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14 July 2021

Wine is born from hardship – and few have had as much to overcome as port

Today, port has lost some of its cachet, but Douro growers have responded by producing excellent dry reds. 

By Nina Caplan

For more than a year, we have all had cause to think about consequence, as our lives changed while we looked on, powerless. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, as Monty Python famously put it, but I do wonder why not. Covid is hardly the first example of an unanticipated event causing widespread havoc: there have always been disasters both manmade and natural, including, yes, the Inquisition. 

Wine is generally born from hardship: vines thrive in poor soils, as if to remind us that an easy life has its drawbacks. But few wines have had quite as much to overcome as port. In the Douro Valley, inland from the city of Porto, Portugal, which gave this drink its name, schist and granite soils force vine roots to quest deep for water. Irrigation is forbidden and the hillsides are so steep that often just one row per terrace level can be planted. These slopes look spectacular but make mechanisation practically impossible: nobody wants a tractor tumbling on top of them.

There are other difficulties. The rules are strict: red port must be fortified during fermentation, must be a blend of grape varieties, must stay in barrel at least two years before bottling (although most are aged much longer). Those barrels once descended by boat – and that was before the river was dammed. Getting down it took days, and you risked your life, steering with a rudder as long as the boat and shooting terrifying rapids. Getting back, against the current, took months – and the oxen who dragged the boats risked their lives too. 

Until recently, the wines had to age in the relative cool of Porto, and there are still great warehouses prominently labelled with legendary names: Sandeman, Taylor’s, Quinta do Noval. Then at last, they could be shipped abroad, especially to England, where a cult grew up around the drink.

[see also: How Brexit is already changing what we eat]

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Why did anyone bother? Partly because the wines were so good. The tawnies, a blend of vintages, are delicately nutty, spiced with cinnamon, while vintage ports, which traditionally age for years, are plush, plummy and dangerously quaffable. (At least until your first port hangover.) 

But port also solved a grave problem. When war with France impeded access to its wines, the English found they enjoyed the rich reds of the Douro Valley, and if getting them to these thirsty customers was hard, perhaps that was just the logical conclusion to a process that began with the vine roots’ desperate pursuit of moisture. Only this time the problem was not too little water, but 
too much. 

By the late 18th century, Prime Minister Pitt was downing a bottle of port before speaking in the House, while the Douro had sprouted a crop of names (Dow, Graham) whose origins were clearly not Portuguese. And the considerable privations of the Napoleonic Wars – Porto was invaded and sacked – were offset by the British inability, yet again, to get hold of any French wine.

Today, port has lost some of its cachet, as has downing vast quantities of alcohol as a signifier of manliness. Still, Douro growers have responded by producing excellent dry reds. Tourism has come to the region, and with it a spyhole into a fascinating history. Most complications benefit someone, sometime. That was true of the European wars and even of the Inquisition. Let’s hope it holds true tomorrow.

Next week: John Burnside on nature

[see also: I find much Prosecco uninspiring, but English Col Fondo is something else entirely]

This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook