Friday, 20 November 2015

Don't pass (by) the Port

If you’ve ever paid the slightest heed to what I write here, you’ll know I’m a big fan of fortified wines – those still largely unfashionable drinks Sherry, Port and Madeira, plus a myriad of variations on that theme from around the world.

Usually I include a recommendation for one or other of them for Christmas. But I’m trying to do them more justice this year by focusing on them alone, before they get overlooked in the festive frenzy. I’ll start with Port this week and move onto Sherry next time.

Terraced vineyards line the steep sides of the Douro Valley

Port – the bluffer’s guide
Port comes from the Douro valley, northern Portugal. Ripe grapes are harvested, then fermentation gets underway, with plenty of tannin and colour rapidly extracted either by means of foot-treading, or robotic machines doing the same job, or in a kind of mechanised tank.
Traditional stone "lagares" where grapes are foot trodden
The modern version with computer-controlled mechanical "feet"

Fermentation is brought to a premature halt by adding grape spirit; yeasts cannot exist in this high alcohol environment and die off. This results in an intensely fruity, deep purple liquid, quite high in alcohol and sugar.

Tasting Port in the Douro Valley

Different fates that now await the proto-Port:

  • -      Wines destined to become vintage Port will spend the next couple of years in large oak barrels, before being bottled while still youthful, deep-coloured, strong and tannic. These Ports can age for decades and over time will become softer, more complex and somewhat lighter in colour. Very generally, this is the only form of Port which will improve with age in the bottle.
  • -          Lighter bodied wines will have a brief period of wood maturation, before being bottled as ruby Port – the most basic (and cheapest) form of Port, and the kind of thing we all tend to buy a bottle of at Christmas. They retain a youthful deep purple colour, rich fruit and a spirity character.
  • -          Still other wines will be given an extended period of wood ageing, sometimes up to 40 years or more, to produce a tawny Port. These are then bottled, most often as a blend with an average age, sometimes as a single vintage, or colheita Port. The wood ageing gives these Ports a lighter hue and a less winey flavour, with nuts, caramel and spice flavours coming to the fore.
  • -          Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) is the product of a single harvest which, as its name suggests, has spent longer in wood (ie bottled later) than vintage Port. An innovation dating from the 1970s, they are not to be confused with true vintage Port, will not improve in bottle and tend towards the character of ruby Port, but with greater depth and complexity.

Ports for Christmas
A bottle of 2011 vintage Port from one of the great houses would make a fine present, but
Vines at Sandeman's Quinta do Seixo
has a long life in bottle ahead of it and shouldn’t be drunk now. For something to enjoy this Christmas search out a single quinta vintage, such as Sandeman’s Quinta do Seixo, Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos or Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas (around £30).

Tawny Ports are easy to find nowadays. Graham’s 10 year old (around £20 for a bottle) and Warre’s Otima 10 year old (around £10 for 50cl) are widely available (and generally on offer pre-Christmas). Reddish mahogany colour, with a slightly mellow, caramelly spiciness, a wee nip sitting by the fire (or radiator) on a dark November evening is comforting and warming. You can also try them chilled at the end of a meal.

Taylor's 20 Year Old - with Oporto in the background
If you get a taste for tawny, you’ll find more of what you like in the longer matured versions. I have a fondness for Taylor’s 20 year old (currently around £34 a bottle); Sandeman is renowned for the quality of its tawnies – Waitrose has its 20 year old for £37.50 (though currently on offer for £29.99). Ramos Pinto is a less familiar name, but well worth seeking out as they include small amounts of really old wines in their tawnies, giving great depth and complexity. Their 30 year old (£59.50 from should give you an idea.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Wines for these golden moments

Is Autumn always this good? Driving through Surrey woodlands recently it has felt like someone has turned a giant golden light on, so vibrant are the autumn leaf colours. I love the warmth and light of summer, but there is something immensely appealing about the slightly melancholy slide into Autumn, with the promise (or threat) of Winter not far behind.

These are the kinds of wines that suit this turn of the seasons.

Vine leaf colours in a Surrey vineyard

White wines
Whites need more heft to do well in the cooler months. Obviously they will be drunk chilled, so must somehow communicate warmth and richness.

La Métropole Cuvée Classique 2013 - £5.99 from the Co-operative
A good value blend of Grenache Blanc, which gives weight and a herbal note, along with Macabeu, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier. There’s also a red version, mostly Grenache (Noir this time) and Syrah, which is soft and fruity.

Domaine Jones Grenache Gris 2014 - £13.30 from The Wine Society
A step up in quality, from old Grenache Gris vines in Roussillon, this has aromas of flint and pear and a rich but dry palate with a spicy finish.

Ghost Corner The Bowline 2014 - £21.50 from The Oxford Wine Company
If you haven’t tried a South African white wine for a while, you could be in for a surprise – and a treat. This blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon has a winning combination of mouth-watering citrus and stonefruit with a rich toastiness. With a name like the bowline, it also makes a perfect gift for a sailing enthusiast or former Scout.

Kleine Salze Family Reserve Chenin Blanc 2014 - £17.99 from The Wine Reserve (Cobham) and other independent merchants
It’s quince season and Chenin is the grape variety that, if sufficiently ripe and concentrated, has unmistakeable aromas of this beguiling and slightly exotic fruit. There is also honey (though it’s dry) and spice. A budget option would be Maison des Princes Chenin Blanc 2014 from the Loire (£6.99 from Waitrose).

A sea of yellow vine leaves in Alto Adige, northern Italy

Red wines
Reds come into their own now; look for warmth and spice – Syrah fits the bill perfectly.

Mas de Lunès 2012 - £12.99, or £9.74 as part of a mixed 6 from Majestic
The reds of Languedoc-Roussillon really do well in the role of warming, fireside wines. This Grenache/Syrah blend has juicy fruit, with earthy and herbal overtones.

Terre de mes Ancêtres 2014 - £5.95 from The Wine Society
This Cabernet/Merlot blend has bags of fruit and personality for the price – ripe, slightly tart fruit in an easy drinking style. This could be your Autumn house red.

Cono Sur Bicicleta Merlot 2014 - £7 from Morrison’s
Mostly Merlot with a cocktail of other varieties which gives plenty of density of fruit.

Château Maris Les Vieilles Vignes 2013 - £10.99 from Waitrose
Syrah-dominant red from Minervois that showcases the beguiling perfume and density of the variety, leavened by some lively Grenache. When in Waitrose, also look out for Paul Mas Grenache Syrah 2014 (£8.79) which is in a similar vein; and Les Domaines Auriol 2014 (£7.49), a Grenache, Syrah, Carignan blend from Corbières.

Château Caronne Ste-Gemme 2010 - £14.99/£13.49 as part of mixed 6 from Majestic; also from independents
The weight and seriousness of claret harmonise with the season – and with the kind of food that we all crave at this time of year. In a sea of Bordeaux, Caronne Ste-Gemme is one of my tried and trusted names.

M Signature Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2013 - £14 from Morrison’s
Châteauneuf for under £15 is a bit of a gamble, but this, from the user friendly 2013 vintage is a safe bet. It has characteristic richness, ripe but fresh berry fruit, depth of flavour and a tangy minerality.