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Uncorked: Port flavor brings out the best of fall

A glass of fine Port cuts through the drafty fall days that will soon turn into winter.

There’s something special about a glass of Port and and a collection of friends surrounding a crackling fire engaged in deep discussion. 

Mix in a gently falling snow, dim lights and a soundtrack of atmospheric rock in the background and Port, a wine made from fruit harvested in Portugal’s Douro region and fortified by the introduction of a grape spirit that halts the fermentation process and thus leaves residual sugar in the wine, heartily stands up to the chill outside. 

With a higher alcohol content than a still wine, Port’s warming flavors can include – but aren’t limited to – raisin, vanilla, ripe red fruits, cocoa, vanilla and spice.  

It seems like a classical setting.   

But, Symington Family Estates – owners of Dow’s, Cockburn’s and Graham’s – has evolved to incorporate technology seemingly borrowed from a science fiction novel. 

Winemaker spotlight 

For hundreds of years, human feet have tread grapes in the Douro after harvest.

But an experiment in 1998 led Dow’s to devise an alternative to the time-honored tradition; and no detail was spared.   

“Our ‘robotic treader’ uses hydraulic ‘legs’ equipped with silicon ‘toes’ to crush the grapes against the floor of the tank,” Symington Family Estates Joint Managing Director Rupert Symington said.

“It exerts exactly the same pressure as the human foot, to break the skins without crushing the bitter seeds. The ‘legs’ are heated to human blood temperature to produce a warming effect and march up and down the tank simulating the action of a line of human legs. The machine has the advantage that it doesn’t get tired and can work for much longer than the typical three hours that humans tend to tread.”   

With a two-year drought in the Duoro, the robotic treader has less quantity with which to work. Some locations lost as much as 50 percent of their crops.

“The 2011 crop was slightly below normal but this was probably due to some extreme heat in late June rather than to a lack of water reserves,” Symington said. “In 2012 there was a massive reduction in yields in the drier areas of the Douro, we experienced up to 50 percent loss of crop in nearly all the varietals at our Upper Douro Quintas. Even the relatively drought-resistant Touriga Franca produced much lower than usual yields.”

This year, harvest occurred 10 days later than normal and he noted the vines still had a green canopy. With very little water, photosynthesis from leaves to fruit took a while longer and ripening was slower than usual. But a light rain in mid-September brought a slow rise to sugar levels. 

Time will tell if 2012 will be declared a vintage, the process a port house will use to signify a remarkable year that produced a distinctive wine. It’s a tradition with deep roots and means that a wine has potential to be cellared for many years. 

The climatological vagaries of the Douro lead to vast differences year-to-year. But a vintage port might carry a heftier price tag, and is nearly guaranteed to be of very high quality. 

“The tradition began in the mid 1800s when merchants started to lay down Port for aging in bottle, a method made possible once bottles became cylindrical and therefore ‘binnable,’” Symington said. “It soon became apparent that Port aged better in bottle than any other wine, and that a small but rigorous selection of the best wines were capable of lasting in bottle for very many years.”

Wine 101

Two years ago I enjoyed an excellent Touriga Nacional, a variety of red wine grape often considered to be Portugal’s finest. It was the first time I had it non-fortified and it was excellent. But, as Symington pointed out, its home is still with fortified wines.   

“Touriga Nacional is a bit like the cabernet of the Douro, full bodied and with a firm tannic structure. But as in other wine regions, it can benefit from having a softer, more aromatic variety blended into it to make a rounder and more agreeable wine,” Symington said.

“I have found that on its own it can be less interesting than when blended with the Douro merlot equivalent which is the velvety, aromatic Touriga Franca. Touriga Nacional can be very susceptible to poor fruit set and its yields are typically very low making it an expensive varietal to work with and one that can really only be used for the greatest Douro reds and Ports.”

• James Nokes writes a bi-weekly wine column for the Daily Chronicle. He’s been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Contact him at

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