John Graves: Any Port in a Storm
It was with great interest, excitement, and some trepidation, that I headed out to Porto. The great writer Robert Graves had told me in “Goodbye to All That” that the Portuguese are the dirtiest people in Europe and not in a good way. I went there in search of new wine and found an old wine and an ancient wine that masquerades as something very new. Of dirtiness there was none to find. For shame.
I was met at the airport by Antonio, son of the owner and currently export director at Quintas das Arcas, top Vino Verde producers. He was driving his dad’s 15 year-old Mercedes S-Class – 700,000 miles on the clock, no less – which immediately had my (extremely) long legs comfortably stretched out in the front seat and soon we were speeding (this is Portugal, after all) to their winery.
Talk about organic growth. When a new building is needed they build one. None of this fancy pants boutique stuff here. Old walls are enclosed by new structures and Antonio’s guided tour is matter of fact and without the wine ponce nonsense one often gets. Oh and they also have a herd of cows that produces 500 kg of fresh cheese every day…which is nice.
The real magic happens in the vineyard and soon we are off in the car again to look at the family’s land. They are at the forefront of modern production and have no qualms in rejecting some of the old traditions of local canopy management for more modern vine training, getting more freshness and ripeness into the fruit to combine with the natural acidity. The terroir is incredibly beautiful, neatly tended vines running across slopes that remind me a little of Prosecco country. Soon we arrive at what Antonio describes as “the ruins”, and it’s exactly that, a vineyard in amongst an archaeologically restored village from 1000 years BC. A spot slightly improved by a couple of bottles of their Vino Verde Rose to sample in situ. The wine is sublime with the characteristic spritz combining well with just off dry juice… it’s not far off dry Lambrusco.
It’s then back to the winery and the serious task of tasting some more of their range. Just to improve matters a tapas supper is provided to accompany the wine. Mama’s Bacalao fritters are probably wine/food pairing of the year when washed down with Conde Villar Vino Verde. Antonio makes no effort to hide the modern method of adding a squirt of CO2 to get the spritz, mimicking the old way of secondary fermentation, like Champagne, in the bottle but avoiding the horrible dead yeast sediment. I try the excellent Alvarinho…equally as good as it’s more famous Galician cousin, Albarino.
For the local red (called something like Mish-mash-mosh-mish), Antonio is searching for a description, I offer a tasting note of ‘Weird’. It’s viscous and deep, deep purple, served in a white china bowl to show off the colour. It has incredible acidity and tannic structure. On it’s own…undrinkable.. But with some local cheese and smoked ham, it becomes only “difficult”… Personally, I loved it.
The next day a VIP tour of the cellars of Warre’s – makers of extremely fine vintage port. These are no longer open to the public, so when a tasting of their wines is offered ….well when in Rome. This is a small dark corner of jolly old England at its best and the old gouty big toe is throbbing in anticipation.
I am met by the very dapper George Nunes, (who speaks better English than I do) down in their oubliette, dating back to the 18th Century and still used commercially. One really gets a sense of tradition and provenance here and George brought it to life beautifully.
Then off for a tasting, in the offices of the Warres owners, the Symington family. The wine’s show well. White port is odd – but good to experiment with in cocktails, and the basic Ruby port is for old people (like me). Warre’s Warrior is really good value and shows well, but the real interest is in the Optima aged Tawnies, with modern packaging and sublime nutty/candied fruit characteristics. This is a potential alternative to dessert wine as it keeps well in the bottle for weeks.
The classic (actually legendary) 94 vintage for lunch is a hoot – tasted with a picnic in their posh meeting room overlooking the garden with ham, tuna pasties, soft cheese and then bizzare sugary biscuits…it’s an education for my palette.
I cannot recommend Porto enough for an epicurean trip. The Port houses alone are worth the airfare, but the white wines from the area are sublime…as good as anything in the world. The reds are wonderfully stupid and to be honest it’s all pretty much undiscovered. The waterfront is exactly what you always want in the Med but never get the chance to enjoy without some northern European oiks, and a glass of chilled local racy white with a bit of salt cod is pretty much the stuff of dreams. The dirtiness? I’ll leave that to my next visit.