Porto’s Many Charms

Porto’s Many Charms



It’s rare when you visit a place you immediately fell in love with for the second time and feel the same rush.  My recent trip to Porto and the Douro Valley was all that and more with still-recurring wistful feelings of “saudade”, the haunting Portuguese word (not translatable in English) for longing for something or someone that is no longer near you.

Besides the eye-grabbing adobe-topped buildings of Porto

Francesinha sandwich

Francesinha sandwich

and the sweeping beauty of the Douro River, Porto offers a wealth of richness in cuisine, dry wines (not just Port), and incredible culture and history.  I had no idea what a gastronomic place Porto is: teeming with fresh fish and vegetables, amazing bread, cheese, and sausages, and my new favorite splurge meal – the francesinha sandwich.  The latter is a seemingly crazy blend of beef, pork, and ham smothered with cheese and a tomato-based sauce made of whiskey, bourbon, wine, and beer.  While it sounds bizarre, it’s truly incredible and ends up tasting somewhat like a spicy barbecue sauce atop a pizza burger.

Portugal is, of course, best known for its world-renowned Port, a fortified sweet drink made in both wood and bottle-aged styles.  The history of Port is one of the most unique wine stories around dating back to the mid-17th century.  The grapes were grown 70 miles up the Douro River in the Douro Valley where they were also made into base wines for Port using traditional processes of foot-treading in granite lagares and fortification with 77% alcohol grape spirit to preserve some sugars thus creating Port’s natural sweetness.

Granite Lagares

Granite Lagares

The wines were stored for the winter and then, when spring arrived, the wines were shipped down the Douro River to Vila Nova de Gaia in precarious flat-bottomed boats called barcos rabelos.  Many lives and Port barrels were lost in these journeys due to the turbulent Douro River (which has since been dammed up in several places to allow easier passage).  Vila Nova de Gaia offered higher humidity and cooler temperatures that allowed the Port to age better.

Today these same processes continue except trucks are used instead of boats and some quintas (estates or vineyards) such as Quinta do Noval choose to store their Ports long-term in the Douro since temperature-controlled rooms and tanks are available now. Port lodges dot the banks of the Douro River (as do rabelo boats) providing a timeless yet historical backdrop to a thriving and vibrant town.

Rabelo boats

Rabelo boats

Fascinatingly, the same grapes that go into Port (commonly Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Cao, Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo) are also used to produce robust and characterful red wines.  Conversely, White Port also exists and its grapes (Rabigato, Gouveio, Arinto, and Boal among many others) produce intriguingly full-bodied and complex white wines. Rosé is also fabulous, typically made from Touriga Nacional, arguably the Douro’s flagship grape (said to be like Cabernet Sauvignon is to Napa, CA).

A few side-notes on Porto before we get to the wines.  Not only is it blessed with jaw-dropping natural beauty, Porto is very clean with a safe and almost pristine feel to it.  Independent vendors line the streets paralleling the Douro river peddling unique wares including cork purses and wallets, hand-carved figures, and all kinds of vividly-colored textiles which Portugal is known for.  Each Portuguese region has its own textile design and colors.  It’s a kind of daily market which, while a bit touristy, owes its authenticity to the fine workmanship in most of the things I saw.  Another thing that struck me is no matter what you buy or where you buy it, the attention to attractive packaging is always there (and there’s no bag cost).

The Yeatman

The Yeatman

Speaking of attractive, if you can splurge, consider staying at the fabulous Yeatman hotel in Porto.

The Yeatman Room

The Yeatman Room

Owned by The Fladgate Partnership, the hotel is a shrine to the wines of Portugal. Each spacious and impeccably-decorated room offers a patio overlooking the Douro River.  The hotel offers world-class dining in the Gastronomic Restaurant (2 Michelin stars) and a literally perfect bar (Dick’s Bar) featuring fascinating Portuguese wines, mesmerizing views, and the kind of aura that makes you want to stay all night and ponder the world.  There’s also a lovely spa, infiniti pool, gym, and unparalleled service by every single employee I spoke with from the breakfast servers to the concierge, bar staff, and events team.

Taylor Fladgate's Port Lodge

Taylor Fladgate’s Port Lodge

The Yeatman lies on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river along with all of the Port lodges.

Ramos Pinto Port Lodge

Ramos Pinto Port Lodge

The Port lodges are charming time capsules of wine history and lore.  Most offer guided tours, tastings, and occasionally even Fado (the traditional Portuguese music) concerts such as the one at Cálem. If you haven’t had much Port you may think they all taste alike but this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Each Port house has its own style, blending, and aging regimen which is easily evident when the various Ports are lined up side by side.

We spent time at Taylor Fladgate’s lodge as well as Graham’s lodge in Porto.  The Fladgate Partnership owns the Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, and Croft brands and chooses to only make Port (they don’t make any dry wine but they do partner with several quintas that do).  The Symington Family owns Dows, Warres, Graham’s, Cockburn, and Optima among several brands.

Taylor Fladgate tour display

Taylor Fladgate tour display

At Taylor Fladgate, we did a wonderful self-guided tour (which I had initial doubts about) as well as a world-class tasting.  Last time I visited, our Masters of Wine group had an amazing tour done by Adrian Bridge himself (CEO of Taylor Fladgate) but obviously that model doesn’t scale so we were told that the new self-guided tour was created to insure content consistency and also to allow visitors to experience what interested them most.

During the tour, we saw the expansive Port cellars, a complete life cycle demonstration of grapes budding to being made into Port, soil and rock samples of the incredible Douro schist terraces, and several videos explaining how Port is made. I asked several people at the end how they liked the tour and all said they absorbed more from going at their own pace than listening to a guide so it appears the self-guided tour was a winner.  I enjoyed it as well although I have to say it’s hard to beat Mr. Bridge’s historical accounts and vast knowledge of the Douro region.

Taylor Fladgate barrel

Taylor Fladgate barrel

Afterward we had a brilliant tasting of the 7 Ports below:

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)– these are Ports made from a single vintage and aged 4 -6 years in wood.  This style is aimed at earlier drinking and offers great value for the quality as it’s like a Vintage but much more affordable.  This one tasted very fruit-forward with black and red fruit at the forefront and round soft tannins balancing out zesty acidity.

2012 Quinta da Vargellas Vintage – Vargellas is the enchanting vineyard located far east in the Douro Superior that provides grapes for the Taylor Fladgate Ports.  These grapes have vibrant acidity and natural tension as a result of their home at higher altitudes. This Port is a Single-Quinta Vintage Port which means that all grapes came from the same year and vineyard and that it was primarily aged in bottle (only two years in wood) which produces the deep opaque purple that is characteristic of Vintage ports.  Bottle aging prevents oxygen from getting into the wine thus preserving the deep color and producing more fruit–forward flavors. Flavors of blackberry, blueberry, chocolate, and violet with an electric acidity showcase this Port.

10 Year Tawny – A tawny is aged at least 6 years in wood and the “10 year” designates that the average age of all wines used in the blend is 10 years old.  Tawnies are always blends of many different years and always lighter in color than Vintage Ports due to slight oxygen ingress from being aged in barrel which also produces a more dried fruit and nut profile versus the fruitiness of a Vintage. This Port was the darkest in color of the 5 tawnies and tasted of dried fruit, spice, and almonds.

20 Year Tawny – Charming flavors of orange peel, dried apricot, marmalade, and walnuts with supple tannins and that lightning acidity to keep it fresh.  This was the most universally popular of the bunch. In general, 20 Year tawnies offer the best value for the quality as they are substantially more complex than a 10 Year and typically not much higher in price.

30 Year Tawny – This Port demonstrated the developing signs of age with notes of acetaldehyde (that “sherry-like” smell) accompanied by polished mahogany, dried pineapple, and orange flavors with a highly viscous mouthfeel.  Most port houses don’t make 30 and 40 year-old Ports anymore and it’s a category that Taylor Fladgate excels at.

40 Year Tawny – Making the leap of preserving the 20 Year tawny’s freshness and youthful acidity but combining those wonderful age flavors of dried fruit, prune, and walnuts that started to appear in the 30 year-old, this Port was exceptional with brisk acidity and regal structure.

1967 Colheita – Colheita is a vintage tawny Port which means that it’s aged at least 6 years in wood (like a Tawny) but is made from grapes all harvested in the same year (like a Vintage).  All of these grapes were from 1967 which I have a special fondness for as it’s my birth year and I used this Port to celebrate the big 5-0 earlier this year.

This Port was a complex menagerie of maple syrup, caramel, honey, walnuts, dried herbs, and furniture polish with an almost Cognac-like edge to it.  Its beautiful amber gold color was tinged with olive flecks on the rim which also speaks to its age. 11,000 bottles were produced and this Port can still be found in the U.S. for $300.

Taylor Fladgate also has a beautiful restaurant next to the tasting room called Barão Fladgate.  With a panaoramic patio and spectacular views from inside, this is a perfect place to enjoy everything Porto has to offer.

Vinum Restaurant

Vinum Restaurant

We also visited Graham’s Lodge in Porto which has a stunning restaurant in Vinum.  Sweeping views of the city and Douro river abound whether indoors in the sultry wine-themed interior or the spacious veranda.  We had a guided tour of the elaborate cellars (a typical “smaller” Port barrel is 550-liters in size compared to the typical French 225-liter barrel) and more oval shaped in the middle.  New oak is rarely used in Port as the competing wood flavors would detract from Port’s own decadent nuances.

550 liter barrel

550 liter barrel

At Graham’s we tasted a flight of 4 Ports:

Six Grapes Ruby – early-drinking Port with youthful energy and concentrated blackberry and violet notes. The “Six Grapes” name comes from the symbol traditionally used to mark barrels containing the highest quality wine from Graham’s Douro Valley quintas. This Port is primarily made of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, and Tinta Barroca.

Graham’s 10 Year Tawny – Amber gold in color with flavors of red fruit, caramel, and slight nuttiness developing. Robust tannins and firm structure.

Graham's Lodge Tasting

Graham’s Lodge Tasting

Graham’s 20 Year Tawny – Smoother tannins with dried apricot, savory herb, and walnut flavors backed by lively acidity.

Warre’s 1980 Vintage Port – Warre’s is one of the drier (less sweet) styles of Port and consequently one of my favorites.  This one had pronounced mineral flavors of slate and wet rock, accompanied by Touriga Nacional’s trademark violet and blackberry notes all riding a cascading wave of vibrant acidity.

Unlike the Fladgate Partnership, the Symington Family does make its own dry wines from the same grapes that go into Port.  Keep in mind that Port is one of the most highly regulated wines in the world with only a certain percentage of grapes produced allowed to be made into Port each year.  The thought (smartly) occurred to someone along the way that those grapes not going into Port were far too good to be wasted thus dry wines were born.

Symington has many wine brands and we tried these two over lunch at Vinum.

2016 Altano which is an organic wine of mixed grape varieties aged in French oak. Fresh and fruity with lush blackberry, spice, and vanilla, this wine is young and vibrant.

Note: the 2015 vintage of this wine just got written up in Decanter’s November issue.

2014 Altano Reserva is a blend of 90% Touriga Nacional and 10% Touriga Francesca aged in American oak. This was my favorite of the two with lovely notes of cassis, blackberry, and violet supported by smooth tannins and racy acidity. This wine went perfectly with the rib-eye steak that we had for lunch.

Douro Valley

Douro Valley

Next up, our time in the spectacular Douro Valley.










Aging Taste Buds

bd2So what does one drink when hitting a milestone birthday like the big 5-0? I looked back through my wine log of the many wines I’ve tried through the years and realized my tastes have changed along with my aging body.  When I started drinking wine, without knowing why, I tended toward fruit-forward big red wines.  That’s a rather typical American red-wine drinker profile (for my age) as it’s what I grew up on and a style that comes naturally from our “warmer” climate.

Napa was the most well-known wine region when I started drinking wine, thus I started drinking it first and in the 90s and early 2000s, the style was big, bold, ripe fruit, heavy oak, and high alcohol.  Ripe fruit and high alcohol can contribute to a sense of sweetness which Americans also tend to like.

Through a lot of wine study, global wine exposure, and just getting older, I realized that my tastes have changed a bit.  I no longer like overt oak, prefer lower alcohol, and gravitate toward earthy (versus fruity) wines such as Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Tempranillo, or an aged Napa Cabernet.  I’ve heard many people say that as they age they prefer lighter-bodied wines.  Clearly Barolo and Brunello aren’t “light” wines so I have a ways to go on that one but my preferred style today is different than it was 20 years ago.

Mostly I’ve learned that a wine’s balance is one of the most important things in determining a good drinking experience.  “Balance” in a wine means that its key elements (alcohol, tannin, acid, and flavor profile) are all in harmony.  This is true for any category of wine from entry-level to premium levels so a balanced wine doesn’t necessarily need to cost a lot of money.

However, where age-worthy red wines are concerned, balance often requires time as the wine elements of alcohol, tannin, acid, and flavor need time to meld together in a pleasing way and to develop the complex tertiary flavors (mushroom, cigar, tobacco) that I’ve grown to love.  Unlike for most humans, time and age co-exist quite happily with wine.

As I started pulling out wines for my 50th birthday month, I wondered if I would still like some of them since I’d bought some long ago and knew that my tastes have moved in a different direction.  Some were joyous surprises while a few were disappointing jammy bombs but most were wonderful in their own way.   Here are a few favorites along with some other wines I got to enjoy compliments of great family and friends.

2012 Conterno Fantino Sori Ginestra Barolo sori

This wine was one I tried before it was even bottled while in Piedmont, Italy 2 years ago.  I didn’t think I’d ever see it again but it showed up in Binnys and I immediately snapped it up.  Unbelievably, it tastes even better than I remembered it with black cherry, leather, tobacco, savory herbs, zingy acidity, and a cascading finish.

 2011 Coppo Pomorosso Barbera d’Asti

Named for a red apple tree that grows on top of the vineyard’s hill, this is the flagship Barbera that Coppo makes (and they are Barbera specialists). Produced only in the best years, the grapes come from three vineyards located in Agliano Terme at 450 feet elevation. The soil is calcareous clay marl and rich in minerals which gives the wine finesse, minerality, and longevity. Aged 14 months in French oak, this wine sings with elegant cherry, blackberry, licorice, and violet with mineral notes, supporting acidity, and well-integrated soft tannins.

TF21967 Taylor Fladgate Very Old Single Harvest Porto 

A reviewer in Wine Spectator described this wine as “rarified air” and I think that’s the perfect description. To me, this is the Mona Lisa of wine as it shows what heights great wine-making can attain.  Molasses, caramel, walnut, licorice, menthol, and ginger are only a few of the sumptuous flavors in this wine. There are layers and layers of nuanced spice, herbs, fruit, and earthy notes that culminate in such rich and decadent aromas that you can smell the bottle from the next room.  The structure of the wine itself is remarkable with gripping viscosity, tautly tuned sweetness with vibrant acidity, and a haunting finish that is literally unshakeable.

This wine is technically a Colheita (meaning all grapes were harvested in the same year) but Taylor Fladgate calls it “Single Harvest”.

2011 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon (Magnum)

This wine is bursting with black plum, blackberry, dark chocolate, cedar, spice, and earthy notes.  2011 was a cooler growing year in Napa but you wouldn’t know it from the ripe fleshy fruit and robust smooth tannins on this classic wine. The finish is long and velvety now but this wine can easily last another decade. A perfect expression of Napa Valley Cabernet and a great reminder of why it’s so famous.

2006 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges De Latour Cabernet Sauvignon

Well-structured robust wine tasting of black fruit, licorice, violet, and graphite mineral flavors. Ripe showy fruit intermingles with leather and spice on top of powerful tannins and a long decadent finish. The best of power and elegance combined.

lail22012 Lail J. Daniel Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon

I’m not a big “point person” but this was the first 100-point wine I’ve ever had (as rated by Robert Parker).  This wine is an explosive powerhouse with an ethereal finish that clings on for dear life.

The Lail family has a deeply-entrenched Napa history through their great grand-uncle Gustave Niebaum who founded Inglenook in 1879.  This wine comes from three different vineyards (Calistoga, Oakville, and Howell Mountain) representing some of the best Napa has to offer.  Made of 97% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Petit Verdot and aged 20 months in 75% new French oak, this wine has hedonistic aromas of violet, blackcurrant, pencil lead, forest floor, sweet spice, and wet stone. Incredible freshness and vibrancy is punctuated by its showstopper finish.  One of those few wines that takes your breath away.

78vy12013 Vineyard 7/8 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain

This single-vineyard wine from Spring Mountain is dark and unctuous.  Layered flavors of black pepper, anise, savory herb, and a mineral backbone support rich black fruit. Tightly-wound tannins (typical of mountain wines) unfold with decanting and brisk acidity elevates the intensely full body. The 15.1% alcohol slips nonchalantly into the background illustrating how seamlessly this wine comes together. Substantial time in oak (26 months) is still evolving and will help this wine age many more years.

2011 Mastro Janni Brunello di Montalcino Vinga Loreto mastro2

This wine is a dark and mysterious beauty that hits great heights with voluptuous body, elegant structure, chewy tannins, and a silky smooth finish.  Intense flavors of fresh-cut cigar, juicy black fruit, and Asian spice explode on the palate and continue to interrupt conversation because it’s hard to get past just how good the wine is.  Aged 36 months in French oak barrels (sizes 16, 25, and 33 hl) with an additional 6-8 months in bottle.

2013 Beaux Freres The Upper Terrace Pinot Noir bf

A regal wine with great finesse and purity.  From Ribbon Ridge in Willamette Valley, Oregon, this wine is made from 6 Dijon Pinot Noir clones and tastes of exotic red plum, sweet cherry, and earthy mushroom.  Somehow it manages to taste delicate and muscular at the same time. Unfined and unfiltered treatment contributes to its complexity, freshness, and lingering finish.

2007 Tahbilk 1860 Vines Shiraz

This is a monumental wine made in a deep rich style unique to Australia.  Located in the Nagambie Lakes region of central Victoria, the 1860 vineyard (which was nominated in 2002 U.S. Wine & Spirits Magazine as one of the 25 Great Vineyards of the World) has some of the oldest Shiraz vines in the world.

This wine kicked off with brooding black and red fruit and an incredible mouth-coating texture.  A few hours later, the fruit was intertwined with dried herbs, liquorice, smoke, and dark earth.  Fine-grained tannins and subtle oak cascaded into a long, rich, savory finish.  I would have loved to try it the following day but of course it didn’t last that long.

While I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about turning 50, I’d have to say it’s off to a good start!
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