The Joy of Port
Port is a marvellously versatile but often under-rated wine. Churchills Port and Bar Douro are looking to gain port a fresh new audience
Article by Rupert Watkins
One of the most criminally under rated fine wines, port has suffered from certain connotations over the years and has yet to perhaps grab the full attention of a new generation in the way spirits and wine have. Churchill’s Port, under the eyes of John Graham and his son Max, is looking to change that. “Vintage port is certainly at the top of the tree but there are many other ports – tawny and white ports especially – that are approachable and have a lightness in colour and style that can attract fresh fans,” enthuses Max when I meet him at the elegant Bar Douro that he manages and where Churchill’s is pushing the joy of port to a new generation.
As Max remarks, younger wine drinkers have in recent years moved to lighter styles of red both to drink alone and paired with food. He sees Churchill’s tawny port – a barrel aged and blended variety of the fortified wine – gaining more exposure as it is slightly softer without the inky intensity of full vintage port. At Bar Douro, the port house is pushing its own white port. Rarely seen in this country, Max believes when served chilled on its own or with tonic it has a freshness that sits well with younger, curious palettes, “there are no connotations with white port as well with it being so unusual; it has the potential for a new generation to take ownership and be inventive with it.” He is encouraged to see it being used by an ever-increasing number of cocktail bars, for example the American Bar at The Savoy.
This work to increase port’s adaptability does not come at the expense of producing some sublime vintages. “Vintage port can’t be locked away,” Max points out, “we have a range of house and other shipper’s ports behind the bar going back to 1955 and a number are available by the glass.” Certainly, tasting a range of Churchill’s vintages allows the drinker to see the wide range of tasting profiles. In John’s words, “Churchill’s ports are more on the dry side as they are made with longer fermentation and as little brandy as possible and this longer fermentation gives a good structure.”
In the younger vintages, this lower amount of brandy gives a freshness and vibrancy on the nose and palette that is closer to a full-bodied red. Their youngest vintage for example, the 2016 has strong hint of berries and chocolate. Though dedicated port enthusiasts might wish to put it away for a decade or three, its comparative lightness is hugely appealing and it’s clear this would sit very nicely with rich game, beef or a hearty cassoulet style dish. Churchill’s other recent vintages, their 2014 and 2011, also offer a lighter touch on the palette; whilst I have always loved the sweet intensity of older vintages, having sampled Churchill’s back to a bottle of 1982, there is much to support the idea of pushing more youthful lighter vintages. Those seeking a fully rounded mature drinking vintage though should certainly consider Churchill’s 1985. A sublime balance of sweetness and structure, the port has wonderful overall depth and length with a lovely, highly developed but not overpowering sweetness on the palette.
Chatting with Max, he rightly identifies the increasing trend for people – not just millennials – to drink less but start to drink better. Whilst the current obsession with white spirits is only showing tentative signs of abating, he also identifies the fact port has a much lower ABV than spirits as a huge selling point for younger drinkers and one Churchill’s is seeing driving custom to them. Be it choosing a white port with tonic rather than gin or being more open minded to pairing port with food and enjoying one good bottle rather than two bottles of wine, port can benefit from consumer’s increasing interest in trying the unusual. Max also remarks that key for Churchill’s in exploiting this trend is working with chefs and sommeliers to both experiment in the kitchen and advocate the use of port alongside their cooking.
With this desire to try some paired food and port, I head to Flat Iron Square to the small but airy Bar Douro. With an open kitchen and colourful tiles by one of Lisbon’s last operating tile painters on the walls, it’s a relaxed yet refined place for what turns out to be some excellent Portuguese cooking. No formal tables, there are barstools around the curved and polished marble counters. Overwhelmed in this country by Spanish tapas establishments, Portuguese cuisine is rich in fresh seafood, strongly flavoured cheeses and fried pork and beef with influences from across the Mediterranean, North Africa and the country’s old colonial possessions.
Welcomed with a refreshing white port and tonic, Churchill’s and Bar Douro get a huge thumbs up for introducing me to this marvellous drink alone – even before food arrives. Salt cod fritters and Isle of White tomatoes in a white port vinaigrette start us off whilst we finish our aperitives. The fritters are lightly battered and the cod fresh – they are heavily salted but, in this instance, this doesn’t overwhelm the dish. The juicy tomatoes benefit from the sweetness the port gives the dish. As we use bread to soak up the last of the juices, we are bought char grilled sardines with peppers and fennel along with garlic prawns and Max brings out Churchill’s white port to accompany. The sardines are beautifully cooked with the fennel adding a nice side to what is a strongly flavoured fish whilst the prawns are sublime, tasty and fresh with just the right piquancy in the garlic. White port proves an excellent match for such dishes, the lightness sits well against the texture of the fish whilst its sweetness is a lovely counterpoint to the nuttiness of the sardine and the garlic on the prawns. I can see white port working very well with other strongly flavoured fish such as mackerel, herring, trout and maybe even smoked salmon.
Our main meat dish is Onglet steak with confit egg. With the yolk burst and mixed in with a succulent cut of meat that fell apart on being attached with a fork, this is comfort food; simple and well-executed. Alongside this, we are bought Churchill’s Ruby port. As Max re-iterates, the freshness of a younger port should sit nicely alongside red meat. The sweetness in port, I believe, works exceedingly well with the richness of the dish.
Portugal is home to a stunning range of cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s cheeses and our finishing platter has a selection of beautifully nutty and powerfully flavoured examples such as a mountain cheese, serra da estrela, a pungent cow’s milk são jorge; and a tiny barrel of semi liquid monte da vinha. Alongside this, we enjoy glasses of Churchill’s Late Bottled Vintage before finishing the evening on a high with a glass, on its own, of Churchill’s 1997 Vintage. A deep, inky red, this smells lively on the nose whilst on the palette has a lovely silky sweetness and good length. A memorable end to an exceedingly nice meal.
Port offers so much to the discerning drinker but in a crowded marketplace, Churchill’s port and Bar Douro are absolutely right to experiment and push the boundaries of how to serve what can still be seen as a traditional drink. “Freshness is key,” stresses Max and looking to use their tawny and single quinta younger vintages more akin to a punchy red is a good move. For a decadent evening try pairing some rich meat with a young LBV or vintage port – you may be pleasantly surprised.
Bar Douro, Arch 35b, Flat Iron Square, Union Street, London SE1 1TD / 0207 3780524 / www.bardouro.co.uk/