During our nine months of living in Porto, I’ve sipped more than my fair share of port wine. Yet I hadn’t managed to do one of the port-tasting tours offered by several of the port producers – something that many tourists accomplish in their first few days in the city. In addition to sampling different types of port, the tours provide an opportunity to learn something about how the different varieties are made. Having recently visited Churchill’s port cellars, I can heartily recommend it.
Churchill’s is the ‘new kid on the block’, having only formed in 1981 when it became the first new port house in 50 years. By comparison, the Graham’s family port business dates back to 1820. Whilst John Graham wanted to continue the family business, he also wanted to create his own individual style of port. To avoid any confusion with the Graham’s port business, he named his new venture Churchill’s, after his wife – Caroline Churchill.
In its relatively short history, Churchill’s has focussed on creating what John Graham calls Dry Port. His process allows the wine to ferment longer before adding the fortifying ‘brandy’ (actually a clear, odourless 77-proof alcohol). He also uses as little of the fortification as possible, creating a more natural wine with more structure.
Grapes for port wine are only grown in the Cima Corgo sub-region of the Douro Valley Region. The Cima Corgo surrounds the village of Pinhão on the Douro River. There, the micro-climate and the terroir (substrate/soil) are just right for producing the grapes for port. To the west, and ranging to the Atlantic Ocean, is the Baixo Corgo sub-region where fresh, new wines are produced. To the east, the Douro Superior sub-region produces sparkling wines – Portugal’s version of champagne.
In 1999, Churchill’s bought the 50-hectare Quinta da Gricha vineyard, located at the centre of the Cima Corgo sub-region. Located on the south bank of the Douro River, it has the preferred north-facing slopes and an excellent terroir. The vineyard is considered to be the backbone of the business, as it allows control of the entire wine-making process ‘from grape to bottle’. The vineyard has the highest level ranking (level A) provided by the Port and Douro Wines Institute (IVDP) and only grade-A grapes are used in the production of Churchill’s port. The fully-planted vineyard includes very old vines over 60 years old, as well as newer plantings, with diverse grape varieties.
Churchill’s are committed to making port and wine in the traditional manner, avoiding the use of machinery where possible. Whilst mechanical harvesting of grapes is possible, it can damage the leaves of the vines as well as the grapes themselves. So all of the grapes at Quintas da Gricha are picked by hand. Similarly, maceration of the grapes for port is achieved in the traditional manner – by foot-treading in large granite lagares that were built in 1852. The men who tread the grapes step in unison, back and forth in the lagares, non-stop for a period of two hours. This method is considered to be the best way to preserve the natural aromas and flavours of the grapes.
The tour of Churchill’s commenced with a slide presentation that provided information about Churchill’s history and operation. This took place inside a room that houses some of the large oak vats where the ruby ports are developed. Then we moved to a cool, dark room where the smaller (600 litre) oak casks are located. These smaller casks are used to develop the tawny ports. The next stop on the tour was the storage room for the vintage ports, which are laid down in their bottles. Whilst other ports can be poured directly from the bottle, vintage ports require decanting about three hours prior to drinking. This is because they mature inside the bottle, developing sediment along the way. Decanting separates the port from the sediment.
Tip: 2011 was an excellent vintage year for the Douro Valley – for all varieties of grapes. Therefore, any Douro Valley port or wine from 2011 will be a good choice.
The final stop on the tour was the tasting room, where we got to taste some of the lovely ports that Churchill’s create. The ports that visitors taste depends upon the level of tasting that they choose. There are three levels of tasting:
- The Classic Tasting includes Churchill’s Dry White Port, Churchill’s Reserve Port and Churchill’s 10 Year Old Tawny Port. The cost is €7.50 per person.
- The Ruby Ports World includes Churchill’s Reserve Port, Churchill’s Late Bottled Vintage Port and Churchill’s Vintage Port. The cost is €20.00 per person
- The Tawny Port World includes Churchill’s Dry White Port, Churchill’s 10 Year Old Tawny Port and Churchill’s 20 Year Old Tawny Port. The cost is €20 per person.
There are also various Personalised Tasting premium selection options where various ports can be sampled, ranging from €3.00 to €20.00 per glass.
Tip: You may be able to experience the Classic Tasting option for free, if your reservation is made by your hotel.
Bev and I particularly enjoy the taste of tawny ports, so we opted for the Tawny Port World tasting option. First up was the Dry White Port, which is one of Churchill’s emblematic port wines. Whilst other companies produce white port that is aged for 2-3 years, Churchill’s ages its white port for 10 years. Its golden colour is also unusual, so it is bottled in clear glass, to show off that colour. It is considered to be an aperitif port.
Our second tasting was the 10 year old tawny which is blended from Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) ports. It is partly aged in the large oak vats before being transferred to the smaller casks to complete its maturation. The process means less oxidation and less loss of colour and its flavour has a wood-aged characteristic.
The third tasting was the 20 year old tawny. This is a blended port that uses a combination of older and younger aged ports to achieve specific flavours, but the combined ages average to 20 years. This port had a lighter colour and a more wood-aged flavour when compared to the 10 year old.
We thought that our tasting experience was concluded but our host kindly served us with a fourth glass – a very nice, smooth 30 year old tawny. This was the nicest of the ports we tasted but, at €120 per bottle, we didn’t bring any home with us. But we did buy three bottles: a 20 year old tawny, a 10 year old tawny and a Crusted Port ruby.
It was a very pleasant way to spend 90-minutes. And there will be more pleasurable moments when we open our three bottles of port. I also suspect that we may re-visit Churchill’s when we have visiting guests.