November 29, 2013 6:24 pm

A port for all storms

‘The choice could be expressed as a question: is port a Portuguese or a British wine?’

The first port I can remember enjoying was a Taylor’s 10-year-old tawny in a cloudy green bottle, with a stopper cork and a simple label. It was part of a case that my parents had shipped up to the remote village of Applecross in northwest Scotland for essential evening first aid after August days spent tramping over boggy hills in pouring rain and getting eaten alive on a midge-infested river.

My association of port with extreme weather remains strong. In southeast England I only drink the stuff during that testing period when the light drains out of the sky in mid-afternoon, the cold begins to grip and, in the worst cases, the tennis courts freeze over.

As this British winter sets in, I’m faced with both a dangerous opportunity and an intriguing dilemma. The emptying of the cellar in our former family home at Coleshill means that my small stock of port is lying vulnerably above ground, rather than snugly under it, needing to be consumed sooner rather than later. But which port to drink first?

The choice is first of all between tawny and vintage. To be more technical, this is a choice between wood-matured and bottle-matured port, between wine that has spent most of its life in the slender barrels called pipes, in one of the warehouses or lodges that line the south bank of the river Douro at Gaia opposite the old city of Oporto, and port that has been bottled young and left to age much more slowly under northern skies.

This choice has cultural, historical and sociopolitical dimensions as well as purely aesthetic ones. It could be expressed as a question: is port a Portuguese or a British wine? Port is one of those wines, like red Bordeaux, in whose development British merchants played a key role. Wars with France in the late 17th and early 18th centuries led enterprising British (and Dutch) merchants to search for acceptable wines from their old ally Portugal to replace embargoed French sources. The Methuen treaty of 1703 enshrined low rates of duty on Portuguese wine in return for free entry of English cloth to Portugal.

Almost by chance, the British hit on the sun-baked upper reaches of the Douro as a better source than the sodden Minho, whose wines have always been acid. They were not always at all scrupulous in their dealings with local farmers, as Hugh Johnson relates in his excellent The Story of Wine, sometimes requiring a farmer’s daughter in part-exchange for the wine. In 1727, the British merchants founded their association in Oporto at the Factory House, which became a quasi-colonial club. A year after the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the Marquês de Pombal, as part of his salvage plan for the country, part-nationalised the industry, citing British abuses. The British merchants were infuriated and put up prices. Following the Tipplers’ Riots of 1757, 26 members of the Factory House were executed. It turned out to be a temporary setback. British merchants prospered for most of the 19th century, though they had a choppier time in the 20th.

To express this long cultural history in stylistic terms, you could say that firm, masculine, long-lasting vintage, the product of a single exceptional year, was the classic style invented by the British, whereas tawny, more gentle, less aggressive, perhaps more subtle, and usually blended from many different vintages, was the style preferred in Portugal. I love both but on a recent visit to Oporto found myself veering towards a third style. This is colheita, or single-vintage tawny; wine from a single year matured for decades in wood.

The occasion was a charity dinner culminating in the auction of special lots of Graham’s colheita 1982, a wine bottled in honour of last month’s christening of Prince George, with proceeds to the charity Bagos d’Ouro, which promotes education for disadvantaged children in a region that has remained poor. Wealth has always flown downriver towards Oporto and beyond rather than trickling back to where the grapes grow on steep slopes above the river, needing to be picked by hand and sometimes, even now, trodden by foot.

Before the dinner, at the Graham’s lodge in Gaia, which now incorporates a smart restaurant and shop (unthinkable 25 years ago, when the lodges looked unchanged from the 19th century) I tasted a comprehensive range of the company’s ports. Though I loved the still youthful, bramble and violet- scented 2007 vintage, the star wine for me was the 1952 colheita, with its concentrated raisiny richness and astonishing freshness and finesse.

Once again cultural reflections mingled with aesthetic ones. Graham’s is a company of Scottish heritage, founded by one family of Scots entrepreneurs, then bought by another, the dynamic Symingtons, who now control almost a third of the port business. But the guests and speeches at the dinner, which might once have been Anglo-Saxon in inflection, were almost all Portuguese, and the wine chosen to honour a British prince was in a Portuguese style.

harry.eyres@ft.com, @sloweyres

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