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Wines from the Douro

It does not matter how frequently you visit the harsh and exacting landscape of the Douro, nor what time of the year you are there: it is stark and haunting. Perhaps because you know something of what to expect you believe you will be inured to it. So when you come across a place where the brutal stone and bleak vegetation is softened by a gentleness of spirit which imbues the terrain and the structures perched precariously upon it, all world-weariness is washed away.
You see it and you are taken by it.
This was my experience of the Quinta do Bom Retiro, high on the slopes above the Douro River in north-eastern Portugal. It's not just the lagars, where the grapes are still foot-trodden by teams that work from eight in the morning until eleven at night, so that the best fruit is crushed so gently that none of the bitterness lurking in the pips ever contaminates the must; nor is it the ancient dry stone terraces clambering up the sheer sides of the mountain rising hundreds of metres above the river; it's not to be explained by the old homestead which has survived, largely unrenovated, since it was built by the Ramos Pinto family as a place of “good retreat,” nor by the wizened vines clinging onto the crumbling slopes through the “nine months of winter and the three months of hell” - which is how the locals describe the climate.
It is in the resilience of the human spirit, which carved this place of extraordinary beauty from the most unlikely of raw materials, and has continued to make wines of such timeless splendour that it comes as no surprise to find blends whose component parts span three centuries, assembled by winemakers whose great-grandparents worked in the same cellars, seeking the satisfaction, the joy and the redemption which lies in the pursuit of perfection.
There are really only two kinds of Port wine: those which are made for bottle ageing (and therefore require a deferral of gratification) and those which are released more or less ready to drink, the young rubies, the late-bottled vintages and the aged tawnies. The declared vintages as well as the single estate vintages go from cask to bottle by the second spring after the harvest. All the other wines mature in cask until they are representative of the style described on the label. Bridging the two distinct styles are the late-bottled single vintages, released after an extended period in cask and therefore ready to drink, but still with enough intensity in reserve to gain in mellowness from time in the bottle.
Ramos Pinto is quite unlike the ever-diminishing number of British-owned Port houses (all but three of which are now controlled by multinationals). It was founded in 1880 by Adriano Ramos Pinto who began the business as a negociant before acquiring his own estate. All of the wines are still finished, blended and matured in Vila Nova de Gaia, the town opposite Oporto where the north facing slopes have provided almost all of the shippers with the cool and humid cellars essential for the ageing of fine Ports. Although the business is still run and the wine is still made by the founders’ descendants, control of the company passed in 1990 to the Rouzaud family of Champagne Louis Roederer.
Ramos Pinto focuses much of its efforts on its aged tawnies and its offering of 10, 20 and 30-year old tawnies has come to be regarded as one of the treasures of the Port wine trade. All are ready to drink, with the Ten-Year-Old the most vibrant, the Twenty-Year-Old the most harmonious and the Thirty-Year-Old the most silken and lace-like. All share in common an endless longevity, even when open, for unlike the vintage-style Ports (which must be consumed within a day of opening) the Tawnies have reached a state of perfect stability in the cask.
For those who seek the richness and youthful intensity of a single vintage Port, the Late Bottled Vintage wines – available across a number of vintages – would be your best bet.
First published on 05/02/2018