Port is an enigmatic drink. Technically, it is a wine defined by region and not by grape variety. It comes in several styles and colors. It is clearly more resistant than the other wines, but remains soft. And like a spirit, it can age in barrels for up to 50 years without becoming overly tannic.
The one thing that isn’t hard to pin down about Porto is its affinity for cigars. Smokers have known for centuries that Port is a great companion when lighting up, especially after dinner when it also complements dessert. And that partly comes from its many possibilities.
“There’s a style of port for everyone, just like there’s a style of cigar for everyone,” says Adrian Bridge, CEO of the Fladgate Group, which exports a number of port brands around the world. . Also passionate about port and cigars, he deciphers some of the expressions that make up the upper tiers of the category: vintage and late ports that possess rich berry flavors and particularly aged tawnys that carry nuanced nutty notes. the flavours. “There are multiple layers and that’s what works. The viscosity, the sweetness of these old wines tend to coat the inside of the mouth and the throat and to sublimate a cigar.
While Port’s kinship with cigars has long been known, the history of wine making in Portugal’s Douro Valley is much longer. It dates back at least to the 2nd century and possibly several millennia. According to Rupert Symington, CEO of Symington Family Estates, whose family is now in its fifth generation of Port producers, the grapes grown today on the steep, stepped slopes that border the river are descendants of vines brought to the area. by the ancient Romans. .
There are a handful of grape varieties prized for their ability to thrive in the valley’s dry summer climate and mineral soil, both of which are part of the magic of Porto. Above a granite base, Symington says, is a very thick layer of fossilized mud called shale. The valley, protected from the oceanic climate by the mountains to the east, receives most of its rainfall in winter. Water seeps through 15 to 20 feet of well-drained soil to form storage pockets in the granite. The vines must be able to dive deep enough to find water in the arid summer months and be hardy enough to withstand the heat of the region. “Instead of feeding on organic matter near the surface, the vines feed deep in the lower level of shale,” he says. “It’s not particularly fertile, but it gives a particular flavor to the wine.”
This quality is sufficiently distinctive for the wines of the Douro region to benefit from a designation of origin legally protected since 1756, one of the first in the world. It states that for a wine to be called Douro, it must come from this carefully demarcated area. Also, in Europe, only fortified wine made in the Douro Valley can be called Port.
With all its heritage, change only comes reluctantly to the Douro Valley. Originally, the picturesque terraces on which the vines grow were dug by hand into the hillside. Now the machines are in use. The grapes slowly floated down the river from the vines to the winemakers by boat. Now the trucks bring them to the roads. Surprisingly, the tradition of pressing grapes by treading them was still prevalent in the 1980s. Besides some examples of resistance, most grapes are now pressed by machines with silicone-coated metal plates that mimic the human foot. The goal is to avoid crushing the grape seeds, which would make the wine bitter.
While the handful of port houses that ferment the grapes maintain some of their own vineyards, the vast majority are grown by independent farmers in their own quintas or estates. They then sell their crops to the port houses to transform them into the final product. One of the factors that most clearly differentiates Port from most other wines is its high alcohol content (around 19.5 percent or 39 degrees), which occurs during fermentation. This is as much a consequence of history as anything else.
The appreciation of Port wine around the world stems from geopolitics. Britain, a thirsty nation devoid of grapes suitable for winemaking, established friendly trade relations with Portugal more than six centuries ago. Even when the British had a taste for French wines, the war with France in the 17th and 18th centuries caused them to turn to their ally, with whom they already had privileged commercial relations. Wine gained further popularity in Britain when it was discovered in the late 17th century that fortifying wine with spirits would stabilize its quality during the long journey to England. A bonus was that the wines’ interaction with the wooden barrels used in the expedition resulted in an improvement in maturity. The British traded from the seaport of Porto on the Douro, and a shortening of this name resulted in the term Port. Merchants put their names on the labels, which explains the many English-sounding brands (such as Dow, Graham’s, Taylor and Sandeman) that can be found in the Port world.
The port fortification method is linked to the wine fermentation process and ensures that the port is not only very strong, but also sweet, two important qualities for cigar pairing. After the grapes are pressed for their juice, yeast is introduced, which feeds on the sugars and expels the alcohol. When the alcohol content reaches 14 percent, a brandy of 77 percent alcohol is introduced in a ratio of five to one. (Don’t think of it as Cognac or Armagnac. The term brandy refers to a neutral spirit made from wine.) The alcohol in brandy kills yeast, thereby stopping fermentation. But the wine retains its sweetness even when the alcohol content is increased.
Port can come in different colors. White Port is made from white grapes. Rosé or rose is made with red grapes, but skin contact is limited. Not exactly when sipping wines, these iterations are popular for mixing cocktails. In fact, Croft and Taylor Fladgate recently marketed such products premixed with tonic water and sold in cans.
Wines that we generally think of as Ports are made from red grapes and retain the color of the skin. They are then processed in different ways that determine which of several subcategories they are labeled by. Wine can be bottled with little wood aging like Ruby Port, a sweet, dark red wine that appreciates oxidation very little. But it is with longer aging that Port becomes an excellent cigar partner. Simplistically, smokers can focus on three categories.
Vintage Ports are the celebrities of the Port world, the wines that are the subject of all the attention. They only come from grapes of a single year and only from years deemed remarkable in terms of quality. A mere fraction of the best grapes grown in a single year is used in vintage production. Port makers typically designate only three vintages per decade. Aged two and a half years maximum, they continue to improve in the bottle and are often kept in the cellar for 20 to 40 years. Some vintages are highly collectible. Because it is unfiltered, vintage Port must be decanted and the sediment must settle before it is served. Two downsides are that wines take a very long time to be ready to drink, and once opened the wine should be consumed within a few days.
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) is a relatively new concept, created in the 1960s. It begins life like a vintage Port does, but can be aged for around four years before bottling. Bridge says LBVs have democratized Port, as they are around five times the production of a vintage and are therefore less expensive. However, they do not derive the same benefits from bottle aging. But they have the advantage of being immediately drinkable and can also be kept for a month in the refrigerator after opening.
Tawny Ports are made from a blend of years that have been aged in wooden casks for at least three years (usually much longer). Maturation causes the ruby color of the wine to turn to tawny. Unlike whiskey, port tends to become lighter over the years as the barrels absorb the red tint of the wine. Around the age of 30, it stabilizes in an olive or tiger’s eye hue. Older tawnys are called Reserves (at around seven years old). Some announce their age on the label. Typical age statements range from 10, 20, 30 to 40 years old. For Port, the age shown indicates an average of the wine blend matured in the bottle, rather than a minimum age as is so common in the whiskey world. With their cork stopper, the tawnys open and can be tasted for several months. A subset of Tawny Port is Colheita, or Single Harvest Port. It’s something of a hybrid between vintage Port and tawny. It represents the vintage year on the label, but it is aged for a long time in wood and, unlike vintage Port, it does not require any cellar. Some come out when the vintage reaches its 50th anniversary.
Bridge considers the fawn to be a particularly good cigar partner, for several reasons. The first is that when you’re trying to introduce a drinker to Port, they’ve probably had the experience of smoking cigars with a whiskey. The aromatic profile of a tawny Port is the closest in the Port world to a malt whisky.
Another reason fawn is an easy choice for a cigar pairing, Bridge adds, is its consistency. The wines are assembled according to a specific taste profile at the start and remain so after bottling. You can try pairings with different cigars, while maintaining a control factor knowing that the same Port will deliver the same taste every time.
Bridge and Symington both offer distinctive Port tawny flavors that complement the cigars – dried fruit, toast, nuts, honey and cigar box, with a very long finish.
Tawny Port also has an exceptionally long finish – another characteristic of a great cigar – increasing the potential for a good match. “It rolls over and over again,” Bridge says. “If you’re sitting on the deck, smoking a cigar, you know, setting the world right, watching the stars, whatever you’re doing, having something that gives that length of pleasure, to the times in terms of flavor of a cigar and then wine, provided the length and evolution throughout the mouth seem to lend itself to that moment of contemplation, relaxation and exhilaration.And, you know, we we’re not allowed to tell people they should smoke or drink because the health lobby doesn’t like it. Nevertheless, there are times when life is worth living lived.