Thursday, 20 June 2019

A wine lover's guide to Porto


I recently took a holiday to Portugal, but rather than heading to the Brits-abroad haven that is the Algarve, I was keen to take the opportunity to explore some of the county’s famous and historic wine regions. My trip started in the city of Porto (known as Oporto in Portuguese) which gives its name to the Port wines that the region is famous for, before heading up the Douro river to visit the vineyards of the Douro Valley to look at where the grapes are grown and harvested. I wanted to share with you the wonderful things that I saw (and tasted!) hopefully to provide some inspiration if you were considering a trip to this part of the world - something that I would highly recommend. Given the volume of information, I have decided to split this post into two parts: the first concentrating on the city of Porto and the second on the Douro Valley area.

Background and history

The UK and Portugal have a long-standing relationship, in fact the “alliance” signed into operation between the two countries in the fourteenth century (1373 to be precise) is considered to be the longest treaty in continual operation between any two countries in the world. This relationship had its origins in political and military alliance, but translated itself into trade, which is where the world of wine kicks in. The British are, in fact, responsible for the creation of port as we know it today - British consumers complained to Portuguese wine producers that the red wines that they were importing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were often arriving to the UK in poor condition suffering from the effects of their travels. To remedy this, Portuguese wine merchants began fortifying their wines with brandy to stabilise them, which gave rise to the fortified wine that we know today.

This trade led to a large number of enterprising British families moving out to Portugal to get involved in the wine trade and gave rise through inter-marrying with Portuguese wine families to some of the largest and famous port houses that you think of today with names such as “Graham’s”, “Taylor’s” and “Cockburn’s” alongside “Ferreira” and “Burmester”. Port wine continues to make up a significant portion of Portugal’s trade with the world and dominates the city of Porto.

Location and setting

Porto is actually two different cities, the city of Porto itself sits on the north bank of the Douro river and is where most people live. The city is marked by quite steep hills and labyrinthine streets that wend their way around the hill. It is a charming city with lots of beautiful buildings giving an indication of the wealth that the trade has brought to this part of the world. As you wander around the city you inevitably encounter a series of attractively decorated public buildings that have characteristic blue tile festooned to their sides and fronts, which make for some pretty dramatic reliefs as you wander the streets.

On the south side of the river you have the city of Vila Nova de Gaia, which is where all the warehouses for the port houses are situated. These are all found along the river as historically the companies sent their port in barrels down the river from their vineyards towards Porto in boats called rabelo. Nowadays, the wine tends to be transported by large trucks as it is much safer, quicker and there is less chance of the wine spoiling en route. The rules of the Portuguese Port Wine Institute (the region’s governing authority) stipulate that port wine must age in Vila Nova de Gaia for it to be called Port wine, which means that the warehouses are still where the all-important ageing process takes place. Vila Nova de Gaia was selected for the purpose due to its connection with the river, but also its northward-facing aspect, which means that it escapes the worst of the Portuguese summer sun - which can be punishing and push the mercury above the 40 degree mark.

Porto is easily accessible from the UK and most-other European cities with regular flights taking place. The temperatures in the height of summer can be severe (as mentioned previously), although its coastal setting means that it benefits from an Atlantic breeze - this does on the other hand mean that humidity can get quite high. As such, I would advise against travelling in July and August just from a comfort factor. There is nothing to stop you travelling in winter, but I think that the optimum times to visit this pleasant town are the spring or autumn, when the temperatures will be pleasant and comfortable.

As this is a travel guide I don’t intend to give a detailed description of the production process for port wine or go into the different types of port - I will take it as a given that you know those things. However if you want to learn a bit more about these I would direct you to this informative post from Wine Folly, which has some very useful information.

So, to the point of this article! If you find yourself in Porto for a couple of days and you want to get some ideas of things that you could do, here are my recommendations…

Visit a Port House

Quite obvious one really! Most of the main port houses offer tours and tastings that are informative and provide a good opportunity to taste their ranges of production as it is important to learn that there is more to the world of port than the vaunted vintage ports - with tawnies, rubies, white ports and pink ports all playing their part in the ranges to provide drinks that suit all palates and all wallets. Also, it is important to know that the Douro DOC produces table wines, both red and white, of great quality - these are often over-looked by consumers.

I started my trip with a visit to Churchill’s Port House, which is one of the newest houses having only been created in 1981. It was created by John Graham, of the famous Graham’s family who wanted to start a new business after they sold their old one. He named the house “Churchill’s” after his wife’s family - they are keen to stress that they bear no relation to the famous British PM, although I’m sure such an auspicious name helps when selling to the UK and US! Churchill’s house style is to favour drier, spicier ports over the sweeter ports that people may be familiar with; which was intriguing to me.

I started with their White Port “Dry Aperitif” which is blended to an average age of 10 years, much longer than most white ports on the market. The result is a much more complex white port; I mostly enjoy white port as a “Porto Tonico” (i.e. Port and Tonic - a delicious alternative to a GnT), but this warrants being drunk on its own as a proper wine - it has a nice orange note to it and served chilled would make a good aperitif or an accompaniment with seafood (available from Hedonism wines for £17/500ml bottle). I also enjoyed their Ruby Reserve, which has an average age of four years; served chilled it has generous red fruit and berry notes, not over-sweet but lovely and fresh. An excellent value wine. In terms of their vintage ports, I tried the 2011 which was truly wonderful - quite floral on the nose, but a real power to the wine when drunk. The 2011 ports were celebrated as a once-in-a-generation vintage, if you can get hold of any then do - and then put it away for the next 20 years…! I also tried the 2016, which was obviously very young but was already showing beautiful elegance with a rose aroma alongside the fruit notes. There are some (including my host) who profess to preferring to drink vintage port when it is young for its youthful exuberance and fruity flavours; I must say that I fall into the category of preferring the wines to come into its maturity. I bought one of these following the tasting - so ask me in 20+ years how I’ve got on with it! (the 2016 is available from Crump Richmond Shaw for £265/case of six bottles).

I also visited Cockburn’s Port House, which has an informative group tour that takes you around its facilities. It was interesting to learn some of the history of this famous brand and see the initial thoughts on where it is going to go in the future following its acquisition by the Symington Family Estate portfolio (one of the powerhouses of the port world!). 
For those who are unaware, Cockburn’s is actually pronounced “Co-burn”; something, I think, designed to make it sound less like an STI…! 

In terms of their wines, I tried their Special Reserve which is their entry-level ruby port that has an interesting bouquet featuring some fruity notes (blueberry) that I was expecting, but also a touch of vegetal notes that I couldn’t quite place. On tasting, it has a fruit-facing profile, with a little spice on the mid-palate that lifts it a little. Not a world-beating wine, but decent at the price (distributors). Next up was their Late Bottled Vintage port - LBVs are often, to my mind, where some of the best value is to be had in port. This was another pleasant wine, quite a pretty nose - blackberry notes with a little sweet spice to give it a bit of depth. On the mouth it was decent, lacking a little in some of the depth that I was hoping for. Lastly, I tried the 10 year Tawny Port; which had lovely butterscotch and caramel notes to it, with a slightly pretty, floral note that I couldn’t quite place. When tasted this wine had beautiful sweet notes of vanilla and caramel, but it then moved on in the mid-palate to a hazelnut-like nuttiness which hinted of a slightly more oxidative ageing process on this wine - more like some sherries. I love this style of wine - definitely something that you could either have with dessert, or even have a glass of if you’re trying to be good and not have a dessert! (available from Nickolls and Perks for £24/bottle).

Take advantage of the views

Porto (and Vila Nova de Gaia) as mentioned are set on the banks of the Douro river. This affords a number of places that one can take in some rather splendid views. A couple of locations that I particularly enjoyed were:
Sandeman’s Port House, which has a splendid outdoor seating area with views over the river. It was here where I discovered some port cocktails, which made for a very pleasant drinking experience in the sun. The first was a glass of their Founder’s Reserve Port and lemonade, which made for an interesting take on a kind of sangria. The second was the aforementioned Porto Tonico, which is a particularly splendid summer drink and is now a firm favourite in my household for summer days (when summer eventually turns up in the UK…). They also do food in this outdoor seating area, but I didn’t try anything when I was there - favouring focussing on the cocktails!
The Yeatman’s Hotel, which is sat atop the hillside on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river. This is Porto’s most famous hotel and has a reputation for having an excellent wine list. We headed up there after one of our port tastings and I was in need of something to line my stomach as I had another tasting planned for the afternoon. You could tell that this was a rather fancy place by the line-up of stunning cars waiting outside for the patrons to emerge. With hindsight, we wished that we had dressed a little more presentably! We took a table outside with a beautiful view of the river in front of us, including giving us a proper perspective of the spectacular wrought-iron bridge that spans the river and really is quite the feat of engineering. I decided to go for a Francesinha - which is Porto’s famous sandwich, containing ham, smoked meat and steak, which is then topped off with melted cheese, a fried egg and a deliciously deep and rich tomato sauce, which you pour over the top. This is not the dish to go for if you are looking after your waistline or your cholesterol! I absolutely loved this, it’s quite a big portion - particularly when you add the chips that come with it - but this was exactly what I was after. The hotel also has a 2* restaurant on site, which looks beautiful, I’ll definitely be looking to visit there next time I come to visit.

Take a trip up the Douro

One of the most popular things for people to do when in Porto is to take a trip up the river towards where the vineyards are that make all those lovely port wines. There are plenty of companies that offer day trips on rather smart looking boats (as you can see from the picture on the left!). 
We didn’t look too much into this as we were heading up to the Douro Valley for a few days.


So there you have it - that’s my guide to how to best spend a few days in Porto. I’ll be publishing a follow up blog in a couple of weeks’ time on my experiences and recommendations for things to do / places to stay in the Douro Valley, so stay tuned!

Have your say: have you been to Porto? Did you do anything that I didn’t mention above and that you would recommend? Let me know in the comments below…

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

The Cigar, Whiskey and Tap Water Club - UN Garrison, Lille

Last year I was honoured to have been invited to attend a whiskey* tasting at the UN Garrison in Lille which is situated in the wonderfully historic Citadel in Lille. The Citadel was built in the 17th century and was designed by legendary French military engineer S├ębastien Le Prestre de Vauban (what a name!) and is today the headquarters of the Rapid-Reaction Corps France, a multi-national UN task-force which is stationed in Lille with the focus of preparing for any situation that requires an international military operation. 

Set deep inside the Citadel is the Lieutenants’ bar, a charming (if a little ramshackle) bar that is set up to allow officers to relax and socialise over a glass of something pleasant; which is an especially important facet when you are dealing with soldiers from all over the world - the need for dialogue and understanding is more important than ever. Now it is hardly a surprise that the officers from this task-force like a drink or two, however a few years ago an enterprising bunch realised that they had a core of people who were not only fans of drinking whiskey (in particular) and smoking the occasional cigar, but that they were also keen to learn a bit more so that they could appreciate these things a little more. To this end they formed the “Cigar, Whiskey and Tap Water Club”; the tap water reference is a sage reminder to all of the need to stay hydrated whilst pursuing one’s hobbies. The Club is run on a membership basis, members get access to tastings without having to pay for them and the membership fees are used to buy in the Club’s stock. At the start of the Club the learning consisted of members drinking the whiskies together and comparing notes, however recently they have invited a local whiskey specialist (Guillaume), who works in the wine trade in Lille but has a huge passion for whiskey to come and give them some tutored tastings at the Club in order to develop their knowledge even further. I was invited along to attend the second of these tastings.

At this tasting, Guillaume took us through four whiskies. For each one he really encouraged the group to go through a structured approach to the tasting: firstly, how does it look? what’s the colour look like? is it cloudy or is it bright?; secondly, how does it smell? is it complex? is it sweet? is it smoky?; thirdly, on the mouth how long does the finish last? does it change/develop as you taste it? what are the primary/secondary flavour notes? I am quite familiar with this approach when it comes to wine, but it was useful to try it out with the whiskies too as it helped me to think about them that little bit more.

We tried our way through four very different, but really interesting whiskies through the evening. I really liked the selection that Guillaume went for, plenty of variety and some real curve balls to keep us on out toes. The other thing that Guillaume did to keep the learning experience real was to pour all the whiskies blind so that we didn’t know what we had in our glass; then he asked us to go through the tasting process (sight, nose, taste, finish) in order to get us to really think about the whiskies and what we could tell of them. This really helped me personally to bring a structured approach to the tasting process and I was surprised at how much I got from it. It was only once we had collectively come to a conclusion about the whiskey that he did the grand reveal and announced what we had been tasting.

So, what did we try?

Armorik Whiskey Single Malt de Bretagne; this was a light and elegant whiskey on the nose, quite pretty in fact. On the mouth, however, it really surprised us as it was a lot more complex and profound than we expected. In truth, no-one predicted that this was a French whiskey, and I think that it why Guillaume chose it and out it first. There was clearly some Gallic pride going on here, that they could make a thoroughly decent whiskey that wouldn’t taste out of place in a serious (or maybe semi-serious) whiskey tasting.

One Shot Highland Single Malt Whiskey from the Ben Nevis Distillery (first fill, sherry cask); this was a lovely and rich whiskey that had a much more complex nose than the previous whiskey, I could pick out notes of honey, butterscotch and a little bit of a fruity twist. On tasting, there was a really long finish with a kind of cherry cola sweetness to it.
Laphroaig The Cooper’s Choice; this was served to us blind and we were asked to guess what it was. The group who were at the tasting were pretty knowledgeable - we all reckoned it was an Islay whiskey from the smokiness and a couple went with Laphroaig. They were correct! This was a proper smoke bomb of a whiskey, my tasting notes actually say “like tasting an ashtray”! I’m not sure that I meant that in a necessarily complimentary manner.

Gifted Stills of Scotland Single Malt Scotch Whiskey (bottle 001 of 888). Guillaume saved a special whiskey for the last one of the tasting. This one has a slightly reddish tinge to the drink and had a quite light and pretty nose with red fruits (strawberry?) on it. This whiskey has an exceptional provenance in that it is first aged in bourbon barrels, before being aged further in old barrels from legendary right-bank Bordeaux estate, Cheval Blanc. The tasting notes on this were incredibly complex and deep, with a predominant flavour of cherries.

After the tasting we took the opportunity to explore a few more drams of the excellent selection that the club held (along with some tap water of course) along with a cigar. What a fabulous way to spend an evening!

This was a really enjoyable experience. It was lovely to talk with these soldiers who have come from all over the world (I spoke with people from France, Germany, the UK, the US, Canada), discuss current events and hear what they make of their role as peace-keepers in this increasingly complex world. It was also nice to see this diverse group making real efforts to get to know each other and develop friendships that will help them to serve together better. But more than anything, it was a lovely setting for a group of people to come together and share an evening over a glass of whiskey or two (along with a cigar and a glass of tap water to keep hydrated, of course!) and learn a bit more about the world off whiskey.

* Note: I have used the spelling "whiskey" throughout this piece in keeping with the group's name. Traditionally "whisky" is used by the Scots, whereas "Whiskey" is used by the Irish, but I thought it would be easier to have a consistent spelling through the piece...