Our day tour in Porto started with francesinhas for lunch, went on to peek into the famous Lello Bookstore and climb to the top of the Torre dos Clérigos, trekked across the city and the Ponte Luís I, and finally ended up here, in the courtyard of Taylor’s.
They’ve got a lovely view back towards the Ponte Luís I, and have used water features and grapevine-created shade to make the courtyard inviting. It sure worked on us; we didn’t want to move. But no sooner had we arrived in the courtyard than a slight woman in a skirt suit walked up to us, leading a straggling line of tourists. She informed us that she had just begun a tour, and we were welcome to join. “But we haven’t paid yet,” we said, and she waved that aside.
“You can pay afterward, when we go into the tasting room. Come.”
Thus ordered, we fell into line like good little ducklings and followed her in.
Her first stop was this small pool, featuring an azulejos image of the Taylor’s logo. With some pride, she pointed out that Taylor’s is the only port house that has remained in the hands of the original founding families. I gawked at the founding date, thinking to myself that this was nearly one hundred years before my nation even existed.
When we entered the cool, dark interior of the cellars themselves, I set my camera for black and white photography. It seemed appropriate to the setting, but (as I learned from this experiment) is also a good way to deal with the light challenges of the environment.
Depending on its type, port can be aged in small vats, large vats, casks, or bottles — or some combination thereof. All of the vats and casks are made of oak, and due to their age and saturation with wine, the scent of a port cellar is unmistakeable. You can almost get tipsy just breathing the air.
These vats were taller than me, even lying on their sides.
Our guide gathered us around a smaller upright vat and explained the process of aging blended ports. (Ruby, tawny and white ports are all blends of multiple grape varieties.) This vat, according to the tag on its side, is holding 16,225 liters of wine. The stick-like object fixed to its side is a depth gauge, allowing the current level of wine in the vat to be seen at a glance.
Because port wines are fortified, our guide said, they can be aged in wood for much longer than traditional wines: from two years to many decades, depending on its character and potential.
But what does “fortified” mean, I wondered? Turns out it means the stuff is spiked! What makes port different from any other wine is the addition of brandy after treading. This stops the fermentation process, leaving much of the grapes’ original sugars in place to sweeten the wine.
That of course led me to the next question: who had the bright idea of pouring brandy into a perfectly good bottle of wine?
Answer: the merchants who were shipping their wines to England back in the 18th century. Because the English were often cut off from their favorite French wines by inconvenient wars with France, they took a liking to the Portuguese wines from the Douro. The decision of England to grant lower duties to Portuguese wines than to those from France or Germany meant that Portuguese wines enjoyed a huge rise in popularity. For a century, England was the primary market for Douro wines.
But the pure wines didn’t travel well during the long, salty sea voyage, so the merchants “fortified” them by pouring brandy into the casks. It worked a treat. Later, the brandy was added during the fermentation process rather than just prior to shipping, and that change created port as we know it today.
The room was full of aging vats of various sizes, ranging from 15,000 liters up to 60,000. According to my Taylor’s brochure, their largest vats hold 100,000 liters. A person could die happy swimming in that.
In another room, (relatively) small casks stretched the entire length of the cellar. These offer greater contact with wood and air, allowing the wine to take on the characteristic tawny color of…yes, tawny port. So that’s how it got its name.
I asked the guide how long such casks last. Her answer surprised me: 100 years for the casks, and up to 300 years for the vats. Taylor’s employs coopers, who regularly break down casks and vats, clean them up, reassemble them and put them back into service. This gives them a much greater longevity than they would have without such care.
On top of that, she said, Taylor’s buys all of its casks and vats used — from wineries. As oak ages and is used over and over again, the wood flavors are gradually leached out until it can no longer impart much in the way of tannins or flavoring to a regular wine. At that point, wineries can’t use the wood anymore. But that’s precisely the point when port cellars want it.
Moral: Drinking port is environmentally beneficial. (No, she didn’t say that. But I’m standing by it. Drink port, save the Earth!)
At the end of the tour, we trundled into the tasting room, which was inviting and classy and made us wish we had more time. I would enjoy a leisurely evening there, trying half a dozen different ports and munchies to go with them. There was a separate room off the main tasting room, which featured a fireplace and cozy chairs, and just begged for a nasty cold day in which to sink in and stay put.
After paying for our tour (€3 each), we were treated to a tasting of three different ports, with strict instructions on the order in which they should be drunk. First was the white, which is a Taylor’s special variety called Chip Dry. It’s fermented for longer than traditional white port, and we found it both drier and smoother than a normal white. It was quite good, and would shine as an aperitif.
Next came the Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), another Taylor’s creation. It’s meant to be an alternative to the expensive Vintage Ports for “less formal occasions,” as the brochure says. It goes on to add:
Like Vintage Port, LBV is a selection of the best wines from a single year. But whereas Vintage Port spends only two years in wood [and the rest of its life, whether years or decades, aging in bottles], LBV is matured in cask for between four and six years: hence the term “Late Bottled.” Thanks to the longer time in wood, LBV is ready to drink when bottled.
Vintage Ports are not. They’re investments, purchased by collectors who have the space to age their wines in a cool, dark environment for years before drinking them. (Or by people with enough cash to buy them already aged.)
Both of us had the same reaction upon tasting the Late Bottled Vintage, which was something along the lines of “OMG this is fantastic!” We found it to be smooth, fruity, absolutely delicious, smooth, and did I mention smooth? A simply wonderful drink. I want to try it with dark chocolate. Mostly I just want to try it again, period.
Last came the 10-year Aged Tawny, which could not be more different from the LBV in taste. We agreed that it was smoother than the normal tawny, and a very pleasant drink, but it didn’t put huge smiles on our faces like the LBV did. I am told that I must try the 20-year Aged Tawny, so I will reserve judgment until then.
In the meantime, we’ve found to our delight that our local garrafeira carries the Late Bottled Vintage. At €17 per bottle it’s definitely for special occasions, but we’re just happy to know that we can pick up a bottle at a moment’s notice.
I wonder if payday counts as a special occasion?