Usually as kids when we went on holiday back to Portugal my dad would order a sparkling Portuguese white as an aperitif before dinner. But once, visiting a friend’s restaurant in the Algarve, they didn’t have any chilled so they suggested a drink with some ice while we were waiting for the espumante to chill down.
It was 7pm and 40 degrees so we were all thirsty and hot. The drink that our friend recommended arrived and I dived in. ‘God that’s good,’ I said. ‘What is it? ‘It’s a white port – Nicolau Antonio de Almeida,’ he said. I was 15 and I was hooked.
Back then, when I was starting to learn about wine, books and magazines were all Bordeaux or Burgundy and I remember thinking that my new friend white port seemed to be something of an outcast – rather unloved and unappreciated.
Sadly, it still is today. Porto branco makes up less than 10% of total port production and there are only around 30 brands to look out for.
The beauty of being a somm is that you have the power – the same as any great chef – to put a huge amount of joy into your customers’ lives by what experience you give them, and white port can bring something seriously different.
The amazing thing about white port is that it has a great breadth of styles to choose from, from very dry with single figure residual sugar to lagrima which can have around 50g of RS. This means that it can genuinely be used for the entire meal.
The drier styles pair really well with charcuterie, salads, shellfish and hard cheeses. Sweeter and older versions can match with duck with blackberry and red wine sauce, goat curry, rack of lamb, spicy chicken, octopus and then foie gras. Dessert wise, you’re looking at creme caramel, chocolate and blueberry trifle, chocolate and orange cheesecake and sachertorte.
Interestingly, there is no critical point of temperature when serving. You can serve it anywhere from 6-14 degrees Celsius depending on the environment and food choice. So try experimenting with it at different temperatures and see what you like.
White Port is a great bottle to have in the bar, too. Personally I still have a dry white with a few cubes of ice pre dinner but I like to offer customers white port and Mediterranean tonic with a sprig of mint leaf.
For aperitif purposes, I tend to use Churchills dry white 10 year old, Dows dry white which I serve with ice or, for tonic, Grahams blend no 5, which was specially created for that purpose.
Dalva golden white, Andresen Porto Branco and Kopke are all worth a look too. You have a gamut of styles from very dry and 10, 20, 30 or 40-year-old versions to colheita which comes from a single vintage. The oldest I have tried was 1895 and if your list can take something special I’d suggest looking out for 1935, 1952, 1963, 1971 and 1989.
Kopke are masters of aged white port. I’ve tried their Very Old Dry White which was a blend of rare wines from the last century, cask aged for at least 50 years in 300-litre casks. It was, quite simply, mindblowing. They still have some small batches of white port going back over 380 years.
White port is a wonderful, flexible and fascinating wine style that totally deserves to be more widely appreciated, listed and used. It might not be the next big thing, but maybe you could make it your next new thing. Saude!
SEVEN FACTS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT WHITE PORT
1 Grape varieties – there are 46 (!) approved varieties for white port, but the most common are Malvasia, Rabigato, Codega, Viosinho, Arinto, and Folgosao (Terrantez in Madeira). Esgana Cao (aka Sercial in Madeira) isn’t used much, but since its name means “dog strangler” we thought you’d want to know about it.
2 Ageing – all white port is aged for a minimum of three years; colheita for at least seven years – though many houses age for a lot longer than this.
3 Barrels – are crucial to white port, since these are barrel-aged, not bottle-aged wines. Containers vary from 225-litre casks to 7,500-litre vats.House style, on all ageing matters, is crucial.
4 Age statements are 10, 20, 30 and 40-year-old, plus Very Old White Port. The age statement is an AVERAGE age of the wines in the bottle. Colheita wines are barrel aged from a single vintage.
5 Preservation – because these are an oxidised style they don’t depreciate once opened. Young white ports can last for a couple of weeks; colheitas (under 15 years) for a couple of months. Older colheitas and aged whites can last 2-4 months. Obviously, this is great news for restaurants.
6 Sugar levels – Extra dry – 17,5 to 40 gr/l; Dry – 40 to 65 gr/l; Semi-dry – 65 to 90 gr/l; Sweet – 90 to 130 gr/l; Very Sweet or Lágrima – >130 gr/l
7 Flavours – younger ports are quite forward, with flavours of citrus, tea, white flowers, honey and preserved fruit. Older ones move into dried fruits, figs, walnuts, almonds, orange peel and spice.