The two greatest sweet wines in the world are, in this order:
1. Sauternes (and their cousins, Barsacs). The greatest sweet wine I ever had was Chateau d’Yquem 1976.
2. Vintage port. While good specimens of these sweet wines are expensive, they are still greatly undervalued compared to their quality, for America (a huge market for these wines) is not a land where people like sweet wines.
Other sweet wines are even more undervalued. Here are the two greatest bargains in sweet wine that I have found:
3. Late-harvest muscats and tokays from Australia. The Aussies call them “stickies,” but they’re worthy of a more dignified name. A good sticky like Chambers Rosewood Muscat, for example, is a world-class wine, and will set you back no more than$15 per half-bottle.
4. Pedro Ximenez sherries. These intensely sweet sherries from Spain taste like you’re drinking liquid raisins and prunes. The Pedro Ximenez grape is often used to add color and a bit of sweetness to other sherries, but can be vinified on its own to make a terrific after-dinner drink. There are several makers selling these in half- and full bottles. A good specimen, like that of Emilio Lustau, costs only about $20 for a full bottle, and will afford you hours of sipping pleasure.
Since I was in Porto, where ports are blended, how could I resist spending a morning trying them?
Before I headed up the Douro Valley, I visited several of the famous port lodges of Porto. These are large buildings where the wine produced upstream in the valley is blended into various types of port: vintage port, ruby port, late-bottled vintage port, white port, tawny port, and so on.
To get to the lodges, one crosses the river Douro from Porto on a pedestrian bridge; the lodges are right on the other side of the river:
The lodges are all close by near the river. Here are a few; you can recognize some famous names here:
A bit of graffiti along the way tells you what you’re in for:
I visited Graham’s first, as that is my favorite port. I love their sweet, fruity, and rounded style:
It is a commercial operation, and geared for tourists. That morning there were many Germans who came in in buses and quaffed a glass or two as part of a tour. But then they left, leaving me alone to wander in the lodge. There’s a display of all vintage ports from the mid-nineteenth century. “Vintages” are declared only about every third or fourth year, when the weather has been especially salubrious for producing good grapes.
Here’s an old one, probably now an undrinkable vinegar but still worth many hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars. Wine collectors buy and sell these bottles and never open them, something I don’t understand:
Because nobody was in the winery, I got a one-person tour, conducted by a nice Russian emigrant named Anastasia from Novosibirsk. We saw the huge barrels containing vintage and other types of port:
Here’s a barrel destined to be an “LBV” or late-bottled vintage port. These aren’t quite as good as true vintage port, but are nevertheless excellent; they are left to mature in barrel for a few years longer than the 2-3 years experienced by true vintage ports:
Graham’s, like all big companies, maintains a stock of vintage ports going way back. Here is their “library.” These bottles are almost never opened.
Because I know something about vintage port, and Anastasia was so nice, I got try try some special ports beyond the three mandated by the 10-euro ticket I bought, which normally allows one to try three kinds of single-quinta vintage port. She replaced one of them with a very expensive true vintage port from 1994, added a glass of expensive 40-year old tawny port, and threw in a free glass of “white port”, often used in France as an apéritif. Here are the big four. Remember, I was drinking at 11 a.m, and these are big pours (port is 20% alcohol):
And the wines I tried, with the per bottle price:
- Quinto do Bonfin 1999 32 Euros
- Graham’s Quinto dos Malvedos 1999 40 Euros
- 1994 Quinto do Vesuvio 109 Euros (spectacular; the only port now crushed entirely with people’s feet), 130 Euros
- Graham’s 40 year old tawny 118 Euros
- White port (inexpensive, no price listed).
I then visited another spot, Taylor’s which makes a favorite of mine, and had two more glasses. It was not as friendly, and I left after a short while. But I was very tipsy, and it wasn’t yet noon.
In that state, one needs food. I chose to have a francesinha, the local speciality sandwich of Porto. (It means “little French woman”). The students at the institute where I spoke the day before recommended that I try this comestible. As Wikipedia describes it:
[It is] made with bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça, fresh sausage like chipolata, steak or roast meat and covered with melted cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce served with french fries.
Yes, yes, I know it’s a coronary on a plate, but I don’t eat like this every day, and it’s just the ticket for sopping up alcohol. And it was good. (If you’re tempted to lecture me on eating healthy, please refrain.).
A closeup for the brave of heart:
After this I headed up the Douro Valley to explore where and how port is made. I have some beautiful picture of this area, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and will post those as soon as I get a chance. Today I will do some more exploring and then head back to Porto.