Port v its Australian counterpart

Producers of champagne, port and sherry are extremely protective of these names, quite rightly in my view. However this does not stop winemakers far from Champagne, Oporto and Jerez, each of which place name has respectively inspired these heavily protected wine names, from trying to make wines in the image of the archetypes.

I was treated to a fascinating comparison recently of various styles of port with their Australian counterparts. Until the 1970s the Australian wine industry was largely dedicated to 'fortifieds' although nowadays, partly because of the difficulties of nomenclature, they are not widely exported. These particular bottles had been imported personally by David Thomas of The Cellar Door, an ambitious wine shop in the pretty Hampshire town of Overton.

After studying zoology at university he helped pick and process the exceptional 1994 vintage at Taylor's flagship wine farm Quinta de Vargellas in the baking heat of the Douro Valley upriver of Oporto. Here he met David Guimaraens, a contemporary who was being groomed to take over as head Winemaker at Taylor/Fonseca Guimaraens, now rebranded as The Fladgate Partnership.

Guimaraens had trained at Australia's most famous wine school Roseworthy and recommended the same course of technical rigour to David Thomas who ended up doing post-graduate work there before coming back to the British wine trade. Hence his collection of Australian fortified wines which must not be called port.

He had the idea of organising a blind tasting of pairs of similar styles of wine, one Australian and one Portuguese, and tried initially to entice a luminary from Oporto to the tasting. He failed – mainly because, like most of those close to one of Europe's archetypal wines, comparisons with parvenus are deemed both odious and potentially dangerous. Acknowledgment that anywhere else produces anything else remotely like port is one of the last taboos in Oporto.

In fact the Portuguese need not have worried. It was immediately obvious which wine was which in each of the pairs – although the older the wines, the less marked the difference. And it was usually, but not always, the case that the 'proper' port was the superior of the pair.

So perhaps it was just as well there was no port producer in attendance, just myself and Richard Mayson, celebrated specialist writer on the wines of Portugal (his The Wines & Vineyards of Portugal won the Andre Simon 2003 drinks book award last week), as well as a score of Cellar Door customers. We therefore had just the right number of tasters to share a single bottle of each wine and, for once, none was spoilt by cork or any other taint.

There are of course major differences between port and the wines made in its image down under. For a start, Australians tend to use mainly Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon with just a dusting of a grape they call Touriga without being 100 per cent sure whether it is the one known as Touriga Nacional or Touriga Franca in Portugal. (Mayson thinks Franca.) And the grapes tend to be picked riper than in Portugal.

Then there is the soil, or rather Australia's lack of the special rock-hard schist through which port vines have typically to burrow for metre after metre in search of water while, say, vines in the Barossa Valley tend to be grown in very much more fertile soils – even if in similar drought conditions.

The famous treading of the grapes as practised in Portugal, less and less using the human foot nowadays, is virtually unknown in Australia where colour is extracted from the grapes by pumping the must over the floating grape skins rather than stamping them down.

Then there is the spirit used to fortify the infant wine, stopping the fermentation process so that it keeps its grapey sweetness. The grape spirit used in Australia tends to be stronger than in Portugal, if not such good quality – and it is usually added later in Australia so that different fermentation characters are evident in the two sorts of wine.

I am not sure a strong smell of commercial rum essence is a fermentation character but that was what so obviously distinguished the Australian in the first pair of wines. Langmeil Barossa Vintage Fortified Shiraz 2000 tasted like baked syrup whereas the Niepoort Secundum 2000, that exceptional port house's 'other' vintage port from a very good year in the Douro, was my second favourite wine of the dozen we tried. What made the port so obvious was that it was so much drier, more appetising and fresher than the Australian.

The port was again very obvious, and distinctly preferable, in the second pair, both 1997s: Taylor 1997 and another Vintage Fortified Shiraz from Barossa, this time a 1997 from much- loved Rockford. The Australian, which I found finer than the Langmeil, even had a scent of eucalyptus – a bit of a giveaway.

Portugal triumphed yet again in the third pair, a wonderfully vigorous Fonseca 20 year old Tawny and a 1985 Shiraz Tawny, another Barossa wine from Langmeil which looked and smelt decades older than the port. It had the strong coconut smell associated with American oak – another giveaway.

It was Graham 1977 which was the most disappointing port, but then other bottles have disappointed on occasion too – a shame for such a combination of great shipper from the Symington group and renowned vintage. Our bottle simply tasted like sweet red wine rather than the hauntingly rich wine that vintage port should be. The Buller 1978 from Rutherglen served alongside it was much richer – so rich in fact it was thick, minty and not quite fresh enough.

And in the next pair I also preferred what was obviously an Australian wine, though admittedly only by a whisker this time. The Niepoort Colheita 1963 was heady, aromatic and elegant but there seemed to be a whiff of rather old wood about it. Hardys McLaren Vale Show Reserve Fortified Shiraz 1947 was equally obviously the product of very long ageing in wood (not the prolonged bottle age which distinguishes vintage port). While it had a certain syrup of figs quality about it, it was an attractive, powerful, rich wine that was a bit of a marvel for its age.

The Hardys fortified red was more successful in fact than the last Australian in the taste-off, Penfolds Godfather 1945. This famous wine is tasting rather strange now. Like virtually all the Australians there was more than a suggestion of cough syrup about it, but this one also had a strange whiff of old Riesling, almost lime cordial.

The best wine of the evening was Taylor 1948, a lovely vintage port at the peak of its undoubted powers. It smelt of macerated rose petals and, managing to be both bold and subtle, tasted like liquid flattery.

But then, perhaps feeling his formal comparative tasting had been a bit of a walkover, David Thomas brought out a Seppelts Para Liqueur 1939, a miracle of both richness, life and, obviously, persistence from South Australia.

I am lunching with a Symington of Oporto on Tuesday and, I must confess, rather dreading it.