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|| News Item: Posted 2006-12-20

The Count: Discoveries of Port; Cigars that are Short
By Eric Risberg, Associated Press

Photo by Lizzy Risberg

Photo by Lizzy Risberg

Eric Risberg enjoying a short smoke and Cuba Libre outside a cafe in Lisbon.
The view from the balcony of Quinta dos Malvedos, the 116-year-old estate house of Graham's Port, presents one of the most sweeping vistas of any wine country I have visited. Terraced vineyards cascade several hundred feet down to the Douro River below, which winds its way through the valley to the Atlantic Ocean. The only sound is an occasional passing train rolling along the river to nearby Tua or returning to Oporto. On the surface, it seems that little has changed in this remote wine region over several decades.

During a recent visit in September, however, I found that beneath the stillness, a lot of changes have taken place. My best discoveries were these: vintage port can be appreciated much sooner now, and some single-quinta vintage ports present quite an incredible value.

What constitutes a vintage port, the flagship Portuguese wine that accounts for only about two percent of production and is the most renowned type? A vintage year for a producer's main blend is "declared" about three times every decade upon declaration by the individual port house. Vintage ports are aged in barrels about two years before bottling. The decision to declare is an important one where reputations are at stake. In non-vintage years, however, producers will study the wines made from a single quinta which provides the backbone of vintage port; those single-quinta ports can also be declared "vintage ports" on their own. Single-quinta vintage ports usually are not declared the same year a main blend is declared.

A few common beliefs about vintage port are that it needs to be held 10 to 30 years or more before being opened and that many of the grapes used to make the wine are stomped by foot (think "I Love Lucy"). While foot treading is still employed as a practice by port houses large and small, producers such as Symington Family Estates - makers of Graham's, Dow's, and Warre's - are relying more and more on robotic lagars (the tanks in which grapes are crushed) in place of human foot treading. For Graham's 2000 port, for example, 56 percent of it was made using the robotic lagars, and for 2003, the number rose to 78 percent. The very efficient mechanical treaders never need a bathroom or smoke break, nor do they have to stop to eat or sleep.

Photo by Eric Risberg

Photo by Eric Risberg

The Quinta dos Malvedos with the Douro River running below it.
Bottling times, too, have improved over the years. Rupert Symington, joint managing director of Symington Family Estates, explained during a recent visit that the robotic lagars have helped make their vintage wine better as a result of more controlled (and easily adjustable) treading areas, consistent pressure on the grapes and other factors. Many vintage ports, according to Symington, now can be enjoyed within mere months of their release instead of waiting years for the rough spots to be worked out in the bottle.

For those who pay close attention to terroir and are interested in single-vineyard wines, a number of the single-quinta vintage ports are worth looking for and are definitely a value.

Most of the single-quinta wines are released about eight to 10 years after the vintage. On average, they cost about one-half of what a regular vintage port does. For example, a 1998 Graham's Malvedos single-quinta vintage costs about $40, compared to the current 2003 Graham's vintage at about $85. What I like about the single-quinta vintage ports is that the flavors are more individual and pronounced. In addition to the Malvedos, others to look for are Dow's Quinta do Bomfim and Quinta da Senhora da Ribeiro, and Warre's Quinta da Cavadinha.

Another excellent discovery on this recent trip was white port served as an apertif. A hotel in Oporto greeted us at check-in with a chilled glass of dry white port, mixed with tonic and garnished with a lemon. This is a very refreshing drink on a warm day. While white port is very common in France, it can be hard to find in the U.S. One to look for is the Fonseca Sirocco; it pairs well with Marcona almonds.

Short smokes

It seems lately that being able to enjoy a good cigar hasn't been as easy as it used to be. One problem is trying to find a place to smoke; even in Europe, it's getting more difficult. The second issue is finding the time.

Photo by Eric Risberg

Photo by Eric Risberg

Bottles of Grahams' 1997 vintage port at the Graham's port lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia.
To combat this, I've found myself enjoying smaller cigars such as petit robustos, mini belicosos, and tres petit coronas. For a long time I shied away from them, thinking they burned too hot, but after trying a number of them, I have found out that it just isn't true. While I'll always enjoy a nice corona gorda or double corona, there are a number of times where I can't devote an hour or more to its full enjoyment. Many of these short smokes offer a lot of enjoyment in a third of the time. And the smaller size has allowed me to smoke them in some European cafes, where the sight of a regular sized cigar wasn't allowed - strange as that may seem in a haze of cigarette smoke.

One of my favorites to look for is the Dominican Fonseca Sun Grown # 4 Petit Belicoso. At a few dollars a stick, it's quite a bargain. Recently introduced is the Davidoff Millennium Short Robusto - more expensive, but a very smooth, rich smoke. Other selections to look for: the Ashton VSG Enchantment, one of the strongest and smoothest little torpedos around. A little bomb! A small torpedo that I really like is the spicy Cameroon-wrapped Ashton Heritage Belicoso #2. And one can never go wrong with an Arturo Fuente Hemingway Short Story.

Out of Cuba come a number of small smokes as well. Last year, the Hoyo de Monterrey Petit Robusto was introduced, and on its way soon is the new Montecristo Petit Edmundo. But two favorite tres petit coronas are the smooth San Cristobal de la Habana El Principe, and lively Le Hoyo du Depute.

Best wishes for the New Year!

The Count

(Eric Risberg. AKA The Count, is a staff photographer with the Associated Press based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a frequent contributor to the Sports Shooter Newsletter.)

Related Links:
Risberg's member page

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