and a bit of smoke. The wine is pretty rustic at first and needs some time to open up, but when it does, this wine shows its character. Still young, but great potential. More structured and serious than the Post Quercus, but still very attractive, again very cool climate. This wine can do with a bit of food at this point. A couple of years further cellaring will surely benefit the wine.

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It strikes me that both wines remind me of nebbiolo. The red fruit, the acidity, and above all the structure. It’s hard not to make this comparison. But let’s be honest, there are worse comparisons to be made…

Lisboa

Rodrigo Filipe makes organic wine in the Lisboa region, but did not get the DOP qualification for his Humus Lca 2015. It wasn’t considered typical! So he just bottled it as vinho regional, a regional wine. I surely don’t mind, because this wine is excellent as far as I’m concerned. This is a wine made of castelao, a grape mainly used on the peninsula of Setubal. Here it gives a rather light, but exciting red wine with cherries, raspberry, roses, and a touch of wood in the nose. Quite complex! Again a beautifully fresh wine, that actually makes me think of a very good Beaujolais. Light, juicy, salivating. A wine you just can’t get enough of. Just chill the wine a bit and you will have a delightful glass, also in the summer.

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I forgot to take a picture of the Castelao… This is actually the Tinta barroca, also good!

Douro

Yes, Douro! I enjoy a glass of Douro from time to time. But in general, the ripeness of Douro reds makes me stop after one or two glasses. Not in the case of Luis Seabra! He is the former winemaker of Douro star, Dirk Niepoort, but set up business for himself. And it’s clear why he did that. His Xisto Illimitado 2015 is a very tight and tense red. The dried cherries that playfully whirl out of the glass do not yet give away the surprise. But when you take your first sip, you immediately realize that this is definitely not Douro business as usual. This is mineral, fresh, razor-sharp, and powerful, and yet elegant. Wow, I did not see this coming… Painfully young almost, with very robust tannins leaving their traces, but they are ripe, and make the act of opening this bottle forgivable. Again a wine, by the way, that was not allowed in the DOP qualification because of its lack of typicity… 

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The label is as tight as the wine

It seems that I don’t like typical Portuguese wines! Luckily there are quite a few people in Portugal who dare to defy tradition. They definitely won me over.

Let the holidays begin!