A morning stroll along the waterfront and we nipped in and out of several lodges – I popped into Ferreira to see how much its 1945 vintage is as I have a bottle at home from my late grandfather. It’s expensive, but not quite sufficiently so to be worth selling, and so it will remain a treasured memory of a dear relative. Further along, I noted that Sandeman’s, which I had toured perfunctorily 10 years ago, proudly boasts the strapline “Famous for Pleasure”, which I did not recall seeing previously – it would, no doubt, have had more of an allure. We also passed the obligatory Irish bar that every city in the world must possess: I remember one in Arusha, Kenya that only served Boddingtons, a fail on all levels. But, due to the diaspora of Irish theme pubs, in a thousand years anthropologists will assume Ireland was the dominant global power of the 20th century.
A brief city tour with our guide from the Porto Tourism Board first took in the imposing and impressive 19th-century Stock Exchange Palace. There are wine tastings in one of the downstairs chambers, perhaps inspired by the Irish model: if you can’t beat them, encourage them to drink. Our guide was keen to draw attention to the economic growth of former colony Mozambique – an imaginative diversion from discussing Portugal’s fiscal realities, rather like a Westminster tour leader concentrating on Basutoland’s agricultural policies. The picturesque bookshop Lello, one of the world’s three greatest and said to be the inspiration for Hogwarts’ staircases, was our next stop, and then on for a quick coffee and glass of Amendoa at Café Majestic on Rua Sancta Catarina. This almondy liqueur, served over ice and a slice, is like an Amaretto-lite and a gentler option than the popular after-hours Ginjinha brandy-based cherry liqueur.
Back at the Yeatman we tried a glass of Pink Port before lunch: I need more convincing. Like creases in jeans, seeing pregnant women smoking or use of the word “serviette”, it jolted me out of my comfort zone. I was much more relaxed in the company of a Soalheiro Alvarinho – a wine from a producer who is to this grape what Veneto’s Pieropan is to Garganega (in layman’s terms – it’s exceptional). There followed Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas 2004 – a rare single vineyard port, which, although an important component part of the final blend of declared vintages (adding both aromatic nuance and structure), can stand alone, its definitive character and discrete complexity more than enough to justify its independence.
After lunch, we disappeared behind the scenes into the kitchen, pausing only to pour several glasses of Vargellas Vinha Velha (the old vine version and zenith of the single quinta regime) 2004 and 2009, which were left over from a dinner hosted by Portuguese wine critic and now winemaker Richard Mayson. The kitchens, like the rest of the hotel, are both attractive and ergonomically impeccable, with lots of natural light, plenty of space, sections and storage areas neatly compartmentalised – not so much a galley as a cruise liner.
I then popped across the road to the Taylor Fladgate HQ – previously Fonseca’s Lodge. Its location is unique in that, positioned on a bend in the Douro you can look back towards the city and enjoy views of both Porto (as seen from the Yeatman, second picture) on your left and Vila Nova de Gaia on your right. Adrian’s wife, Natasha, is the chief blender for the three houses that the company controls – Taylor, Fonseca and more latterly Croft, and was in the process of tasting barrel samples of the 2011 wines when I arrived. She seemed extremely pleased (with the wines, not necessarily my arrival) and let slip that 2011 will almost certainly be declared.
We discussed the alchemical nature of winemaking and its occasional inexplicabilities, Natasha noting that on paper 2010 grapes were perfect; grown and picked under optimal conditions, but the wines lacked excitement. Conversely, 2009 was a much more challenging vintage but ultimately the results have proven more rewarding and all three houses have declared in this vintage. I replied with enthusiastic bombast that vines need hardship and stress since crisis is the catalyst for character and in conflict champions are born – just like Moore’s retreat from Corunna and Wellington’s subsequent reconquista. Natasha nodded indulgently and poured some 09 Croft, of which she is justifiably proud. While Taylor and Fonseca occupy the top spots in port’s hierarchy, Croft is currently not considered to be of the first order, but the company is investing a lot of time and resources into bringing its quality in line with its illustrious cousins. The 09 is a clear indicator that the process is well under way, betraying the heat of the vintage but no over-ripeness. In fact, all three houses demonstrated an unexpected freshness and poise: Taylor the most powerful and recalcitrant, Fonseca more lithe and savoury and Croft the most exuberant and engaging – the King, Queen and the young Prince. For atypical and fleshy charm, but hidden structure and overall balance, they resemble bordeaux of the same year, but it is interesting that Taylor Fladgate’s great rivals, Symington Group – which boasts Warre, Graham, Dow and Churchill in its stable – did not declare universally in 2009 (only the former in fact).
Read WineChap’s third dispatch from Porto on Friday November 16.