In Vino Veritas XLIX– Port and Portuguese Wines

Hot off their Euro Cup victory, it would seem only fair that we freshen up on our knowledge of Portugal’s unique contribution to the world of wine.

While the coastal nation currently holds the 11th spot in global production – falling a couple hundred thousand tonnes short of Germany which has drastically ramped up production in the past decade – its influence is less so marked by exceptional vintages with prices through the stratosphere like those from Bordeaux, California or the Italian Piedmont and more so by its superb fortified wines. Named after the city of Porto where all barrels were stored prior to dissemination upon the high seas, port wines run the gamut of dry, semi-sweet, sweet, ruby, white, tawny, vintage or late-bottled vintage. Even though port has fallen out of favor in recent years as an aperitif or digestif, it’s comeback is all but unavoidable.

But before I validate this claim, though, a bit on the history, geography and terroir is in order. Despite what might have come off as a bit of a snub in the previous paragraph, Portugal does indeed boast some great reds and whites, just that they haven’t yet reached the same renown as other growing regions. Vines are cultured throughout the country, but the most prized area is also the oldest.

While wine has been a part of the economy since Roman times, modern viticulture only really took off once the Douro Valley (Duero in Spanish) in the northeast was recognized for its superior goods around the same time as Chianti in Tuscany and Tokaj in Hungary three-and-a-half centuries. This region is sheltered from the untamed Atlantic weather patterns by high mountains and steep valleys with terraced vineyards built upon the antediluvian granite-rich soil to make it well-suited for most Mediterranean varietals. However, due to the country’s relative isolation from the rest of Europe, it developed its most common varietals internally, all with Portuguese names that I need not confuse you with for this cursory purview.

Where I leave you here on this matter is for you to experiment with a couple whites or reds offered on the menu, knowing that there are absolutely some great drops for reasonable prices coming from the Douro Valley or other growing regions like the Dão River or the Minho province in the far northwest with its vinhos verdes.

Port wine is what put the nation on the map, however, and this is where I can see your hotel restaurant seizing the moment with healthy returns. The fortified liquor is made via a process called mutage whereby a high percentage spirit is added partway through fermentation which kills off the yeast and halts any further chemical digestion. This leaves lots of residual sugars and an alcohol proportion hovering around 20%. It’s this combination of sweetness and lower percentage compared to other typical grape-based spirits like brandy, cognac or grappa that make port an ideal alternative for lunch, casual afternoon affairs, aperitifs, cocktail mixtures and dessert accompaniments where the objective is to not get completely sloshed.

Of course, different occasions traditionally call for different ports. Tawny ports, which are those made from red grapes and left in wooden barrels long enough for thorough oxidation of the originally claret color, usually pair best with nutty flavors like strong cheeses or desserts on the more ‘savory’ end of the spectrum like dark chocolate, eggy pastries, custards or pecan pie. Vintages for port work a tad unusually insofar as not every year is denoted as such, and these ‘best of best’ bottles should be reserved for solo enjoyment either before or after the meal. A final word to the wise for bartenders is that ports is that unlike other hard liquors, once you pop, the fun does eventually stop. Port oxidizes like regular wine, albeit slower, so use it and charge for it accordingly.

While high-end ports stand on their own as versatile beverages, we will soon witness the rise in popularity of white or ruby port cocktails which harness the wine’s sweetness to balance out stronger additives. As the cheapest of its kind, the ruby bottles are best for mixing, with everything from port-colored martinis and lemonade blends for those hot summer days to mimosa-like blends with sparkling white wines and sangria made with port instead of the typical red plonk. I was first nudged towards port’s concoctive ability during a business trip to San Francisco when I stopped by the Sir Francis Drake Hotel and sampled one of their patented ‘Drake Manhattans’ which expertly infuses a tawny port with the customary mainstays of whiskey (bourbon in this case) and a dash of bitters along with a spoonful of maple syrup.

The question from all this is how are you going to leverage port to enhance your beverage menu? Furthermore, how are you going to inspire your in-house mixologists to infuse fortified wine into their cocktails? And if you think along the lines of ‘Drake Manhattan’, what drink will your hotel become known for? To this last one, port may just be the ticket to reaching similar levels of distinction.

As a final aside, no discussion of port and Portuguese wine would be complete without the mention of Madeira, the tropical Atlantic outcrop halfway between the Azores and the Canary Island that produces an eponymous fortified wine that is rusty bronze to amber in color, also around 20% alcohol and another great addition to your dessert list or as a cocktail additive. Lesser-known menu supplements like Madeira are not only uniquely flavorful but are also great conversation starters.

(Article by Larry Mogelonsky, published by Hotels Magazine on August 12, 2016).