Monday, 15 June 2009

Perfect time for port?

This may seem like an unlikely time of the year to be writing about port. The dark purple, sweet and highly alcoholic drink is something so redolent of winter and, specifically, Christmas, that we don’t give it a second thought for the rest of the year.

It might surprise you to know, then, that port doesn’t have to be deep purple and can be served chilled – even over ice – giving it appeal, even in the warmer months.

On that bombshell, here’s a quick outline of what port really means and how it’s made. It all starts life as grapes grown in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. Life for vines (and people) here is tough: the weather is scorching (40˚C is a possible average in summer), the soil is not soil at all but rocky schist and there is nary a flat vineyard to be seen, only varying degrees of slope from fairly gentle to vertigo-inducing. It takes tenacity, some would say pig-headedness, to tend vines here – it also requires grape varieties able to stand up to these conditions. None of your namby-pamby merlot and pinot noir here: this is the land of varieties like touriga nacional, tinta barroca and tinto cão, amongst others even less well known.

Once ripe and full of natural fruit sugar, the grapes are harvested. Grapes for port get only a very short fermentation, so they need to be treated vigorously in order to extract plenty of colour and tannin in that time. For once the mental picture of a swarthy local treading grapes in a vat is true.

Foot-treading in shallow granite troughs, or lagares, is the traditional way, and is still used for the very best or small-production ports. Mostly, though, machines of varying kinds have replaced humans – including robotic feet.

After treading, the fermenting wine is fortified with grape spirit, raising the alchohol level to around 20%. Yeasts cannot exist in this alcoholic environment, so fermentation stops, leaving a wine with some remaining sweetness: embryonic port.

After fermentation, different treatments and length of ageing determine what kind of port will finally result. All ports need some ageing and the Douro Valley, with its extreme climate, is an unsuitable place to do it. Young port is, therefore, traditionally taken downstream to Oporto at the mouth of the Douro River, where it will age in the shippers’ port lodges in the damper and gentler maritime climate. This journey used to be undertaken by picturesque sailing boats, until the Douro was dammed for hydroelectric power: now it’s done by lorry.

Ruby port

This is the most straightforward style of port and accounts for the majority of the port that we drink – predominantly at Christmas, when price wars between the major producers result in silly prices. The bottles rarely have the word ruby on them, preferring their own brand identities, such as Warre’s Warrior or Cockburn’s Special Reserve.

Wines from multiple years are aged for two to three years, then blended and bottled while still deep-coloured, full of youthful berry fruit and a spirity fire. They don’t improve in the bottle, so no point stashing them away for a few years, and there’s no need to decant – other than the fact that it looks good on the table of course.

Prices from around £9 a bottle now – much less come Christmas.

Vintage port
The most famous style of port is also the most rare and expensive, accounting for only around 1% of the total sold, so most of us never actually drink it.

Vintage port is the product of a single year’s harvest, deemed to be of exceptional quality. Like ruby port, it is aged for a short time in wood, then put into very thick, dark glass bottles, where it is destined to remain for years, even decades, before being drunk. The port houses each decide whether to “declare” a vintage every year: the quality of the wine is ostensibly utmost, but in practice a vintage is declared three or four times in a decade.

In years where a port shipper does not “declare” a vintage, they may still, confusingly, produce a single quinta vintage port. These carry the shipper’s name and the name of the vineyard or quinta, such as Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas or Graham’s Malvedos. They are less pricey than the straight vintage and designed to be drunk younger, as they come from less favoured years.

Why does vintage port last so long? All wine needs one or more of the following ingredients to help preserve it and to provide a framework within which the flavours can develop: sweetness, acidity and tannin. Vintage port has all of these in spades, as well as masses of dense fruit to provide the centrepiece to fill out the structural framework. As it ages, the fruit matures to give complex aromas and flavours – and it will always need decanting, to separate the clear wine from the thick deposit in the bottle.

Single quinta ports start at around £25 per bottle, vintage port varies greatly depending on the year, but expect to pay around £40 and up.

Late bottled vintage (LBV)
This is a relatively recent innovation, dating from the 1970s. LBV gives some of the cachet of a vintage port, with the grapes coming from a single year, but the price and quality are somewhere between ruby and vintage. As the name suggests, it spends longer than true vintage port ageing in wood before being bottled (hence late bottled). Most are filtered before bottling so need no decanting. They are designed to offer a full-bodied, dark-coloured port that goes some way towards the flavour of vintage port, but which is cheaper and can be drunk earlier.

Prices for LBVs start at around £10 a bottle.

Tawny port
Unlike the ruby and vintage versions, tawnies are aged in wood for an extended period. The time in barrel results in a mellow, nutty style of port which is deep amber-brown: tawny in fact.

The most basic tawnies can be pale pink rather than deep mahogany brown and don’t have much to recommend them. Instead look for “aged tawny” on the label, or an indication of age. 10 year-old tawny will be an average age of the wines in the bottle, ditto 20, or even over 40 year-old tawny. You might also come across a single vintage tawny, known as “colheita”.

Not deep purple, more mellow than sweet and spirity: this is the port that lends itself to summer drinking. While there’s nothing better than a nip of it next to a crackling fire in the winter months, in summer you can chill it, or even serve it over ice for a refreshing aperitif.

Tawny ports, like ruby, won’t have any sediment or need decanting and won’t improve in the bottle.

Warre’s Otima 10 year old – around £11.99 at Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Thresher/Wine Rack and Waitrose
Quinta do Noval 10 year old - £15.99 at Waitrose
Taylor’s 10 year old - £17.99 at Sainsbury’s
Taylor’s 20 year old - £27.25 at Waitrose
Dow’s 20 year old - £26.25 at Waitrose
Calem 1990 Colheita - £20 at Waitrose

As with all these posts, this article was published in the Surrey Advertiser, but this version is much longer.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Ripe New Zealand reds

“You wine writers need to check your facts!” barked John Buck, of Te Mata Estate, the oldest winery in New Zealand. This to a room full of wine writers, at last week’s London Wine Fair.

And his gripe? That too many wine guides state that, while New Zealand produces great white wines, its red wines lack fruit and have a tell-tale unripe, green, character. To prove his point, we then proceeded to taste a range of top flight Kiwi reds, all from the highly promising 2007 vintage, none of them showing a trace of anything unripe, yet with the New Zealand hallmark clearly-etched fruit. That was us told.

In defence of wine writing in general, I feel I should note that the leafy, unripe character of New Zealand’s reds is not a figment of our imagination. It was most definitely there when I first started tasting Kiwi reds back in the mid-nineties; I tasted it as recently as a couple of years ago in some Hawkes Bay syrahs. However, New Zealand’s winemakers are a determined bunch and have clearly worked hard to bring up the standard of their red wines, demonstrated by those impressive 2007s.

New Zealand’s first red wine successes came with pinot noir, which, ironically, has a reputation as one of the fussiest grapes in the world and hard to get right. Much of New Zealand’s neighbour, Australia, is too hot for top class pinot noir, for example, resulting in baked or stewed fruit flavours. New Zealand, however, has been arguably the most successful producer of fine, perfumed pinot noir, outside of its ancestral French home in Burgundy.

Pinot Noir producers to watch
New Zealand is, by any measure, at the cooler end of the winemaking world. However, its length from North (warmest) to South (coolest, this being the southern hemisphere), the varying influence of the cool Pacific and Southern Oceans, the variety of soils and sites, all make for wine regions which produce different styles of wine – even when based on the same grape variety.

Ata Rangi
The daddy of New Zealand’s pinot noir makers. They epitomize the muscular, relatively full-on style of Martinborough pinot. This spot at the southern tip of the North Island is about as far north as pinot ventures in New Zealand, making for depth of flavour, complexity and savoury richness. Burgundian in style – and price.
Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2007, £31.49 from New Zealand House of Wine, Majestic (Fine Wine) £45 per bottle, down to £36 if you buy any 2 New Zealand wines.

Jackson Estate
Based in Marlborough, at the northern tip of the South Island, Jackson Estate has a reputation for elegant, Loire-ish sauvignon blanc. Their pinot noirs, though, are equally alluring and a great illustration of the lighter, more juicy style of Marlborough pinot.
Jackson Estate Vintage Widow Pinot Noir 2006, Majestic, £17.99, down to £14.39 if you buy any 2 New Zealand wines.

Felton Road
This is a small outfit with a huge reputation. Based in Otago deep in the South Island, the most southerly wine region in the world, they turn out deceptively effortless wines. The sunny days and cool nights in Otago give their pinots perfumed fruit and delicate tannins; light, but with no lack of flavour. Biodynamic practices may also have something to do with the poise and depth.
Felton Road Pinot Noir 2007, £25.50 from Imbibros, £25.99 (£22.50 case rate) from The Vineking, £26.20 from Les Caves de Pyrène (though the 2007 has yet to arrive and they have sold out of the 2006). They also make a number of wines from particular vineyards or blocks of vines, available in tiny quantities, including Calvert Vineyard and Block 3 – hard to find and prices start at £30 and up.

Other varieties
If New Zealand was going to succeed with any red variety, then pinot noir would be top of the list, with its liking for cooler conditions. Surely the warmer climate varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah are more of a struggle. Well, they have been, hence the talk of green, leafy wines.

However, the North Island, and specifically Hawkes Bay, has a warmer, maritime-influenced climate capable of ripening these varieties. Particularly important for syrah is an area called the Gimblett Gravels, with large pebbles from an ancient riverbed. These stones absorb heat from the sun during the day and radiate this heat during the night, helping to ripen the grapes – in much the same way that the “pudding stones” of Chateauneuf-du-Pape do in France’s southern Rhône Valley.

Producers to watch

Trinity Hill
With an uncompromising attitude to quality, Trinity Hill’s wines are ambitious and a signpost to the future of New Zealand reds. Their syrahs are all worth trying.
Trinity Hill Homage Syrah 2006, £75 from Swig. Less eye-watering prices for the Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2007, £19.95 from Swig, £17.35 from New Zealand House of Wine.

Craggy Range
The winery may be in Hawkes Bay, but Craggy Range specialise in producing single vineyard wines from all over New Zealand, made from a range of grape varieties by Master of Wine Steve Smith. Highly-rated by people in the know, they command respect from everyone who has come across them.
Craggy Range Sophia 2006, a blend of mostly merlot, with cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and malbec in support, is £25 at Waitrose. Wine Direct have the 2005 for £24.95, New Zealand House of Wine the 2004 at £23.75. For a more affordable taste try Craggy Range Syrah Block 14, Gimblett Gravels 2006, £16.99 from Waitrose.

Te Mata
Finally, back to New Zealand’s oldest producer, dating from the 1890s. They have a long-standing reputation for producing outstanding red wines (hence John Buck’s impatience with the “green” label), which have long commanded international recognition. Coleraine, their flagship red, is a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot with a fair dollop of cabernet franc. The 2007 is embryonic, but already mouthwatering and a delicious prospect, especially if you are prepared to wait a few years to allow it to develop.
Te Mata Coleraine 2007, £27.99 from The Vineyard (due in a couple of weeks, so check first!). The 2006 is available from New Zealand House of Wine for £28.25 and from Wine Direct for £26.75.

Stockist details
Imbibros – branches in Godalming and Farnham,
Les Caves de Pyrène – retail outlet in Artington, Guildford,
Majestic – various branches and online at
New Zealand House of Wine – online-only:
Swig – online-only:
The Vineking – branches in Weybridge and Reigate,
The Vineyard – Dorking,
Waitrose – various branches and online at
Wine Direct – on-line only: