The Porto Game

Born in England and now living in Boston, DIGGORY VENN was a press officer with the Marines in the Pacific, a news reporter in San Francisco, and more recently has been investigating circulation opportunities in Europe for American magazines.


THE Porto Game is t he art of making port wine. The stakes are high, the fruits of victory are a definite boon to mankind, but the rules and procedures are as complicated as the insides of a calculating machine.

That at least was the reaction of my wife and me to an exhilarating, and not necessarily sober, visit to the playing fields of port last year. Our destination was Porto and the vineyards of the Alto Douro, often referred to as the helot domain of England — and not without reason. Most of the port traders are Englishmen whose families have been playing t he game for three generations. Without the English market, there would he no port trade to speak of, and very probably no such liquid as port .

To begin with, port was specially designed in pre-whiskey days for the English gentleman who was even then suffering from draft, dampness, and chill. He craved a drink blessed with body, flavor, and plenty of alcohol. Port was the mitten on the chilblain.

Portugal was chosen as the source of supply largely for negative reasons. The English had to get their wine from somewhere, and because of politics neither France nor Spain was allowed to be much help. So Charles II, a monarch who drank only French wines but was married to a Braganza of Portugal, inaugurated the trade in 1678. In 1703 Gallophobia had reached such a pitch in England that the Methuen or Port Treaty was signed with Portugal establishing discriminatory duties against French wines “for ever.” The port trade flourished, and has never stopped.

Port is not a natural wine. Unlike claret, Burgundy, hock, or Moselle, it is manufactured. That is to say, brandy is added to the must during fermentation to entrap part of the natural sugar and make the wine sweeter and more alcoholic. The cynics, who disregard the rich, aromatic, and velvety result of complementing nature, indict the port traders for turning what they claim would otherwise he a cheap, wholesome wine into an expensive, unhealthy one.

To blame port for the prevalence of gout in England is stretching a point even though Pitt’s gouty leg, bandages, and crutches were once as much a part of the political scene as Churchill’s cigars and Eden’s Homburg are today. But there is no doubt that port is an expensive way of indulging the palate, The Porto Players are the first to admit that the dominant economic factor of their sport is the high cost of production. The addition of brandy, for example, delays potability about eight years. The best port does not attain its peak for at least twenty years, and even fifty. One recorded sample held out for ninety. Overhead in such cases runs high.

Then there is t he matter of the vineyards or quintas. All port grapes are grown along the upper reaches of the Douro River (Alto Douro), the most unmanageable fifty-mile stretch of land in all Portugal.

The region is beautiful to look at. The valley rises abruptly from the narrow band of water. The vines march across the hillsides in neat, bastioned rows. But the terrain is steep and rocky. The soil is flaky and lacks many essential chemical properties. Water springs are at a premium and seldom suffice even for domestic needs. In any case, the combination of slope and soil creates such good drainage that moisture never stays around long enough to do the vines much good. To create room for the vines, the hillsides must be terraced at great expense. Almost all the work is done by human labor because the region is too rugged for any kind of farm machinery, even a plow.

Roads are few and far between, and at vintage time the harvested grapes are carried up or down the slopes on the backs of local Portuguese. Finally, to the sound of music, with trousers hitched above their knees, young Portuguese tread the grapes in stone tanks (lagares). The theory is that only human feet will extract the full color and richness from the grapes.

The climate of the Alto Douro does its best to hinder all these activities, with fog, frost, tropical heat, and a minimum rainfall which arrives at the wrong time of year in the form of boisterous spring thunderstorms.

For a spectator, the storms are wondrous to behold. The wind, compressed into the narrow Douro Valley, soon reaches sufficient velocity to mow down any young vine. It is followed by torrential rain which undoes all the careful and expensive terracing by undermining the supporting walls. If the rains last long enough — and they usually do — the whole terrace gives up and plunges down the hillside, taking the vine roots with it. The final indignity is an accurate and devastating bombardment of oversize hailstones.

To put it mildly, the yield per vine in the Alto Douro region is not high. This, however, is all right with the traders, who agree that the smaller the yield, the better the quality of wine. This theory is so well held that the traders resist any temptation to increase their crop by irrigation for fear of reducing quality. The problem of the rich, alluvial bottomlands, where the yield is a gallon of juice per vine as against the norm of one gallon per eight vines, is neatly taken care of. By law, these bonanzas arc excluded from the delimited, port-producing area.

And so a rule of thumb emerges: The best vineyards grow on the steepest slopes, cost the most to construct, and yield the least wine. Or as the Instituto do Vinho puts it: “ Port is a wine which cannot be sold cheaply.”

Transportation is yet another adversity. Port is generally not handled in the quintas, but removed a few months after the vintage to the entrepot at Vila Nova da Gaia. The journey is only about fifty miles, but it is a tough one. The main highway, until recently, was the Douro River, a narrow, treacherous stream, navigable most efficiently by a special boat called the barco rabelo.

This vessel is flat-bottomed to lessen the danger of capsizing in the river’s innumerable rapids, and sports a turned-up nose, ungainly sails, and a rudder in ihe form of a long wooden sweep which facilitates rapid and radical changes in direction. Its limitations virtually dictate the cycle of viticulture. In February, when the river is swollen by winter rains, ihe rabelo ferries its heavy cargo downstream. It returns at the end of summer. By then, the prevailing winds have switched direction and blow upstream, enabling the rabelo to crunch home over the summer shallows without too much damage. Rabelos are still in use today, but alternative transportation is now provided by a dinky railroad which chuffs its way along the convoluted course of the river.

Once safely at the entrepot, the wine is delivered to a lodge. A typical lodge is an informal and redolent collection of buildings which meander along the river front. The grounds are clipped and planted like a garden. Vines wander up and across buildings, making bridges of shade. In the warehouses, huge wooden vats squat on an earth floor in a cathedral-1ike milieu of serenity and gloom. Besmocked blenders, tending to their lodge work, busy themselves with test tubes, compare colors, taste samples, and spit with Yankee aim and accuracy into huge, flared spittoons set at waist height.

The object at this stage in the Porto Game is to prepare a “mark” or kind of wine for the benefit of the consumer. And here the game becomes difficult and devious again.

Left to its brandy-fortified self, a good quality single port (one not blended with any other year) starts off life a deep red color. As it ages in wood, it gradually loses color and becomes ruby and finally tawny. The color now will be dark amber, and the wine will have reached the peak development of its full-bodied, velvety taste and bouquet. A lesser quality wine will begin with a lighter i-olor and arrive at the tawny stage with greater speed and fewer virtues of taste and aroma.

So far so good. But the traditional port is a blended wine for reasons of economy and speed. Here the blender or taster steps in. By adding single wines to each other in various combinations, he cancels out defects, enhances qualities, and produces his standard marks of blended wines. These marks go on indefinitely from year to year. Each one conforms to a set style, but varies tremendously in age, quality, and price.

In making up his marks, the blender aims at four main styles of port: Tawny, Ruby, Full, and White.

Tawny is amber-colored, and generally a blended wine. A single wine will, however, become tawny with great age. Many young tawnv wines in the lower price range are blends of red and white port.

Ruby is hallway in color between a tawny and a full port. Usually a blended wine, it can be a single wine which has lost color with age.

Full is a deep red young wine, two to live years old. Usually a blended wine, it can also be a single wine.

White is made from white grapes, and is lighter in body and has a less pronounced aroma than red port. It has some characteristics of sherry (also a fortified wine), and gains rather than loses color with age — the opposite of red port.

The monarch of all the styles, Vintage Port, is governed by a completely different set of rules. The result of an exceptionally good year, it is not blended with the wines of any other year, but stands on its own considerable merits. Bottled at two years, it. is aged in bottle instead of wood. As a result, it matures slowly, reaching its peak in twenty to fifty years, and retains more color and body than blended ports, as well as acquiring a finer bouquet. Like other ports aged in bottle, it gradually forms a crust — hence Crusted Ports. These wines, of course, should be decanted carefully, and never drunk when “boltlesick” — that is, when in the process of throwing a crust.

Now primarily a dessert wine which climaxes a line meal, port was originally designed to be drunk at any time of the day. The French still revere it as an apéritif before meals. White port is not accorded the same respect as its red brother, and may be tampored with. Many of the Porto Players mix it with ice and soda water as a summer drink. Otherwise any porl worthy of the name demands the trinity of wine appreciation: sight, scent, and palate.