If you have the faintest idea to what I am referring when I ask "do you know the Bishop of Norwich?" then, like me, you must be a fan of port wines.
We may no longer be the main consumers of port, that'll be the French, but Britain's part in the history of this now most underrated of drinks is a long and illustrious one. Even if for many it is one of the most confusing categories of wine and one that is incorrectly relegated to an annual glass at Christmas.
Port owes much of the thanks for its existence to the conflicts between the British and the French at the beginning of the 18th century. The might of the Royal Navy was used to blockade the French ports. This strangled the French economy but, more importantly, stopped the export of the French wines to dining tables across the channel.
In response, the British turned to their European allies, the Portuguese, and began buying large quantities of wine produced in the Douro valley, fortifying it with local brandy to raise the alcohol content so it would not spoil as it was shipped in barrels to be bottled back in England. This increase in alcohol also stopped fermentation dead in its tracks, leaving a greater amount of residual sugar and giving us the sweet wine that we are familiar with now and that was so in tune with British tastes then.
Even then, wine had been produced in the Duoro valley for centuries. There are records of viticulture back to the time of the later Roman period and it ranks as the third oldest wine DOC in the world after Chianti and Hungarian Tokaji. The searing temperatures in the region meant that although the wine was made in the Douro, it had to be taken downriver to the cooler coastal climate of Portugal's second city, Oporto, to be stored before shipping, and consequently became known as port.
Vast port warehouses soon began to spring up in the suburb of Vila Nova de Gaia across the river from the city. Many remain and carry familiar British names like Sanderman, Dows, Cockburn, Taylors and Croft, painted on their roofs in bright white lettering. All port had to be stored this way until 1986, when modern technology and a change in the strict DOC regulations allowed vineyards in the Douro to store their wines closer to home.
Quinta Do Noval, near the small town of Pinhão, was the first producer to do this and I was invited to visit and find out more about the production process as well as the incredibly complex system of classification, which appears to leave as many of the producers baffled as it does customers.
Set amongst 150 hectares of beautiful terraced vineyards and overlooking the winding Douro river, Quinta Do Noval is stunning. Sales manager Rute Monteiro explained the Port production process over a tall glass of crisp, dry white port lengthened with tonic water while we dipped into large bowls of salted almonds plucked from the trees which dot the estate.
There are over 70 grapes permissible in the making of port, but only around 20 used with any great regularity and around eight here at Quinta Do Noval. These include Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinto Cao and Tinta Roriz. It is not an easy process as, although the system of terraced vineyards serves to retain heat in the soil during colder evenings, it also means that mechanisation is all but impossible and much of the back-breaking work has to be done manually - during the six-week grape harvest, which normally begins in the first two weeks of September, they're crushed in the traditional way - under the feet of the local workers who supplement the regular staff. Not the prettiest of thoughts, but Rute reassured me. "It makes sure the grape seeds do not get crushed," she said. "They could make the final wine bitter."
Once the grapes are harvested, crushed, strained of debris and have been allowed to ferment, neutral grape spirit is added to the juices to raise the alcohol levels to the DOC specified 19-22% and to stop the fermentation process. The majority of this spirit comes from the Cognac region of France and the La Mancha area of neighbouring Spain. The wines are then transferred to oak barrels for the ageing process and it is at this point that the differences between how the different types of port wine are made become apparent. Although there are seemingly endless varieties of port, they can be separated into one of three categories.
Made from grapes such as Malvaisa Fina, Códega, Donzelinho Branco and Gouveioand, and aged briefly before bottling. Although there are aged white ports, the majority are meant to be drunk young and range from crisp dry wines, perfect to serve with tonic, ice and lemon or as a chilled accompaniment to seafood, to sweeter versions, which are excellent with desserts.
Ruby is the most widely produced style of port and is aged in large barrels known as Tonel (if they are laid down) or Balseiro (if they are upright). The large barrels prevent the wine from becoming oxidised so they retain the rich, dark red colour which is so often associated with port. They can be separated further into:
Ruby: aged for no more than three years in barrels or stainless steel vats and meant to be drunk young. They can be quite tannic and give strong notes of fruits, which make them perfect with berry based desserts.
Late Bottled Vintage: – a relative newcomer, LBV's were created in the 1950s as a reaction to an economic crisis which meant that port producers were left with unsold vintage wines. They allowed the wine to stay in wood for a longer period of four to six years before bottling and produced a wine with lots of character, but lighter than traditional vintages.
Like vintage ports, LBVs are made from grapes grown in a single year and can be quite fruity with hints of plum, blackberries and vanilla on the nose, but are lighter in style than traditional vintage ports. Look for "traditional" LBV's which are unfiltered, and my own preference is to serve these wines with soft cheeses.
Vintage: Made from the very best grapes of a single year, the declaration of a vintage is a sign of an outstanding harvest. The wines are kept for just two years in wood and then bottled unfiltered. Great vintages can be kept for years, even decades.
They form a sediment when they are stored and the bottles should be kept laying down. The bottle should be turned upright one day before drinking, decanted two hours before serving and drunk within two days of being opened. They are best drunk at 17C and work wonderfully when served with dark chocolate or with good stilton. However, I think they are at their best on their own, allowing appreciation of the full complexity of the flavour.
These are the port wines that the Portuguese most like to drink themselves and differ from ruby ports in that they are aged in smaller barrels. These allow the wine to oxidise giving it a "tawny" colour, their spicy, almost leathery smell, and a distinctive taste reminiscent of dried fruits and nuts.
The wines carry age statements which does not mean that all the grapes in the bottle come from the harvests of ten, 20, or even 40 years before, but reflects the average age of the grapes used which may be older or younger. This is heavily regulated by the DOC and all port wines must be submitted for evaluation before they are labelled. They are ready to be drunk the moment they are released.
As the wines have been oxidised already, once opened, they can be kept for much longer than ruby ports and are sold with stoppers rather than simple corks. Some 40-year-old tawnys will keep for up to a year. The inherent sweetness and distinctive tastes and smells of tawny ports make them ideal to finish off a rich meal, which is one of the reasons they have become so associated with Christmas.
Finally, and to confuse matters, you may see mention of tawny ports called Colheitas. These are made from the grapes of a single outstanding year and will carry that year on their label.
A tasting such as that which I was lucky enough to enjoy at Quinta Do Noval will confirm just how varied and complex a drink port can be. But what, you may be wondering, does any of this have to do with the Bishop of Norwich?
The saying apparently refers to a 19th century man of the cloth who was known as a decent sort, but also for being incredibly stingy when it came to passing around a drop of the good stuff. At the end of fashionable dinners as the port was being passed (to the left, a tradition that has its roots in the Royal Navy) asking directly for the decanter was considered very bad form. If desperation set in, the man who had held on to the port too long might be asked whether he was familiar with the Bishop; if he was, he would quickly realise his error and send it on its way, and if not, would be gently scolded by comparison to the clergyman with the words "He was an awfully good fellow, but he never did know when to pass the port." Having tasted some of the very best port wines at Quinta Do Noval, I can hardly blame him.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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