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The flavours of Porto

The flavours of Porto

E. Tresmontant - 2009-12-01

The legendary wines of Porto alone warrant a visit to the city where they are produced and stored, and to the Upper Douro Valley from where they originate. But Porto also boasts the most famous cuisine in Portugal, popular and tasty, with certain chefs bringing a very promising lightness of touch and panache.

 
A brief introduction to the world of Porto wines

The world of Porto wines is fascinating on account of its history, complexity and richness. Outside Portugal, alas, too often all we know of its wines are the syrupy bottles of average quality that are sold in supermarkets! In reality, Porto offers a very varied range of artisanal wines, the most prestigious of which, such as Quinta do Noval Nacional, are some of the greatest wines in the world (reckon on paying 510 euros for a bottle of 1984!).
 
Porto is the historic place where the concept of the officially demarcated wine region was invented in the late 18th century, on the initiative of the Marquis de Pombal, one of the most charismatic figures in the history of Portugal. He was the first to understand the need to select and then chart the best terroirs and finest vineyards, which were alone authorized to produce port. Before him, the wines produced in the Douro region were for the main part bitter and of mediocre quality, which is why in the early 18th century the English – who were the first to discover and market them – had the idea of fortifying them with brandy. This practice (known as “mutage”) is still today the trademark of wines from Porto. Generally from the Bordeaux region, the brandy stops the fermentation of sugar into alcohol and gives the ports smoothness and mellowness (these wines have an alcohol content of between 19 and 21 percent).
 
Ports are divided into three distinct categories.

First of all there are white ports, extra-dry, dry or sweet, for drinking chilled as an aperitif or at the end of a meal, depending on their age.
Then there are red ports, which are put together in two large families: tawny and vintage ports.
The former are wines matured in wood in pipas (traditional barrels of over 530 litres) for at least three years. They are generally the result of blends from several harvests and improve with time, gaining sweetness and delicacy. The age of a tawny, for example 40, is the average of the various blends of which it is composed (some being 20 years old, others 60). An old tawny has an amber colour and sometimes extraordinary aromas of dried fruit, nuts and chocolate, like the 40-year-old Graham’s Port that we tasted in the Don Tonho restaurant (see below). 
There are also vintage tawny ports known as "colheita" (harvest): they come from one single harvest and age for at least 7 years in casks. The colheita is the result of a great vintage and a great terroir, such as the Niepoort Colheita 1985 with its fig-like bouquet.
 
Vintage ports, in principle, are made only two or three times every 10 years, when the grapes are of exceptional quality. The wine does not then need to be blended and can be improved by nothing other than time! Vintage ports are therefore the result of the fruit of great years. They are matured for just two years in casks, and are then bottled directly, avoiding contact with air. These are concentrated wines, rich in colour, tannins and fruit, which can be aged for a very long time, sometimes for over a century! Current fashion, unfortunately, encourages people to drink them quickly; and yet a great vintage, like a Château d’Yquem, should not be drunk before it is 15 or 20 years old!
 
To complete the picture, we should also mention the ruby ports – bright red ports that should be drunk young – and the LBVs (Late Bottled Vintages) which are an intermediate solution between tawny and vintage ports: they are of a single vintage but are less concentrated than the vintage ports; they age in casks for between 4 and 6 years and can be drunk young, after bottling.
 
Where to go port tasting
We recommend paying a visit to an expert with a passion, Jean-Philippe Duhard. In 1993, this Frenchman from Bordeaux fell in love with Porto and its wines. In 2000, he opened a very friendly bistro here, Vino Logia, opposite the Stock Exchange Palace. Here you can discover over 200 different ports, 41 of which are from small producers who cultivate their own vines (the big companies buy most of their grapes from elsewhere). With a plate of nut bread, cheeses and dried fruit, Jean-Philippe will give you 8 different ports to sample, from the fruitiest ruby to the oldest tawny, reflecting the range and variety of style of each quinta (farm). A rarity: the fabulous Dalva 1952 white port, aged in a cask, with apricot aromas. The tasting session costs from 9 to 19 euros.
You can also visit the wine storehouses of Vila Nova de Gaia where you will find all the biggest port houses: A. Ramos Pinto, Barros, Cálem, Quinta do Noval, Cockburn, and Ferreira to name but a few... An opportunity to sample this sweet nectar and understand how it is produced and kept.
 

Wine tourism in the Upper Douro Valley

A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Upper Douro Valley is an extraordinary place that we invite you to explore during your stay in Porto. The steep schistose slopes that overlook the swirling, winding river were fashioned by man over the centuries. As you follow the Douro upwards (by car, train or onboard a cruise boat from Regua), you can admire the thousands of terraces that hug the contour lines and have turned this magnificently austere landscape into a centre of civilisation. In addition to port, the vines (some of which predate phylloxera) have yielded excellent table wines over recent years, like the one from Quinta doVallado, a superb estate dating from 1716, which is also a B&B. To explore the vineyards of the Upper Douro, with its quintas converted into luxury hotels, its traditional villages and local produce, the company Vinitur offers very high quality wine-based holidays all year round.
 
What to eat in Porto

Portuguese cuisine is still today largely underrated beyond its borders. It is generally reduced to the preparation of cod alone, which is known as bacalhau here. There are, admittedly, 365 ways of cooking cod here (one for each day of the year!) and it constitutes the traditional popular dish par excellence. But beyond the fact that cod is a dying breed and has become, in Portugal as in France, a costly product served in the top restaurants, Portuguese cuisine is also much more rich and varied than you might think! The cuisine in Porto, in particular, has been considered the best in the country since the 19th century. It happily combines produce from the ocean and from the various regions of the north (Minho, Douro and Trás-os-Montes) in a repertoire of both popular and bourgeois recipes. Tripas a moda do Porto has been one of the city’s specialities since 1415. It is a combination of haricot beans, pork meats, calf’s feet, chouriço (well-seasoned smoked pork sausage), chicken and tripe, served with a separate dish of rice. Caldo verde is a soup originally from Minho, made with mashed potato and finely sliced cabbage, with a dash of olive oil and a slice of chouriço. In Porto, it is served with delicious corn bread called broa de Avintes. Octopus and seafood are wonderfully fresh, particularly in Matosinhos northwest of Porto, a district renowned for its fish restaurants (such as Giao, Fernando, Arroco and Adega Pacheco). The calves and kids raised in the open air in the Douro region are exceptionally tasty. As for cheese, the most famous one in Portugal is queijo da Serra, an unpasteurised ewe’s milk cheese. Produced in the Serra de Estrela, in the centre of the country, it must be matured until it is smooth and runny, and is eaten with a spoon at the end of a meal.
 
Essential addresses in Porto
 
Dom Tonho: a legend
Located on the terrace of Ribeira quay, next to the Dom Luis bridge, the Dom Tonho restaurant offers a superb view of the Douro. Its vaulted cellar is one of the most sumptuous in Porto and stands adjacent to remains of the ancient and medieval city. Here we tasted excellent traditional starters served like tapas: cod salad with chickpeas, octopus, venison pasties, carrots with garlic and coriander. The rice with prawns (arroz de tamboril) is prepared risotto-style. The Douro veal served with a potato gratin was the most flavourful that we had ever tasted. On the menu at Don Tonho are also a few of Portugal’s prestigious wines, such as José Maria da Fonseca’s Vinho Tinto E.V 1972, a natural red wine (unfortified) with a crimson colour and aromas of fig, red fruit and mushrooms. Portugal’s greatest unfortified red wine is Casa Ferreirinha’s Barca-Velha. The 1995 is extraordinary, with a nose of leather, aromas of cherry and very fine tannins with no perceptible woodiness. (Menu from 25 to 40 euros without wine.)
 
The Bull & Bear, a hotspot of Portuguese gastronomy
 
Miguel Castro e Silva is one of today’s top three or four Portuguese chefs. His restaurant, the Bull & Bear, is the first gastronomic establishment to offer a sampler menu in Portugal. Miguel is a passionate champion of the cuisine and produce of his country, and of the fish in particular, which he considers to be "the best in the world ". This artist similar to Olivier Roellinger (in Cancale) and Antoine Westermann (in Strasbourg) is, like them, a researcher who strives for maximum flavour, precision and lightness, as in his carpaccio of sea bass, octopus risotto, cod cooked at 80 degrees, pig’s trotters with fresh coriander, and melon soup with lime. Miguel also runs the restaurant of the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art (see our article) set in Porto’s most beautiful park. The very affordable 35-euro menu will allow you to discover the talent of this chef.
 
When "international hotel" does not necessarily mean "international cuisine"

The Poivron rouge restaurant at the Meridien Park Atlantic is also a highly commendable address in Porto, if only for its refined and relaxing decor. Its young chef, the affable Victor Matos, offers a light and creative cuisine here, which shows to advantage the flavours of local produce. We particularly appreciated the very fine Portuguese black pudding, served in a bowl with thinly sliced cabbage (grelos), apples, and a potato mousse. The cod with beans and clams, seasoned with a reduction of sherry vinegar, is a model of its kind, perfectly desalted and then re-salted at the end of cooking, and the carpaccio of veal served with wild lettuce and olive oil from Trás-os-Montes is remarkable. 
 
Address book
 
Vinologia
Rua Sao Joao, 46
Tel.: (00351) 936 057 340
www.vinologia.eu.com
 
Caves do Vinho do Porto
www.cavesvinhodoporto.com
 
Don Tonho
Cais de Ribeira, 13
Tel.: (00351) 222 004 307
 
Bull & Bear
Av. da Boavista, 3431
Tel.: (00351) 226 107 669
 
Restaurant do Museu Serralves
Tel.: (00351) 226 170 355
www.serralves.pt
 
Poivron rouge
Av. da Boavista, 1466
Tel.: (00361) 22 607 25 00
www.lemeridien.pt
 

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