My first encounter with port was tasting my mum’s port and lemonade at Christmas. I must have been about 13. Looking back it seems like an abomination. At the time I thought it was a great way to mask the alcohol that I’d disliked in other drinks I’d tasted. But as I was never a big fan of fizzy drinks either I left port alone until many years later when an older boyfriend introduced it to me again at the end of an indulgent meal with his parents, served in the cutest miniature glass. I’ve tried many since, and enjoyed all of them, but my knowledge has remained thin. Until last week when Churchill’s Port teamed up with Paul A Young Fine Chocolates for an educational session where I finally got a bit of padding to the history and difference between the various descriptors I’d seen on bottles.
The tasting was an introduction to a pairing that’s now available with a flight of ports at the Churchill pop up, the Port House, on Greek Street in Soho. They are split into the Classic flight and the Premium flight. Both with three ports each and three chocolates with each (chocolates are optional if you visit, but why would you say no?). We were fortunate to try not only the premium flight but to sample an extra special vintage range which will perhaps give you some ideas for what you might like to try at home.
Paul, Max & Johnny
So, firstly to enlighten the subject for those of you similarly hereto enjoying blindly. Apparently port began as a wine like any other, first exported from Portugal to England in the 1600s. Because it was made with grapes that grew on the hot, south-facing slopes in the Douro, the wine was sweeter and this caused it to start to ferment again in the bottle, making it unpalatable fairly quickly. To solve this problem they added brandy which killed the yeasts and made it remain stable – with the added feature of making it more alcoholic too. Unsurprisingly it became even more popular so they started adding this clear, flavourless brandy (actually aguardente – a neutral grape spirit) earlier, at the end of the original fermentation.
The Premium Flight
White ports seem to be turning up more often on menus. According to Churchill’s founder, Johnny Graham, they are the port-maker’s secret. They are made in the same way as ruby ports, just using only white grapes. They are best served chilled and are great before dinner, bringing port away from the relegation of after-dinner only. It’s typically served alongside salty roasted almonds. As the perfect start to our evening, we sampled this delicious, biscuity, honey wine with Paul’s Roasted Almond & Honey Caramel. A 66% Caribbean chocolate encasing a whole roasted almond surrounded by caramel made with a touch of Richmond honey, giving it a gentle green note.
Our next wine was a 2005 Late Bottled Vintage (LBV). Rich and blackcurranty with a hint of vanilla. LBV’s used to be made from the excess of a vintage year. These days they are a style to themselves, first matured in barrels for 18-24months and then transferred to bottles or tanks to mature for a minimum of four years before being sold. These wines are never filtered which means that they will go on becoming ever more delicious over time. It does mean that they should be decanted before drinking to allow the sediment to settle. The pairing of this wine with Paul’s Peanut Butter & Jelly Truffle was wonderful. The “Jelly” is a house-made raspberry conserve that complemented the blackcurrant notes in the port and the milk chocolate in the shell and ganache worked well with the vanilla element in the wine. Interestingly the two together took on a slightly liquorice edge. A definite case of the sum of the two being much more than the sum of its parts.
Apparently all ports should be served colder rather than warmer. Whilst white ports are best properly chilled, the cold end of room temperature is best for ruby ports, perhaps even chillier for tawny ports. A tawny port is so called because of the colour it gets from maturing in a barrel instead of a bottle or tank. The oxygen that reaches the wine through the wood causes it to lose some of its colour, and changes the flavour. They will often tend to be more viscous too, as it will evaporate slightly. It could be made with the same grapes as a vintage port.
The third wine in the classic flight was a 20 year old Tawny Port. Rich and almost woody, it tasted of a heavy caramel laced with vanilla and something almost smoky or saffron-esque. Thus making it an almost-obvious pairing to try with Paul’s unique cigar leaf caramel which has the same flavour notes – with the added effect of causing your mouth and throat to tingle. Really!
Special Bonus Vintage Flight
For this set of pairings there were two mini bars of chocolate and one truffle. Interestingly, what would be the traditional dessert wines, these ruby vintages, the chocolates they were paired with were all low on sugar and high on savoury.
Our first wine was Churchill’s 2011 Vintage, paired with a mini bar of Duffy’s Ecuadorian 83% chocolate. Almost too early to drink, according to Johnny and Max, the founder and son of the company. There are usually only two to three declared vintages a decade, unlike in wine where each year is referred to as a vintage. In port it is only a vintage if it’s good, and this is approved by outsiders are the port house (companies that make port) sends samples off for certification). 2011 is looking to become a vintage of which there only appear a few a century, the last of which was seen in 1994 but this is set to be even better. You could see they were almost reluctant to serve it, knowing that it will improve so much more as it remains in the bottle. It was exceptional.
The next wine was from a single vineyard called Quinta da Grincha that manages to declare a vintage every year. Clearly doing well. This was a 2005 Vintage and the pairing with Paul’s Marmite truffle was one of my favourites of the night. The rich savoury notes of the truffle provided an interesting contrast to stand up to the sweeter, plummy wine.
The final pairing was Churchill’s 1997 Vintage which was paired with a Madagascan 100%. This was a little too much for some people but surprised others with its lack of bitterness. For me this chocolate is higher on acidity than bitterness. It’s definitely an acquired taste but one I personally love for its intensity in pure cocoa flavours . This particular batch tasted a little earthier than most, but this and the acidity was fabulously tempered by the sweet wine.
I could go on about crusted ports and reserve ports but I strongly suggest you pop down yourself and speak to the super knowledgeable staff!
The Classic Flight (white port, reserve, 10yo tawny) is available to be enjoyed at The Port House for £10 (£16 with chocolates) and the Premium Flight (white port, LVB, 20yo tawny) is £15 (£21 with chocolates). The Port House is at 26 Greek Street. Fabulous Spanish tapas are also available to enjoy alongside. Typical of a Mediterranean tapas bar, it is quite cosy, so go early or late to enjoy!
Paul A Young Fine Chocolates are available in nearby Wardour Street or one of his three other locations in London. Paul recently received Gold again at the European Semi Finals on the International Chocolate Awards for his Sea Salted Caramel, Peanut Butter & Jelly and Passionfruit chocolates and Silver for his classic milk truffle.