Discovering Port, on a train

I remember when I really discovered Port. It was on the East Coast mainline train from London to Aberdeen, somewhere between Newcastle and Berwick Upon Tweed. It had nothing to do with the dramatic slopes and scenery of the Douro Valley.

I was on my way back to my University and another student heading beyond, to Dundee, sat opposite me. These were the days before Twitter and Facebook, and “social” meant striking up conversation across a table. After a brief chat, he said:

“I always toast the crossing of the border (into Scotland). Want to join me?”

Who was I to refuse?

He dug out a bottle of LBV port, or it might even have been a young vintage, and proceeded to share it around. We had fun and I *seem* to recall running out BEFORE we reached the actual border, but it mattered little by then.

Port has always meant conviviality to me ever since. A drink of offering. A drink for ceremonies, however much they may be invented. A drink to take seriously, but not TOO seriously.

Unfortunately, those days are behind me and I rarely drink Port these days. The supermarket special offers (that used to be a few pounds off decent LBV wines) are now for “finest” Ruby Port that is more often than not dire. I also rarely have “celebrations” at home because the kids are asleep upstairs, making rowdy dinner parties a thing of the past (and future).

I fear this is true for so many others.

Who drinks Port these days? Who pays extra for LBV, Single Quinta or even Vintage Port?

Are they the same ones who are also propping up the Sherry market, the German Riesling market, etc? In other words a small group of “wine geeks”. I didn’t get too many replies to this question on twitter, although some “foodie” friends made some mouthwatering suggestions for how to enjoy it (lots of venison mentioned). Port’s main market is Christmas, but there are a lot of other celebrations throughout the year.

Port was not alien to me. It was my grandfather’s tipple (well, one of them) – something I grew up aspiring to enjoy. Does that even happen today? Do YOUR parents drink Port?

What do you need to know about Port?

Put simply, the juice comes from a mind-blowing variety of grapes grown in almost impossible circumstances; terraces on steep valley vineyards, experiencing blisteringly hot sun and unreliable rainfall. The resulting concentrated juice is not fermented like regular wine, but interrupted while it is still sweet and plump by adding “spirit” (brandy). This means you get wines that are sweet, intense, often complex and alcoholic.

The main differences in the styles come down to how, and how long, the wine is aged. Ruby is young, Vintage is meant to be aged in bottle, Tawny is aged for years in barrels (my fave), and LBV combines these with a shorter time in barrel, then bottles (best “value”).

Take your pick!

Yesterday, I was extermely lucky to taste 18 “Vintage-style” (Single Quinta from individual years) Ports from 2006, 1999 and even as far back as 1950. The presentation and conversation was all about unique characteristics of some amazing, hard-to-find and expensive wines, and even some heart-warming history from the Symington family … but not once did anyone mention the customer.

Of course, none of THESE wines are “train wines”, and I realise that this was a high-end trade event, but I had hoped there might be something here that might help me encourage others to discover Port as I did.

Could the silky smooth, peppered black fruit of the 2006 Quinta Do Vesuvio be used to attract lovers of all things bright and bountiful … and alcoholic?

Maybe it should be the elegant chocolate fondant and dark cherry centre of the 1996 Quinta de Cavadinha that might appeal to gourmands looking for new taste experiences?

(more tasting notes will be on Adegga soon)

Either way, Port, like so many wine regions and styles spends a little too much time preaching uniqueness to the converted and not enough time finding ways to get real bottles onto trains. I think this calls for a little exploring of the more widely available bottles of Port … for research, of course.

There is a time for Port. I believe it is a GREAT way to enjoy your own (even made up) celebration. All you need now is the excuse. In fact, I have an event coming up very soon, as I intend to celebrate the fact that there are now just over 2 months to go to Christmas and I have yet to hear a single carol. Cheers!