It’s not easy being a vine in Portugal’s Douro Valley – some of the hills in this part of the world are so steep you wonder how the vines put down any roots at all. But that’s how the region’s port producers like it. “I want my vines to be screaming,” a quinta owner once told me, “because that’s when we get the best fruit.”
Those words came back to haunt me recently as I sweated my way up through the vineyards of Quinta Vale Dona Maria, on my way to meet one of the Douro’s great personalities, Cristiano van Zeller. Born from a long line of port producers and shippers – he recalls sipping port from the cask taps when he was still in shorts – van Zeller is best known as the former co-owner of the famous port house Quinta do Noval, but over the past 20 years he has also been at the forefront of a revolution in Douro winemaking that is now seeing the region’s best red and white wines being recognised as world class.
On the day we meet, though, it’s to discuss his latest port project, Last Drop Centenario, a pair of ultra-aged, limited-edition tawny ports sourced in collaboration with Ben Howkins of Last Drop Distillers, a company that hitherto specialised in ferreting out tiny parcels of ultra‑rare whisky and cognac. “The British idea of port tends to be vintage port. But in a Portuguese person’s mind, ‘port’ means tawny port,” says van Zeller, a genial man-mountain with a voice that booms like Brian Blessed’s.
While vintage port does most of its ageing in the bottle, tawny port usually stays in the cask for several decades, resulting in a less jammy, more oxidised flavour of nuts, caramel and dried fruits. At lunch, on the plumbago-swagged terrace of Quinta Vale Dona Maria, we sipped a 1970 tawny with a dessert of fragrant orange cream, while another meal was rounded off with a 1900 tawny port, which did the rounds alongside a cloth bag full of warm roasted chestnuts. “But the tawny port itself should always be served a little on the cool side,” says van Zeller, “like a white wine.”
Tawny port ages phenomenally well, a fact clearly demonstrated by the Centenario duo, which allows one to compare two tawny ports derived from the same parcel of vineyards, 100 years apart. The Last Drop Centenario 1970 – a famously good vintage – is all buttery caramel, tobacco and golden stone fruits, while a century more in the cask gives the Centenario 1870 greater concentration, but no less suppleness: it’s walnuts, liquorice, raisins and chocolate, with a flirtatious touch of velvety fig skin.
Only 770 sets of the Centenario have been created, with a £4,000 price tag that’s fittingly steep. But as they like to say (more or less) in the Douro: no pain, no gain.