By Don Merlot
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
When asking an Englishman what British wine is the best, whole clusters of varietals come to the palate of flavors to the tongue and the memory banks, and the answer is not simple, nor has it been easy since the seventeenth century. Some of the answers are for famous regional wines from France, Germany or Iberia, but certainly British enology has gone through a lot of stages over the years of the last millennium. The answer in the mid- eighteenth Century would have been port.
When I was first asked this question it was during the nuptial festivities of Lady Diana and Prince Charles. A British friend and colleague explained to me that when he had attended a military college and that during his matriculation he was the appointed Wine Cellar Master (of the battalion cellar). He would collaborate with the Chef de Cuisine on selecting the wines for each menu and or event for a dinner. He explained the art of matching wines for the event. What is most impressive was that at a formal British dinner, the most important wine is after the last course? Women withdraw to the drawing room and leave the men to enjoy a bottle of port. Usually the bottle or bottles are consumed totally before the men go home. The end of the evening is reserved for the “Sovereigns Toast.” The only wines that qualify in this celebration are Madeira and/or a Port wine.
The formal meal was practiced by the British upper class and is a tradition that has developed over the last three centuries. It all started when the British had a war with France’s Louis the XIV and the English Crown forbade trade with Aquitania (Western France) which up to that moment was the British favorite wine: Bordeaux. The Treaty of 1703 forced the British to find another source for Red wines.
The Portuguese wine industry in its own right had developed its wine palate in the first Millennia as Greeks and Phoenicians expanded their influence in Iberia before the arrival of the Roman Legions. The Roman name for Portugal is Lusitania.
The first task of the British wine merchants at the boycott of the French Bordeaux’s was to explore the Portuguese vineyards along the Atlantic. And they settled on the wines from the Douro valley, which was in northern Portugal and shipped from a port town named Oporto, where the Douro River exits into the Atlantic. The wines of the upper Douro were identified by the British wine merchants as the wines they chose to replace the Boycotted Bordeaux wines of Aquitania. Originally the red wines of the Douro were developed by monks in the 12 Century. There are good red wines in Portugal, but this area was chosen and the geography is unique. There is something special about the varietals that are grown in the Douro, because when the varietals are grown outside of the valley they have a different alchemy and the wine tastes different. Even today if one moves from Oporto up the Douro river going east the landscape becomes extreme dry and hard to move about, challenging to say the least. The valley is a three day donkey ride away from Oporto. The care & tending to make the best British wine is a spiritual devotion. Port has developed a quota system and those wines that are made into port are controlled by the British trade shippers and those who do not qualify are made into a red table wine and sold in Portugal.
The land plots are made up of farms or Quintas – quaint small white houses along the valley. The valley yields up to higher levels and the plots on top are considered the best producers of premium port. When the wine merchants selected the Douro valley they commenced with strong, dry wines. The shippers added brandy to the barrels to stabilize the road travel of the barrels to Oporto; and the journey on to England. Port became the third wine to be processed: it joined the trinity of processed wines – Sherry, Champagnes and now Ports. Taste expectations became sweet and Ports were processed when young sweet and fruity. The fortification stopped the fermentation process while the developing wine was still sweet and fruity. The process led to Port being the most popular wine in Great Britain by the 19thCentury.
What makes Port precious to the wine culture is the ageing and the end product after years of repose to be opened and slowly consumed with the highest respect and consumption.
The first racking is off lees that mature in the shippers lodges. Most of the first Barrels of the first tasting are moved into the blending system of the shipper. These are moved to shipper’s lodges in the Oporto area. Originally they were shipped down on boats, but later donkeys were used and eventually rails were built. Shippers keep and age their own Port. Classification by type is made and they will fall into one of the following nomenclature.
There are white ports and these are popular in France and served as an Aperitif. Splash of tonic, ice cube and slice of lime.
Tawnies which are served as an aperitif and a weak Ruby that can be blended with a white port and served as an aperitif. The category of Tawnies covers a wide variety of types. Some shippers save some special selections that could be aged up to 40 years. The group called “aged Tawnies” are selected by the Shippers. Aging can change the color from Ruby to Tawny and these wines are sold and aged as “aged Tawny”. The finest of the aged Tawnies is the Colhueta, which is aged in a cask 7seven years and is considered the best of all the Aged Tawnies.
Ruby –is the youngest Port with one-three years ageing? It should be bursting with peppery fruit. The “Reserve”is a ruby that has three-five years of age. The wine shipper has this for special customers.
The term “crusted port” is from a blending of vintages that are bottled without filtration and age in a barrel and the residue becomes “the crust”. This bottle should be decanted to be served.
LBV is late bottle vintage that has been aged in a vat four-five years and filtered and aged in a bottle another five years.
The vintage ports are a style of the shipper that he wants to sell and this can be aged between 22 to 31 years. All ageing is done in a dark bottle that has a very long cork – corks deteriorate in a bottle so extra-long ones are selected. There is not a Vintage per se for all ports. Shippers declare their best vintage when the occasion rises.
Port is a special part of the gastronomique British fare. Its history is rich and its protagonists loyal. How it fares into the 21st Century is with its own pomp and circumstances. There is nothing better than ending a haut cuisine repast than having a Stilton cheese & a glass of port. I truly feel that when I had it the first time in London with my friend John Husband it was absolutely one of the best taste sensations I have ever encountered.
Port has many levels and unless one wants to study further, what one should know is that Tawny is the most common. So what you would look for is something to compliment your meal. The cheese tray does not have one wine that one wine goes with all cheeses. If you offer Stilton you may want to offer a good port, a special treat for a special occasion.
Tawnies are a range of sophistication. Remember special ones can be aged quite a few years. There has to be one event every year when you can have a cheese tray with Stilton. It is for a special occasion.
Vintage port is for the aficionado of port and considers that unlike the great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the vintage ports are selections by the shippers. A tradition in England and witrh port aficionados is to buy a case of vintage port the year a child was born, and at the 21st birthday open the first bottle and the 30ththe second, and third on the 40th birthday. Certainly it will be quite a celebration with the family.
We know that after World War I, the Great War, the demand for Port dropped and since that time it has slowly dwindled. If you are a wine lover and have not had the privilege of tasting Port it is one I recommend trying.
“Be Sometimes to your country true
Have once the public good in view
Bravely despise champagne at court
And choose to dine at home on Port.”
Patriotic injunction in support of the Methuen Treaty with Portugal in 1703.