Quinta essentials

Rummage at the back of your drinks cupboard and I am sure you will find an opened bottle of port. Left over from last Christmas, it is a reminder of the last dinner party when your guests needed to drive home and so they declined another glass of this rich-tasting fabulous wine.

There is also a wholly irrational fear that port causes hangovers and perhaps a kind of thrift which tells us that port will remain perfectly drinkable if you just push the cork back in the bottle. That’s why a lot of port ends up dusty, neglected and not quite tasting its best.

The first thing to do is to rescue that bottle and after tasting a small sip, to make sure it is still port-like and not vinegar, put it near the stove ready to be sloshed into stews and gravies to add body, depth and excellent flavours.

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And now you have the chance to buy another bottle of port, but instead of heading for the nearest LBV special bargain, why not plan a festive dinner and make a point of pouring port with one of the courses?

Port doesn’t have to be the afterthought on the drinks menu. Plan to pour it with a chocolate dessert, or cheese and don’t overload your guests with so much wine beforehand that they decline the port with one of the usual excuses.

One style of port which is really making an impression around dinner tables is single quinta port. Produced in years that are not generally “declared” as a vintage, the single quinta offers the chance to buy port with an identifiable provenance reflecting the source of the grapes.

And because these are not “declared” years, prices are much more affordable than vintage port and they mature more quickly, becoming drinkable in 10 years or so.

Quinta is the name for a farm in Portugal, and the wine for all ports comes from any number of farms along the Douro river, most of which are blended to create the “house” style.

But just like any wine region, the flavour of the grapes and the wine each farm makes will vary according to where the farm is located. As the now-dammed Douro River meanders gently westward from the Spanish border to the sea, the soils, temperature and altitude change, each factor having an effect on the grapes.

The inland areas are hotter, but they are also at a higher altitude and so ripening conditions vary. And rainfall is different too, with more westerly Quintas receiving double the rainfall compared with some inland properties.

Single Quinta ports provide the opportunity to tune into the location of the Quintas and the way the particular conditions on that farm affect the flavour of the wine. Compared with the “house style” of vintage and LBV ports they are distinctive and individual.

Travelling down the Douro, from east to west, here are some of the flavours you will find in single Quinta ports.

Quinta do Vesuvio

This is an historic estate in the starkly beautiful eastern part of the Upper Douro. The soil is hard and rocky and the climate is severe – baking hot in summer and cold in winter, and with only half the rainfall of more westerly estates. Yields are tiny and all the grapes are all crushed by foot in granite lagares, making deep dark, intense wines that take years to develop.

The 2006 is violet-scented with dark, concentrated black fruits, with a layer of minerality. The 1998 vintage is starting to come round, with a fabulous balance of dark plum fruit, cool minerality and terrific balance of tannin and acidity.

Find Quinta do Vesuvio at House of Townend (£48 for the 1996 vintage, 01482 63888) or Bon Coeur (£175 in bond for the 2007 vintage 01765 6888810).

Dow’s Senhora da Ribera

Across the river from Vesuvio, this estate shares the same hard rocky soil and difficult climate as Vesuvio but the low-yielding, old vines produce distinctive concentrated wines. Owned by the Symingtons who also own Vesuvio, the wines have fleshy dark fruit flavours laced with liquorice with fine, silky tannins. The 2006 vintage is perfectly balanced, still far too young but seductive. The 1998 is almost ready for the decanter, packed with lush, dark fruit, sprinkled with lavender and chocolate. One of my favourite ports of recent tastings.

Find wines from this Quinta at The Halifax Wine Co. (£55 for the 1998 vintage 01422 256333, www.halifaxwinecompany.com).

Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas

Just a few bends in the river downstream from Vesuvio, Quinta de Vargellas nestles into the hillside, surrounded by its vineyards. In a declared year these wines add to the Taylor’s blend, but on their own they are distinctive, velvety and plush. Start with Vargellas 2001 (Waitrose £28.99) for your first experience of these elegant wines then move up to Vargellas Vinha Velha made from the oldest vines on the estate (£169 for the 2000 vintage, Halifax Wine).

Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos

Heading west into the central part of the Douro region, Quinta dos Malvedos overlooks the river and its old terraced vineyards. With slightly more rainfall, and because of the south-facing vineyards, slightly higher temperatures, flavours are intense, with dark black and red berry fruit. The 2006 vintage is astonishingly good, with decades ahead of it; 1999 is ready now with layers of dark, plummy fruit, spiced gingerbread and chocolate.

Lewis and Cooper (01609 772880 and The Halifax Wine Co stock Quinta dos Malvedos 1998, at around £32.

Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha

Situated along a tributary of the Douro, the vineyards of Cavadinha stretch up the hillsides to 440 metres above sea-level. The result is fine, silky, well-balanced wines. The 2006 vintage shows terrific potential with succulent fruit against fine, expressive tannins. The 1996 is ready now with cherry pie and herbal notes and a sweet soft finish. Find 1996 Quinta da Cavadinha at The Halifax Wine Co, £28.95.