One of the world’s foremost experts on wines from Portugal, Roy Hersh is the founder of For The Love Of Port , a subscription based online publication that focuses on the beautiful wines of Portugal. I’ve followed Roy for many years as I, too, am enchanted by the wines of this incredible country. Roy not only reviews and writes about Portuguese wines but he leads tours of the regions of Portugal, including trips to Douro and even Madeira. Roy talks about his absolute top wines from this amazing country and I think you will very much enjoy learning more about his story. Here is my exclusive interview with Roy Hersh, founder and executive editor of For The Love Of Port
WWB: How did you first become enchanted by the wines of Portugal?
RH: At 16 years of age, I was hired to work after school and on Saturdays as a stock boy in a very busy wine shop in Douglaston, NY and I continued to work there through the end of High School. One Saturday night after the store closed and I was cleaning up, the general manager asked if I would like to try a glass of wine. As a 17 year old, of course I said, yes, even though the drinking age was 18 back then. We went up to the office and he poured me a couple of ounces from what was an under $2 bottle. It was a very popular seller in the shop and I wanted to understand what all the fuss was about. It was a bottle of Casal Garcia (Aveleda) which is a Vinho Verde from the Minho district. This was the first sips of wine I ever took and with a fizziness that was almost like a soda but no sweetness. The fact that he poured a Portuguese wine for me may seem like quite a coincidence. But, I think not.
Almost a decade later, after attending culinary school in upstate NY and obtaining another degree in hotel and restaurant management, I wound up getting a job at one of NYC’s top restaurants back in the day, The Water Club. The Somm, Sam Correnti had recently installed one of America’s earliest Cruvinet systems, in 1983. He had a couple of cases of 1963 Sandeman Vintage Port and decided to offer them by the glass at $15 per. Each time he opened a bottle, he would call me into the bar area and show me how to decant through cheesecloth, secured inside a funnel. The first couple of times, I was amazed at how much sediment came out of those bottles and into the cheesecloth. Then he would rinse out the bottle to remove more of the sediment in the bottom of the bottle. He would then ratchet the cheesecloth from a few inches above my head, into my mouth. From the first sip I was hooked. I’ll never forget the experience of tasting my first Vintage Port and also remember when Sam trusted me to decant one of those twenty year old bottles of Sandeman. I thought this was super cool, never having any clue, Port would become a significant focus in my life.
WWB: How did you decide to launch your website For The Love Of Port?
RH: My passion for Port continued from that very first sip. In college and university I took wine classes and soon thereafter, a Sommelier Course in DC. I enjoyed learning about wines from around the world, but there was something unique about Port that captivated my attention. It took 11 years from that first experience to save up enough money to FINALLY visit Portugal. In the meantime, I had purchased more than 60 books on Port, many from the early 1900’s and rabidly read every page of all of them. I was a walking encyclopedia about Port wine: the Quintas and vineyards of the Douro, the history, and had the ability to discuss every major declared vintage back to 1820. Port had even superseded my number one hobby, which had always been skiing.
By April 1994, I was offered yet another promotion while working for Marriott Corporation. It would be triple the work and a lot of territory to cover, for a raise that was disillusioning, at best. I realized turning this down would end my future with the company. My only alternative was to say no to the offer and receive a lucrative severance package. Sad to think of leaving the company I had always wanted to work for, until retirement. I consulted with my brother and remember his advice, “Bro are you crazy? Take the money and run. Now is your chance!” ‘Run, where to Mitch? The job market here in Virginia is not like up in New York.’ He chuckled and told me, “All the way to Portugal, it’s where you’ve always wanted to go!” And little did my younger brother know, I likely never would have done that if he had not made the recommendation. And so, he literally changed the course of my life. Several weeks later, in May 1994, I headed to Europe for the first time and brought my girlfriend along, to share the experience in Portugal, as she also loved Port. I wrote to Michael Broadbent’s son Bartholomew, who ran an import company for the Symington family, out of an office in SF, CA. Although we had never met, he helped me arrange some incredible visits, both in Porto and Gaia as well as up in the Douro. We were absolutely spoiled and over lunch at the legendary Factory House (in Porto) I sat next to James Symington on one side and two of his cousins, Michael and Peter on the other side. To me, this was better than being with royalty. The other 18 gentlemen at the table were the last generations’ Masters of the Port Universe, famous winemakers and managing directors of all the major British Port firms. I scared James Symington that day. He turned to me during lunch and asked if I really knew as much about Port, as he had been told by Broadbent. He was stunned when I told him that I could recite the names, birth and dates of death for all of his grandparents. He said nothing, and I will never forget the puzzled, almost worried look on his face when I blurted out those details. He sat there very quietly and probably thought I was some kind of stalker, or worse, but back then I took my Port history a little bit too seriously and used to have a great memory for details. I likely could’ve done the same for the majority of people at the table.
We spent three weeks in Portugal and loved it. Lisbon – Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia and then up to the Douro Valley. 1994 turned out to be a pretty great vintage and made our vacation even more memorable. Upon return, I began writing lots of articles on Port for two wine related websites, one of which still exists today. In the spring of 2003, I was contacted by the Confraria do Vinho do Porto, to let me know I would be inducted into their brotherhood in June, based on my writings. This was the game changer. I brought my wife, and infant daughter to Portugal, (Taylor was born the prior fall) and my mother as well, to take care of the baby while my wife videotaped the ceremony. There were only two American inductees back then. Once back in the states, I quit my day job and began writing a newsletter, For The Love Of Port in February 2004, to honor the oath that I took during the ceremony. A year later, the website of the same name began and as importantly, our Portuguese wine tour business was launched. In 2016, I was inducted into Madeira’s Confraria too and the FTLOP website was the first-ever non-human entity to become a member of the Confraria do Vinho do Porto. In 2017, I wound up being promoted to the highest achievable level within the brotherhood of Port wine, outside of the Port trade. It was a very humbling 18 months, being the first person in the world to be inducted into both the Port and Madeira Confrarias, beyond the Portuguese wine industry.
WWB:You are known as one of the world’s experts in Port wines, launching For The Love Of Port in 2004 and traveling extensively there over the past few decades. How have you seen Porto and the Portuguese wine industry evolve since you first visited Portugal in 1994?
RH: Advances in viticulture come immediately to mind. I am a purist with Douro, so what I am about to say may sound hypocritical to those that know me. While I love the tradition of the old-vine field blend vineyards that often contain over 30 different varieties, I do understand how block planting has made harvesting easier and more focused. That being said, give me old-vine field blends and I’ll take my chances any day, especially for Ports. Robotics started to show up in the late 1990’s in the Douro and have been used not only to either punch down, or even take the place of human foot treading in lagares, but also in the vineyards. The newest technology that was introduced recently is vineyard data gathering robots, introduced by the Symington Family Estates in mid-2017. These expensive new toys may gain traction as their price comes down in the future, but their scope of capabilities is impressive in measuring water levels in the vines, canopy temperatures, and even the levels of phenolic ripeness to assist in picking decisions, and so much more.
Some of the other advances are found in the wineries and techniques used. Examples are: the higher quality of the fortifying spirit used in creating Ports, (Madeira, Sherry and others) known as aguardente. This has made a vast difference in overall quality along with tannin management, which doesn’t get enough credit. Together they have enabled modern day Vintage Ports (generally speaking) to be consumed earlier, whereas in the past, it was almost unpleasant to drink the astringent tannic Vintage Ports during their youth. Nowadays, it is fun to taste the vibrant fruit of a young Vintage Port; while there is no sacrifice in most Vintage Port’s ability to age for several decades, or even a century or more with the very best examples.
Regulation changes have allowed for small and mid-sized single quinta Port producers to bottle and market their own wines from the Douro without having to transport the wines down the Douro River to Vila Nova de Gaia for aging, sales and marketing. The traditional way to do this was by barcos rabelos (boats), but that ended in the 1960’s when the Rio Douro was dammed and used for hydroelectric power, when electricity was finally brought to the region. In more recent times, even the biggest producers have begun saving time, space and from tying up capital, by maintaining Port warehouses in the Douro, as temperature controls have improved dramatically in all three sub-regions. Nonetheless, the biggest change in the past quarter century has to be the major qualitative improvements of Douro wines, plus Portuguese wines as a whole. In a region like Douro, where Port has always been King; DOC table wines prior to the early-1990’s were often rustic, lackluster and occasionally downright unpleasant, with few exceptions up until about 2000. That said, there were wines made by a couple of producers such as Quinta do Côtto in the 1980’s and Ferreirinha’s iconic red wine, Barca Velha, the first vintage of which was 1952. However, these were anomalies in the Douro. In my opinion, 2000 is really the beginning of modern winemaking techniques and improved quality within the Douro’s table wine scene.
There are other regions in Portugal, such as Colares, Bairrada and Dão which had some fairly renowned table wine production prior to the Douro region catching on. Yet Portugal’s wine regions began to see an influx of professional winemakers from other countries in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. A few top notch oenology/viticulture schools sprung up in the Algarve, Lisbon and especially UTAD, (University of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro) which really helped expand the knowledge of students and their grasp of new technologies; another reason why Portuguese wines improved rather dramatically.
Opportunities did not really exist for women in the workplace in Portuguese culture a quarter of a century ago, and many were homemakers. Some women did work jobs in restaurants or as bakers, teachers or nurses (similar to post WW2 America) and/or helped at vindima (harvest time) picking grapes. But for the most part, the wine industry was dominated by Portuguese men. In the Douro, the onset of the new millennium saw the attitudinal sclerosis change and women slowly began to enter the Port and DOC wine world, with degrees from the aforementioned schools. Within the past ten to fifteen years, the quantity of women working in all facets of Portugal’s wine business has grown quickly and exponentially; as has the improvement in wines nationwide. There are now several dozen women entrepreneurs throughout the country, whom have opened up their own wineries and either run the business or make their own wines, or both. This can be found in all wine regions of Portugal nowadays, in far greater percentages than in Washington State, Oregon or California!
WWB: What are some of the most memorable wines from Portugal, both Port and dry reds, that you’ve been able to sample over the years?
RH: Listing a handful of my all-time greatest Ports will be unfair to the many that I leave off the list. That being said, some standouts in no particular order are Vintage Ports – from 1812: Rabello Valente. 1815: Ferreira. 1851: Warre’s. 1896: Dow’s. 1900: Taylor’s. 1927: Niepoort, Taylor’s and Fonseca. From 1931: Tuke Holdsworth, Quinta do Noval and Noval Nacional. 1935: Sandeman and Taylor’s. 1945: Croft, Graham’s, Fonseca, Niepoort, Dow’s and Taylor’s. 1948: Fonseca, Graham’s and Taylor. 1963: Noval Nacional, Sandeman, Fonseca, Graham’s and Taylor’s. I can keep listing oldies but let me consider some of the most promising young Vintage Ports too. 1994: Quinta do Vesuvio, Quinta do Noval Nacional, and Taylor’s. 2000: Niepoort, Fonseca, Gould Campbell and Taylor’s. 2003: Quinta do Portal, Fonseca and Graham’s. 2007: Dow’s, Sandeman, Niepoort, Quinta do Vale Meão and Rocha. 2011: Alves de Sousa, Fonseca, Dow’s, Graham’s, Niepoort, Noval, Taylor’s and their Vargellas Vinha Velha. This doesn’t take into account the many wood-aged Tawnies, Colheita and White Ports, but that can be included in another entire article.
A few stand out White table wines deserve inclusion: 1991 Luis Pato Branco Reserve, 2014 Cartuxa’s Pera Manca Branco Reserva, 2011 Soalheiro Vinho Verde, 2005 Niepoort Redoma Branco Reserva, 2007 Quinta do Crasto Branco and 2010 Niepoort’s Coche are all standouts.
For red table wines, ouch, this can be an article unto itself: 1966, 1978, 1985 and 1990 Caves S. Joao Tinto Reserva. Mouchão Tinto 1985, 1992, 1995 and 2003. Quinta Vale Meao: 2004 and 2011. Quinta do Crasto: 2001 Touriga Nacional, 2004 Vinha da Ponte, 2005 Vinha Maria Teresa and everything they made in 2011. Niepoort: 1990 and 2004 Robustus; 2002 Charme, 2004 Redoma and 2011 Batuta. Quinta de la Rosa: 2004 and 2005 Tinto Reserve. Ferreirinha’s: Barca Velha 1966, 1991, 2004 and 2008. Quinta Vale d. Maria 2004 and 2009 Tinto and 2012 Vinha da Francisa and 2012 Vinha do Rio. Quinta do Mourão: Rio Bom 2003, 2004, 2005. Quinta do Vallado: 2004, 2007 and 2011 Tinto Reserva and 2007 Touriga Nacional. 2011 Quinta da Pellada Carousel, Wine & Soul Pintas: 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2011 and SO MANY MORE!!!
WWB: When you are not writing about Portuguese wines, what are some of your favorite wines from the Pacific Northwest?
RH: Unlike Portuguese wine, which clearly presents issues in selecting favorites, I am free to do so with Washington wines. I must admit that my recent experience with WA wines is a bit more limited, due to my lack of travel to the other side of the state these days. As Director of Purchasing for Cucina! Cucina! back in the day, (the job that brought me to live here 22 years ago) I also was responsible for wine list creation in the five states where we had a presence. I was in CA, OR and WA wine regions several times a year and visited a bunch of Italian wine regions too.
Now back to my favorite WA wine producers: I don’t get to drink many OR wines anymore, so my Top 12 list only includes three from the Willamette Valley and this list is in no particular order: Hamacher Wines (vineyards in a variety of AVA’s), L’Ecole No. 41, Delille Cellars, Betz Winery, Domaine Drouhin, Long Shadows, Cadence Winery, Beaux Freres, Harbinger Winery, Dunham Cellars, Novelty Hill Winery and Chateau Ste. Michelle (got married there). There’s only one PNW producer that I purchase year in and year out and still occasionally visit. It is Cadence Cellars. Ben Smith’s wines stand out from the crowd and really have appealed to me since I first tried the 1999 Klipsun. My fave from that vineyard was 2004, but if I had to choose my favorite vineyard site that Ben sources fruit from, it would be the more tannic, long lasting wines from Taptiel. Ben and his wife Gaye are two of the nicest people I’ve met in my wine travels, but it is Ben’s pure expression of grape and terroir driven wines that has captivated my nose and palate over the past nearly two decades.