Wednesday, March 26, 2008

And We Got No Principals.

When I read about something called the Port and Douro Wine Institute in Portugal, I imagined classrooms full of barrels and bottles and students sniffing glasses. Port School! Fortified Wine University. Imagine the shenanigans. Watch out for that hard-ass dean.

But there were no teachers when I got to the institute's Lisbon headquarters, only a grumpy waiter who spoke no English. I speak no Portuguese, so I attempted a Spanish that's been completely ruined by my French. Oh well. He might have been the world's foremost expert on vintage single-harvest, I'll never know. At least the thickish menu was partly in English. It told little stories about the different kinds of port. I won't pretend to school you myself; look it up.

I tried to leave the beer palate at home and discover this stuff with a fresh tongue. And I failed. Ports, I should have known, are challenging if you want to taste a few kinds and learn about them. Often the oldest, most esteemed (read: expensive) vintages seem to be the most cloyingly sweet. Immediately tasty, but then what? How anyone teases the complexity out of those is still beyond me. I'm sure stinky cheese helps, but that's smells like cheating. Someday I hope to sort it out.

Meanwhile, my favorite was pretty workaday. Cockburn's Extra Dry. White and cheap. Just to show how little I knew about port, I didn't realize it came in white. The waiter saw I was a neophyte and pointed to it. They give the dry stuff to the newbies and save the sweet ones for the experts? Bizarro World for a beer lover.

Anyway, I recommend a visit if you go to Lisbon -- especially if you already know something about port. Glasses start around 1.50 euro and go up from there. Nice plush chairs and a fireplace. Shame about the Michael Bolton on the stereo. Have a tasting with 10-, 30- and 40-year-old tawny from the same maker if you like.

Expect a good buzz, but not an education.

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