Port is enjoying something of a revival with the addition of both white and pink varieties to its classic styles. It’s a wine with a unique history that has almost as much to do with politics as grapes. Taylor’s Port is at the centre of the story.
With the exception of Port, Portuguese wine has been until recently relatively overlooked, unless we consider Mateus Rosé, and even that has been sought after more for its attractive bottle than for its contents. But there is Port and that has, it seems, been with us forever.
Portugal’s wine industry has a close relationship with the British, dating back, in the case of Taylor’s Port, to the 1600s. Wine has been made in Portugal for, it is believed, at least two thousand years. By the 10th century BC the Phoenicians had arrived and introduced new grape varieties and winemaking techniques to the land that was later to become Portugal. The resulting wines were first shipped to England as far back as the 12th century and in 1386, the Portuguese and the English signed the Treaty of Windsor which promoted close diplomatic ties between the two countries and opened the door for further trade.
There are many theories regarding the origin of Port – one of the most popular is the story of a visit in 1678 of English wine merchants to a monastery on the banks of the Douro River. They were looking for wines to ship back to England and they happened upon an abbot in Lamego who was producing a wine that was totally new to the merchants. The abbot of Lamego was fortifying his wine during fermentation instead of after, which was the practice for other wines. The abbot’s method killed off the active yeast leaving the wine with high levels of residual sugar. This produced a potent wine with sweetness that was bound to be to the 17th century English taste.
In 1693 the English were again at war with the French so King William III of England imposed crippling taxes on all French wines. This inevitably encouraged even more English wine merchants to find other sources, and a few found the Douro Valley. With the increase in Port’s popularity came the usual problems of falling standards from adulteration, with some producers adding sugar and elderberry juice to the wine to increase the alcoholic content; grapes grown in other regions of Portugal or Spain were transported to Porto to be disguised as produce from the Douro. Once this practice became public knowledge, sales of Port wine in England plummeted and imports dropped from more than 11,500,000 litres in 1728 to 5,490,000 litres in 1756.
The 1703 Methuen Treaty had reduced taxes on Portuguese wines and the lucrative trade in Port prompted the Portuguese in 1756 to establish one of the world’s first protected ‘designations of origin’ when Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal, marked vineyard boundaries with carved stones and introduced regulations for the production of authentic Port from the Douro. It is considered as the oldest defined and protected wine region in the world. Chianti in Italy and Tokaj in Hungary have older demarcations but no associated regulation, so Port is the oldest. Now, under EU Protected Designation of Origin guidelines, only Port from Portugal may be labelled as Port or Porto. Many of the oldest vineyards are now classified as World Heritage Sites and are planted on narrow terraces supported by hand-built dry-stone walls.
Port is produced from grapes grown and processed in that specific Douro region. There are robots that are used by some growers to tread the grapes but many producers prefer the traditional method of treading the grapes by foot in a tank called lagares. Gangs of workers march with a characteristic movement from one side of the wine tank to the other. The juice starts its fermentation, and the wine produced is then fortified by the addition of a grape brandy (although this is not a traditional brandy but a spirit distilled for the wine industry). It is added in order to stop the fermentation, to allow sugar to remain in the wine, and to increase the alcohol content.
Until well into the 20th century the wine produced in the Douro was carried down the river from the vineyards in special boats known as barcos rabelos. You can still see these moored along the river in Porto, and rides are offered. The boats have a shallow draft to enable them to more easily navigate what was a treacherous watercourse until the dams were built to manage the river flow. So risky was the business of transporting the casks down river that they were never filled to capacity but had an air gap which allowed them to remain buoyant should there be a mishap en route.
Taylor’s is one of the oldest of the founding Port houses and perhaps the best known. The family business was established in 1692 and is dedicated just to the production of Port in all its guises. The owner of The Ram Inn in London’s Smithfield, Job Bearsley, had arrived in Portugal to make his fortune not from Port wine but from the wine of the Minho region in the north-west of the country. Job’s eldest son Peter also made his home in Portugal, and investigated the wine from the upper Douro Valley. He is considered the first member of the English wine trade to conduct business personally in the Douro Valley rather than buying the wines through agents. He, with partners, founded what was to become the Taylor Fladgate empire.
Taylor’s is celebrated for its Vintage Ports, which are blended from the firm’s own quintas (estates) of Vargellas, Terra Feita and Junco. Taylor’s also produce wood-aged Ports and they hold one of the largest stocks of rare cask-aged wines, from which its tawny Ports are blended.
You will have your imagination fired by even a short break in Porto, but enhance your journey with the unique experience of a tour of the cellars; complete it with a Port tasting and finish with the spectacular opening of a bottle of Vintage Port with hot tongs. Don’t forget your camera!
Três Séculos is the events arm of The Fladgate Partnership which includes some of the best Port Wine producers such as Taylor’s Port, Fonseca Guimaraens, Skeffington, Croft and Delaforce. The company is all about hospitality. It takes evident pride in its wines which themselves conjure thoughts of convivial gatherings, good food and stylish accommodation. Barão de Fladgate is their destination restaurant in the historic town of Vila Nova de Gaia, at Taylor’s Port Lodges. This is on the opposite bank of the Douro River from Porto and therefore has the best views of that iconic city.
The versatile restaurant is stunning. Its stone walls offer classic comfort on cold winter evenings. The views across to Porto are particularly impressive at night, with noteworthy buildings being lit to present the most romantic of panoramas. A meal at Taylor’s Port Barão de Fladgate is an event that encapsulates the very essence of Porto and the quality that The Taylor’s Port Fladgate Partnership represents.
Between 1st April and 30th September Barão de Fladgate opens up its veranda for lunch and dinner so visitors can enjoy the warmth of balmy days while they savour some of the best dishes of the region. Be warned that lunch might well be a long and leisurely affair, as you’ll not be eager to move from your vantage point. The activity on both the river and the bank will divert your attention away from the sumptuous food for a while, but you’ll return to your plate and that expertly-paired glass of port, and take advantage of all that Barão de Fladgate has to offer.
The menu is seasonal so you could consider several short breaks without the threat of having the same meal twice. Slow-roasted small kid, turnip tops, oven-baked rice with bacon, and slow roasted veal cooked for five hours are two of the cold-weather dishes to entice the visitor. Squash and almond cake, pêra rocha (pear) in Fonseca Bin 27 Port wine with cloves could be your dessert, but try and save space for the cheese board – you’ll likely have the chance to taste some delightful local produce.
Barão de Fladgate and Três Séculos
Rua do Choupelo 250, Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal 4400-088
Phone: 223 742 800
Fax: 223 705 407
12:30 to 15:00 and 19:30 to 22:30 Monday to Saturday,
12:30 to 16:00 Sunday
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018