Protectionism or Free Trade? Tasting History in Porto.

I wonder what Porto would be if it were not for the simple twist of fate caused by a trade disagreement between the French and United Kingdom in the 1500's? Perhaps just another non descript European city surrounded by just yet another wine region. Circumstance, history and good marketing have turned France and Italy into the most well known wine regions in Europe. Even Spain in a distant third place is in the shadows of these behemoth wine producing regions. Yet Portugal, Greece, Hungary and many more produce wine for export.

In 1667 King Louis XIV's minister Colbert in a classic trade protectionist move forbade the import of English cloth into France. England's Charles II retaliated with a ban on French wine. English merchants in both England and Porto saw an opportunity and began importing “Portuguese red” into England. But as demand grew for finer wines a British wine merchant discovered “priests port” in a Lamego monastery up river in the Duoro Valley. While there's some history in question but it was believed that Brandy was added to Port wine so it would travel better. But the art of adding Brandy to wine to arrest fermentation, retain sweetness and raise the alcohol level wasn't practiced until the mid-1800's. So it was the accidental introduction of brandy and a lapse in trade between England and France that put Portugal on the world wine map. Even today the most prominent and sought after port wines are owned by British firms.

As Tim and I followed the roads that tumble down the hill toward the Duoro River here in Porto we caught glimpse of this great river and across it huge signs sitting on the roofs of Port loges or houses. These massive buildings, many of which are tiered as the drop down the hill toward the river, are the trade centers, bottling facilities and administrative offices for the most prominent Port wine producers.

The Port houses occupy a region across from the river and the city commerce center called Vila Nova de Gaia. Several bridges span the Duoro but by far the most famous is the huge double-deckered Ponte Dom Luis I bridge which carries both pedestrians and automobiles to and from Vila Nova de Gaia. Today it was obscured by massive scaffolding with the top deck closed to both cars and pedestrians.

As we walked across we peered through the scaffolding at the river below where replica and perhaps some original boats that used to carry casks of wine to Porto and Gaia from the Duoro Valley 25-50 miles up river where the grand terraced vineyards where the great grapes of Port are grown. Relishing in its history Port producers proudly fly the sails or stack the boats with logo stamped barrels — which create a mood of history and tradition.

I had my eyes and pallet set on Taylor. Because my first experience with a truly great Vintage Port happened many years ago at a friend's birthday party. Impromptu and perhaps a bit nutty, it's often said mornings after of great food, wine sharing and indulging in the good life, that one might have been better served had he or she “gone home” when the Port came out. Sometimes synonymous with cigars, chocolate, nuts and stinky cheese, when Port is opened typically you can expect the evening to go on until that bottle is drained and the accompanying goodies resting happily in the bellies of everyone.

It was a 1977 Taylor served with a brilliant selection of unsalted nuts, cheese and truffles that caused the light to go for me. And this light was screaming bright and beautifully colored and faceted. Vintage Port is perhaps the wine that benefits the most from aging. This wine was more than 30 years old when it was decanted and put in front of me. Exploding with flavors of nuts, dates, caramel and butterscotch and its viscosity coated my mouth and slowly down my throat with a finish that went on for minutes. Purely sensual and seductive.

Yes. I was committed to finding Taylor. Based on a loosely drawn map and the proximity of the sign we noted when walking across the bridge we headed up the hills of Gaia. And these hills would fair well in a competition with San Francisco's steepest. So as we climbed past residences where women were hanging out laundry to dry or hanging precariously out windows batting dusty rugs we kept looking at our map and scratching our heads. The last thing we really wanted was to make a wrong turn. Going down these steep hills is just as physically demanding as going up. Happy with our cardio exercise but concerned that we were lost we finally were pointed in the direction of Taylor — down the hill.

We followed the cobblestoned road as is winded around until we were greeted with a tiny dusty and faded sign emblazoned in a stone embankment. When we found the entrance we turned to the right to see the roof of one of Taylor's buildings and the huge sign we had seen across the River.

We joined a tour and walked through the barrels and casks of history and learned of the differences of Port Wine and Taylor's legacy, which started in 1692, in the world of Port Wine.

For those curious, here is a quick overview of Port wine types:

Ruby or Red Port – cheaper port made from a blend of lower quality grapes meant to be consumed within 2 or 3 years

Tawny Ports – made from a blend of aged ports and bottle in 10, 20, 30 or 40 years indicating the average year of the wines blended in the bottle. Because they are filtered and fined during the bottling process these wines require no decanting and once opened they retain their aroma and flavor for nearly two months

Vintage Port – the highest quality and most expensive Port and made only when a vintage is spectacular and declared a “Vintage” by the Port wine regulatory group. Aged two years in cask then at least two years in the bottle before release. This wine does best with many years of aging.

Late bottle vintage port (LBV) – made from a single harvest and aged 4-6 years in cask prior to bottling.

Coheita – a single vintage tawny made from high quality wines and aged at least 7 years before bottling.

Tomorrow we'll drive up the River to the Duoro Valley and gaze up upon the vineyards that produce the grapes for great Port wines as we head south to Marvou a small hilltop medieval village near the Spanish border.