Port is one of the most famous styles of wine in the world. Almost everyone you know has probably tasted it. However, it continues to struggle against a price spiral in the UK market and to find firm footing in its middle wines with a growing divide between the premium and the supermarket styles.
In her debut insight for Ben Franks Wine, our resident cheese and wine expert
Jess Summer – behind the popular Mouse & Grape – reflects on her recent visit to Porto and the Douro Valley. Read her thoughts about why White Port, and its signature Porto Tonico cocktail, might be worth paying more attention to.
To celebrate my friend’s 30th birthday, a few friends and I flew out to Porto for a weekend of wine tasting and sight-seeing. Porto is famous for its ornate, blue tiled churches, stunning views from the waterfront of the multi-coloured painted houses, the Dom Luís I Bridge, delicious seafood and pork dishes, and most importantly: the fortified sweet wine, Port.
Porto has a special place in my heart as it was the first city break I took with my boyfriend Charlie and also where I discovered White Port. White Port is made from a blend of regional Portuguese white grape varieties and pairs beautifully with cheese.
Its colour can range from white to amber and it can vary from dry to sweet. Drinking Porto Tonico (a white port and tonic cocktail) is popular in Portugal all year round, especially during the warm summer months. White Port is often served on the rocks, blended in a cocktail or on its own as an aperitif and I want to see more of it in the UK.
We should be shouting louder about Port’s variety
If I were to mention Port and cheese tasting to you I am sure, like most people, you would think of the classic ruby (red) Port with Stilton, often enjoyed at Christmas and in the colder months. Although this is an iconic pairing, there are lots of other port and cheese pairings you must try.
Port doesn’t get much enthusiasm in the UK; there are two ends of the market with not a lot of midrange options; some Ports, especially Vintage Port, can be expensive whereas the cheap Port readily available in supermarkets is seen as poor quality and tends to be popular with the older generation. We need to give the affordable yet superior quality Port a voice, show its versatility and grow a younger fanbase – Porto Tonico has the potential to be the next Aperol Spritz!
There are many different types of Port: Ruby Port, Late Bottled Vintage, Tawny Port, Rosé Port and White Port. I think the industry would benefit from shouting loudly about the variety that Port has to offer, especially White Port. After visiting Porto for the second time last month, it is clear to me that Port is a drink to be enjoyed all year round and I am excited to share my cheese and port warm-weather recommendations with you now.
Discovering Porto Tonico
Before I dive into sharing the details of most of my recent trip, including a day trip to the renowned Douro Valley, I must share the somewhat unusual circumstance in which I discovered Porto Tonico back in 2018.
Just three months into our new relationship, Charlie and I decided to escape to the sun and booked a last-minute trip to Porto. Both being massive foodies and wine lovers we researched the best bars, restaurants and port houses to visit. It was shaping up to be the perfect romantic getaway, the only thing we should have checked was the weather… The first night we put on our best outfits and headed down to the river. We found a traditional restaurant with outdoor seating, a lovely view and ordered some Vinho Tinto (red wine). Soon after we started eating it began to heavily rain, the waitress came over and told us, to our surprise, that we should go and take cover as a hurricane had been forecast!
There were no taxis available because of the storm and as it was our first night in Porto we weren’t familiar with our way home. It was raining so hard that we couldn’t take our phones out to look for directions. We walked up the cobbled streets, with water cascading down, back towards the Praça da Liberdade where we were staying. After many wrong turns and getting absolutely drenched (my leather heels were beginning to fall apart) we stumbled across a bar with a piano player and decided to go in, dry ourselves off, sus our route home and wait until the weather cleared.
We ordered their signature cocktail Porto Tonico – white port mixed with tonic water, fresh thyme and slices of grapefruit with ice presented in a Copa de Balon glass. This cocktail was beautifully refreshing, with a subtle sweetness from the white port with pleasant acidity and flavours of orange, lemon, apple and honey complimented by the grapefruit and thyme – sensational and the start of my White Port love affair!
Fast-forward a few years and I found myself enjoying Porto Tonico again on a boat tour of the Douro Valley! Though we were a little unlucky with the rainy weather (thankfully not a hurricane this time!) it was a wonderful experience and one I’d highly recommend.
Douro is one of the most spectacular wine-growing regions
The Douro Valley is famous for its wines and is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was awarded this recognition in 2001 because of the spectacular beauty of both the natural and built landscape and the industrial heritage associated with the Port producing industry. Jancis Robinson said ‘of all the places where people have planted vineyards, the Douro Valley is the most improbable’ yet it is ‘the world’s most spectacular wine-growing region’ .
It was fascinating hearing our tour guide describe the soil and its impact on the famous wines. The terrain was very rocky and mostly consists of schist (a very absorbent rock), some granite and nutrients. This kind of terroir forces the vines to struggle through the rock for their nutrients and results in remarkably intense and complex wines. I was also interested to hear about the potentially devastating effect of phylloxera on the vines and how almost all the vines we now see in the Douro Valley have grafted rootstocks as a result.
Whilst we listened to the talk and took in the beautiful scenery we enjoyed a glass of Porto Tonico with a slice of lemon on the boat and it was paired with a goat’s cheese and homemade pumpkin jam! I loved the white port and goat cheese pairing. The cheese was light, creamy and fudgy with a lemony flavour and slightly herbaceous character which brought out the citrus notes in the Port. Other white Port and cheese pairings that work beautifully are:
- A nutty Gruyere or Comté Reserva with salt crystals – the fruitiness of the cheese is emphasised by the high acidity in the Port
- A crumbly blue like Stilton or Gorgonzola Naturale
- A hard cheese like Pecorino, Manchego or if you can find it a Portuguese cheese called São Jorge
- I would recommend you enjoy Porto Tonico with creamy cheeses like Brie De Meaux, Tunworth or Camembert because the bubbles in the tonic cut through the mouth-coating texture, refreshing the palate for another bite!
For more information on cheese and wine pairing and for Jess’ latest insights, visit her website Mouse & Grape.