By Robert Stephen (CSW)
(GAIA, PORTUGAL) – I apologize if you have been reading my articles on the Douro Valley in Portugal and are left with the impression Douro wine is produced by happy well fed villagers squashing grapes in lagares with their feet. Quaint and country but perhaps with as much reality as Mom and Pop in a family farm in Harrow, Ontario, producing eggs, beef, and chicken and taking them to market on Saturdays.
This old reality is restricted to a small percentage of Port.
The truth is that Port is but a part of a multinational brand controlled by corporate interests far from Portugal. Well that’s the history of Port controlled by Brits and Scots. The French seem to have replaced the Brits these days with AXA Milléseme (a subsidiary of a French insurance company giant AXA) controlling Quinta do Noval, French Champagne House Roederer controlling Ramos Pinto and yet another French multinational La Martiniquaise owning Porto Cruz and C. Da Silva.
History repeats itself as the Portuguese have very little control over Port and Douro table wines although I kept hearing the French capitalist firms are “family run” somehow giving the Portuguese autonomy! Part of the myth I suppose!
Accordingly it is with a dose of reality that our last stop in the Port and Douro Valley 5 day blitz ends up in the far hills of Gaia at Gran Cruz Porto. We enter a factory and not a cute little Quinta in the countryside. This facility pumps out 120,000 bottles a day in a modern bottling plant with multi-production lines which include two other brands including C. Da Silva.
The stainless steel tanks holding pre blended wine are in the 35,000 litre size. There are 60 million litres of wine stored on the premises with 8 million litres in the barrel. There are tanks of monstrous proportions that are bigger than a three story house. There are 1 million bottles of 1989 Vintage Port in this warehouse. There are tanks, tubes, bottles and barrels in a dizzying array of gigantic rooms.
The Director General of Gran Cruz Porto, Jorge Dias, explains in frank and distinctly Portuguese terms, “Port is a complicated business.”
And Elsa Couto, Export Manager pipes in, “Port is a business of time.” At last a clear message of Port as a business all reinforced by the massive industrial facility. The impression received is that Port and Douro wine is struggling globally particularly in Quebec where there has been a rapid decrease in the Port trade.
Gran Cruz Porto may be less than bucolic but it can produce a decent if not good product. We are on to our third (and unplanned) tasting of our last day and are barely hanging on. In a last sadistic rush we are transported to Porto Cruz’s restaurant on the Gaia waterfront for a tasting that was supposedly not to occur due to the poor Canadian journalists having to be up the next day at 3:30 a.m. for their flight back home.
Putting on a brave face and quite frankly being aggrieved by having to go through another tasting my bad temper detects a bitter and brackish 1997 D’Alva Colheita Port which bad behaviour continues through a second bottle quickly whisked up from the restaurant above. The Port is a dud. The D’Alva White Port is a bit crude with unsophisticated alcohol on the palate with a rough burnt almond finish. I rate this rag muffin an 83.
Being a very cranky mood the 2011 D’Alva Vintage Port shows the stellar nature of the 2011 Vintage Ports. It is a black and dark red brimming with mint,lavender,blackberry, cassis and chocolate. I give it a 92.
The 1963 Golden White had an amber orange colour with delicious and complex aroma of orange, caramel, almonds and honey. Wonderful crème caramel on the palate with a long finish. I give the cute pixie an 89.
The last little gem is a D’Alva 20 Year white Port ,Polish amber in colour with tantalizing aromas of orange marmalade, apricot and butterscotch and on the palate a nice orange and butterscotch finish. This beauty deserves a 91.
I have warned our guide from the IVDP I am turning into a pumpkin at 9:00 p.m. It is perilously close to 9 when innovative Port cocktails arrive followed by smoked mackerel, cod cheeks, blood sausages and then a cod dish.
Its 9:30 and I politely say good-bye.
My last note in my book is “Lobby, Meet Driver”. I meet Antonio and he whisks me back to the hotel where I have a blazing hot shower and then pack up. Despite brushing my teeth I am up at 3:30 a.m. getting dressed and holy you know what I am spitting out red port into the sink. Who booked this killer flight?