Where is the world’s oldest appellation? Hopefully the title of this feature provided a hint, but would you have guessed the Douro Valley and Porto?
In our third interview with Martine Saunier, she discusses filming A Year in Port, the last feature in her wine trilogy. (If you haven’t read our first two interviews with Martine, click here: A Year in Burgundy and A Year in Champagne.) The film provides a cinematic look at the spectacularly beautiful Douro Valley and a thorough review of the lengthy and labor-intensive process involved in Port production. Here too are a few of our favorite vintages to sip along the way:
One of the most unique presentations we’ve found! This extraordinary wine was part of three barrels dating back to the arrival of Andrew James Symington, the founder of Symington Family Estates, in Portugal in 1882. Now 135 years later, Paul Symington and his family have bottled one of the three original barrels. (See Paul Symington and the vast Symington estates in the film A Year in Port.)
The family named this treasured vintage “Ne Oublie” or “Do Not Forget.” Each bottle comes in an individually numbered, hand-made crystal decanter designed by Portugal’s leading glass manufacturer Atlantis. The decanter is presented in a bespoke presentation box handcrafted with the finest leathers by the quintessentially British brand, Smythson of Bond Street, one of the world’s oldest luxury leather goods companies. There is a leaflet included in the box with a detailed presentation of the wine signed by the family members.
A YEAR IN PORT – THE MOVIE
As was the case with the first two films, produced by Martine Saunier and David Kennard, A Year in Burgundy and A Year in Champagne, the critical reception for A Year in Port was enthusiastic:
Huffington Post – “Heart-possessing…for anyone who cares about the combination of mind, knowledge, art and basic “feel” that is required to formulate something of pristine quality, this film is not to be missed.” (Terence Clarke)
Wine Spectator – “This film will appeal to novice and serious wine drinkers alike. It will rekindle for some and ignite for others an interest in and love for one of the world’s great wines.”
Also impressive, the film was nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Documentary.
When Martine and the crew arrived in Portugal, she was again essential in helping to connect with winemakers in the region. Over 50% of Port production is controlled by two major corporations: Symington Family Estates and Taylor Fladgate. Both are owned by families of British ancestry with a long history in Portugal. The connection between England and Portugal is a significant theme in the film. The two countries have the oldest unbroken alliance in the world, with treaties dating back to 1373. Moreover, Britain has always heavily influenced Port production.
The Symington Family has been in the Douro since 1882 and owns over 2,500 acres of vines, with 27 individual estates. Paul Symington, Chairman and joint manager of the estate, is the spokesperson for his company.
Taylor Fladgate, the oldest of the Port producers, was founded in 1692. Adrian Bridge, CEO for Taylor’s, is the representative for that group in the film.
Two other major producers are featured in the film: Ramos Pinto, founded in 1880 by Portuguese winemaker Adriano Ramos Pinto and Niepoort, established by Franciscus Marius van der Niepoort. The Niepoort family is originally from Holland, but have been in Portugal since 1842.
Both João Nicolau de Almeida, the winemaker for Ramos Pinto, and Dirk Niepoort, manager for his family business, provide a radical contrast to their counterparts of British ancestry. Symington and Bridge are almost always in button down suits — unless they’re playing cricket. Conversely, De Almeida and Niepoort are never shown in a suit. They wander their vineyards, checking rows of plants, while the wind blows through their wild, unkempt hair. The disparate personalities make for an interesting sub-plot within the film.
Martine is especially close to Dirk Niepoort. “When I first met him to discuss distributing his wines, he took me down to his cellar and poured a glass of Port. ‘What do you think?’ he asked me. I tasted and told him. Then he poured another glass. I tasted and again told him what I thought. In the end, I sampled a dozen wines and I guess he was impressed with my comments because we signed an agreement. Best of all he gave me bottles of 1945 and 1925 Niepoort as gifts. So our relationship got off to a good start right away,” she chuckles and adds, “and that was 20 years ago.”
Jamie LeJeune, cinematographer for the project, again delivers remarkable footage. Scenes of Oporto townspeople celebrating the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist are a joy ride. The three-day dancing, feasting, parading and fireworks are captured as lively spectacle on film.
But the most singular cinematic moments are shots of the soaring, vertical mountains in the Douro Valley. LeJeune makes the most of the spectacular, panoramic views and breathtaking heights.
“Jamie took a lot of risks to get those shots,” Martine recalls. “Climbing the mountains with all his equipment was unbelievably difficult. Plus distances between the Douro Valley, corporate offices in Porto, and the wineries and the estates are quite vast. Filming required hours and hours of driving.”
Paleolithic stone engravings demonstrate that the Douro Valley has been inhabited for over 50,000 years. Romans planted the first vines. More than 2,000 years of winemaking have shaped the ancient hills. Clearly, the valley has earned its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
And yet, almost everything about cultivation in the Douro is and always has been challenging. The vineyards on perpendicular hills demand constant effort to maintain. Additionally, the terroir is unforgiving schist. Water management is problematic. The film portrays the intense manual labor required to care for these vineyards.
At harvest, grapes must be picked by hand. Machinery can’t be used on the narrow ancient terraces. From the fields, the grapes go into lagars — fermenting tanks made from stone, where laborers then crush the grapes by foot.
A particularly amusing scene in the film is Martine crushing grapes with Paul Symington! “I wasn’t too fond of that,” she admits candidly. “The grape juice stings your legs. It’s very uncomfortable. I stuck on a smile and danced around with Paul. But I was relieved when that bit was over.”[/fusion_builder_column]
Unlike table wine, Port doesn’t go through a complete fermentation. Once an ideal sugar level is reached, brandy is added to kill the yeast. With the addition of the brandy, the wine is ready to be aged.
Legally, all Port wine must be aged for a minimum of two years before being released. After aging, the Port is ready for blending. This is a complex process, designed to replicate the house style, much the way Champagne makers blend their cuvées. “Hundreds of wines can be utilized to create a blend,” Martine explains. “It can require days and days of tasting, studying, evaluating.”
After blending, a Ruby Port — the most common style — is generally aged an additional 2-3 years. Reserve Ports are a higher quality level and so are aged 3-4 years. Late Bottled Vintage Ports are aged 4-6 years. Finally, Tawny Ports can be aged for a longer period from 10-40 years.
In a class by themselves, are the Colheita Ports — a single vintage Tawny wine aged at least 7 years in barrels. The Instituto do Vinho do Porto regulates when a harvest can be deemed “vintage quality.” Additionally, winemakers must submit samples to the organization and hope the Instituto do Vinho will approve their brand.
All to say that making Port is a very, very expensive proposition. This explains why two large, established organizations control much of the production. Young winemakers, who can’t afford to make Port, are beginning to experiment with still wines — much less costly to produce — and because the Douro has an astonishing 400 different varietals to choose from, there are plenty of options. Will these youthful vintners change the course of Portuguese wine?
Another recurring theme within the film is the overarching issue of time. Enormous amounts of time are required to produce good Port and in a world increasingly impatient with waiting, is there a future for these wines?
Martine has no doubt, although she does lament the fact that “everything these days is ephemeral. We live in such a different world now. Imagine, 70 years ago people put aside vintage port for their children. Now no one even has cellars any more.”
“But in the end,” Martine concludes, “there will always be demand for Port. It’s such a unique wine. One of the best wines I ever had in my life was a 1957 Garrafeira. And at the end of a good meal, there’s absolutely nothing better than a Tawny with chocolate.”
We sincerely hope she’s right. And we’re also hoping for a another film…. maybe Bordeaux? Italy? Argentina… We’d follow Martine anywhere.
Copies of A Year in Burgundy, A Year in Champagne and A Year in Port are available on DVD, iTunes and all other leading platforms. DVD in French & Portuguese will be available through Amazon this fall.
Marla Norman, Co-Owner Michel Thibault Wines and Publisher of Travel Curious Often