Portugal is the home to Port, a fortified wine made from grapes grown along the banks of the Douro river which was one of the first wine regions to be legally recognised and demarcated. It is said the name Port comes from the city of Oporto which is the harbour at the mouth of the Douro but for centuries the wines have been matured in cellars on the opposite bank in the town of Villa Nova da Gaia.
Port is made from a blend of permitted grape varieties, the most important of which are Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barocca, Tinta Cao, Touriga Francesa and Tinta Roriz (which is known elsewhere as Tempranillo). There are around 39,000 producers in the Douro growing vines on 45,000 hectrares, which means that most have very small plots and sell their grapes to wineries.
With 53 hectare Quinta da Pacheca is one of the larger producers and they grow make and market their own wines They told me that the varieties grew altogether in their vineyards and were harvested together. They showed me low open granite tanks in which they tipped grapes to be trodden by the bare feet of seven men. “Only men,” said the owner, Senhorita Pichenal, “never women”, but she would not say why.
Fermentation is halted by the addition of neutral grape spirits. It used to be local brandy but now the spirits come from France or Spain because the Portuguese want to use all their grapes for wine. Until 1986 all production had to be taken to Gaia for aging and export, which meant that small producers without their own cellars downriver had to sell to the major Port houses, but now they are permitted to age and sell Port on their estates.
At Quinta da Pacheca only 10% of their production is Port, the rest being unfortified table wines made from traditional varieties, 60% red and 30% white. They are unusual in making Sauvignon Blanc, a non-traditional variety pioneered in the Douro by this estate.
But on the Douro it seemed only proper to drink Port and I sipped the sweet tawny coloured wine overlooking the bright green of a vineyard in May.
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape, also available for the Kindle.