A mention of port, one of the most famous fortified wines, brings to mind aromatic pleasure and silky nectar richness. Vintage port even more so — it is luxury incarnate.
Back forty, on the other hand, speaks of back-breaking labour and hardship. Back forty, for those unaware, is ‘back side of a farm’, 40 acres of land given to North American settlers at low or no cost to own and operate as their farms. But, the Back Forty from the title is not that back forty, at least not now.
This Back Forty is a farm situated about an hour west of Ottawa, producing highly regarded artisanal cheeses from raw sheep’s milk. Having discovered their cheeses a few years ago, I hunted them down in one of the Ottawa shops that carries them, each time I wanted my out-of-town visitors to experience the best that local food has to offer.
Recently, I was quite excited to realize that their new location in Lanark Highlands is just 20 minutes away from the cottage recently mentioned in this blog, and even more so, that they would have a grand opening on the Saturday of the Canada Day long weekend. As you can guess, I was there. It turned out to be a popular affair, with music, local beer by Stalwart Brewing, and local meats by Seed to Sausage.
You should have seen the lineup! The queue to the counter starring their four kinds of cheese and fresh ewe’s milk cheese curds stretched well out of the doors of the beautiful new creamery building.
As you waited, you could taste the cheeses, all named for local points of interest: Highland Blue for the Lanark Highlands themselves, Madawaska for the Madawaska River, Bonnechere for the Bonnechere Caves, and Flower Station for the near-by hamlet of the same name. You could tour the creamery, and more about that another time, because I better get to that vintage port! Before I do, just to mention that if you are close by, or want to make a well-worth-it trip there, Back Forty will be open 10-4 on Saturdays, July through September.
This is all well and good, you may say, but what does all that have to do with wine? Bear with me and we will get to that in a moment.
Shifting gears to port now. Port, or Porto as it is called in its native Portugal, has been produced since the 1600s in the city it had been named after. It is made from grapes coming from the Douro Region around the Douro River Valley in the north of the country.
It is a fortified wine, made by a process where a distilled grape spirit, like a brandy, (but colourless and odourless) is added to the fermenting grapes. This stops the fermentation process before all grape sugar is converted to alcohol, so that the final product is typically sweeter and higher in alcohol – a dessert wine. It is then aged in barrels, and after that in bottles. But, at the very beginning, it all starts with grapes.
We will not talk about all different grape varieties that can go into making port – there are more than 100 approved, with Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Cão being the most prominent. Nor will we talk about all the different styles of port, and there are a few, like tawny port, colheita, ruby port, late bottled vintage, and even white port. Today, we will focus on vintage port.
For any other wine, vintage is simply the year when the wine was made. Not so for port. Although port wine is made in every year, not all ports have a vintage. The port bears its vintage year for only the best years. It works something like this: after the wine is made and the aging process is under way, a port producer (a port house, or a ‘shipper’) may decide that it is of ‘vintage’ quality in the spring of the second year after the harvest. The Port and Douro Wines Institute (Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto, IVDP — an arm of the Portugal Ministry of Agriculture) receives a sample to approve of the decision, and if so, the vintage is declared.
In a good year, almost all houses would have declared a vintage, but in not a stellar year, some houses may and some may not. On average, about 3 years every decade are deemed worthy of the designation. Only about 2% of all port is declared vintage. Vintage port spends up to a maximum of 2 and a half years in wooden or stainless steel barrels, but it takes another 10 or in some cases 40 more years of bottle aging to have the wine ready to be released. It is not surprising how special a drink it is.
This bottle of Quinta de Ventozelo Vintage 2000 was released in 2010. When it became available in Canada, I purchased it as an extravagant treat. After aging it for another half of a decade, it finally came the time for its cork to come out. And for it to be decanted. Vintage port is bottled unfiltered. As a result of that and of a prolonged aging process, there is sediment that needs to be carefully removed. I did it simply by pouring the port through a strainer. Here is the sediment for you to see.
Enjoyment started with the rich dark ruby colour. It continued with powerful whiffs of raisons, figs, nuts, and spice enrobed in light oak. It culminated with luscious tastes of dried fruits and walnuts, with an addition of strawberry jam, chocolate, all the while caressing the mouth with silky tannins. The tastes lingered and lingered. Delicious! Amazing for something that started as a bunch of grapes 16 years ago.
And this is where vintage port and Back Forty ultimately connect. The reason I opened Quinta de Ventozelo 2000 was to match it with the Back Forty Highland Blue. A special treat to match a special treat. Port and blue cheese is one of the ‘classic’ food pairings. This combination was indeed heavenly, with the nuttiness and spiciness of cheese and port playing off of each other.