One of the signs that the world is becoming a place for pussies is the downward spiral in global Port consumption. The alcoholic power of this magnificent wine style, as well as its delectable and uncompromising sweetness, has fallen out of favour in a wine world obsessed with purporting to drink stuff of restrained elegance and linearity. A hefty 18% per volume sugar-induced kick appears too much to handle for sensitive modern souls, and the inky blackness might just stain those freshly capped teeth.
As a result the Port industry is in a state of brooding slow-march, reflecting on the glory days of yesteryear when men of backbone and unapologetic robust appetite would polish off half a bottle of vintage Port over lunch. Preferably whilst ensconced in the leather-clad interior of that glorious institution known as the Gentleman’s Club.
Today most wine is purchased by women, and they just don’t have the balls for Port – Conchita Wurst and Nataniël included. Throw-in the metro-male lifestyle of the modern male, and robust, hearty Port has no place on a table where iced glasses of Sauvignon Blanc are perched alongside copies of Men’s Health, Samsung Galaxies and backstage tickets to Cape Town’s Mother City Queer Project.
We have, thus, a situation where Port as a vital segment of the wine industry has one foot in the coffin and the other in the frail-care ward. Three decades ago, 80% of the grapes grown in Portugal’s Douro Valley were used to make Port, the rest going into table wine. Today the reverse is applicable, and unless Port fans can push their beloved drink into the same lofty realms of reverence as the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, poorer times lie ahead.
Currently the world’s largest market for Port is, believe it or not, France where they drink the cheap Ruby-style with ice or tonic between bouts of depression, pension protests and Islam-baiting.
But a good Port, to me, captures the true soul and essence of the wine grape. I love the chemistry in its production: the juice from the grapes, bubbling and foaming in fermentation, being fortified through the addition of brandy, causing the fermentation to come to an abrupt halt. The conversion of sugar to alcohol is stopped in mid-stroke, that magnificent sweet fruit expression captured and contained to last a lifetime.
Bung the stuff in a vat for 10 years and it emerges as a golden-hued Tawny, an evocative and heady perfume of treacle, tobacco and spice leading to a mouth of sweet treasures. Or a good vintage Port, bottled after a year or two in old wood and left to lie in wait for opening and an opportunity to tumble black-purple into the glass. Offering a pure, full and complete drinking experience, one of opulence and power without sacrificing grace or elegance.
Preparing for a trip to the Douro, I have been sampling some local South African versions of Port-style wines which, according to my Portuguese connections, are the finest interpretations of these wines outside of the land of Dias, Ronaldo and bacalhau.
Allesverloren from the Riebeek Valley has always been a stalwart, and its Fine Old Vintage 2009 displays a typical New World take on Port. Light in colour, this wine has a sunny character offering fleeting glimpses of berry, dates and raisins, although the acidity keeps the structure a bit too austere for my liking. But nothing a few years’ in the cellar can’t sort out.
Out Stellenbosch way, Muratie is the go-to Port Estate, and its Ben Prins Vintage 2009 is an absolute stunner. It is a dense, dark wine, expertly fortified to get the acid-to-alcohol balance just right, with a powerful nose of fresh oak bark, fallen mulberries and dried porcini powder. The mouth is delightfully silky leading to haunting and satisfying plushness on the finish. But oh, vamos, the flavour profile…. as complex and visceral as Jennifer Lawrence in a wet T-shirt.
Here I find a ripe black fruit layer, which when peeled away leads to smoked paprika, molasses and Moroccan quince syrup. This wine is a keeper, and another 10 years in the bottle will make opening it worthy of a 21 gun salute and donning the old tuxedo.
Finally we head to Calitzdorp and Boplaas, my numero uno South African Port cellar whose wines I have made an effort of studying and consuming, with far more emphasis on the latter.
The Cape Vintage 2010 is ridiculously young, but tasting it is necessary to gauge its future path. Those tight black bunches of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barocca and Souzão were coaxed to ripeness under a blazing sun in the arid, harsh soils of the Klein Karoo. Picked and crushed, the fermenting juice was fortified with Boplaas’s own grape spirit.
The result is the taste of a master winemaker at work: pepper and spice on the nose, a cool, lengthy palate with a characteristic hint of inoffensive herb and shrub. Flavours of dried fig, candied dates and overripe Spanish pimento, as well as a hit of charcuterie.
With these tastings saved in the memory bank, it is off to Portugal and the Douro where Port shall be had, and pussy-footing is left to others.