A Year in Port is a delightful primer. Like its predecessors, A Year in Burgundy and A Year in Champagne, it’s a glimpse of a prominent wine region, complete with all the best views and David Attenborough-esque narration. This third and final installment is a fitting capstone to a series that never pretended to concern itself with downplaying wine’s pretentiousness—something admirable, in a way, given today’s obsession with inclusivity.
The documentary opens, appropriately, with port’s connection to what some might consider the epicenter of pretentiousness. Britain.
British roots run deep in the Douro. The Symington family, who own several port houses in the region, is a prime example. Paul Symington looks and sounds like a Brit, but was born in Porto and grew up in the Douro. In fact, his family has been in the Douro for five generations. As Paul shares, his father had a great fear of dying in England, and asked to be returned to Portugal if that should happen.
Port is a “curiously British drink,” and according to Paul, you can be both British and Portuguese.
Elegant sequences and aerials are hallmarks of the A Year in series, and the Douro is a perfect subject. It’s a mountainous land, described as strange, tough, and remote. Electricity didn’t reach much of the region until the 1970s. But what most captivates me are its staircased, granite hillsides, which the film does a wonderful job of capturing. These steep hillsides, though beautiful, require continual re-fortification, an added cost for winemakers trying to make it in one of the most expensive wine regions in the world.
I was struck, at one point, by the odd juxtaposition between worker life and owner life in the film. In one scene, rows of stone-faced villagers stand stomping in place in giant, cement-walled pools of fermenting grape must—this after picking in the fields all day. In the next, port house owners are racing sailboats down a river and participating in opulent ceremonies. While I understand the necessity of the stomping process in port making, and don’t begrudge the owners their indulgences, nor overlook that they create jobs for the local economy—it just unsettles me, to see such contrast.
The Douro isn’t entirely polarized though. A younger set exists apart from the old money, making brilliant table wines. Port is simply too expensive to get into, so young winemakers instead choose to tap into the unfortified possibilities presented by the country’s over 400 native grape varieties.
Other highlights of the film include a look inside a cork factory, where quality assurance is religion—every cork is digitally analyzed and sniffed by an expert. There is also a demonstration of port’s version of sabrage, which involves a red-hot pair of fire tongs and a damp napkin. The port blending scenes are incredible to watch as well.
A Year in Port is a documentary perfect for PBS. It’s staid, but pretends to vivacity. Like if your grandmother said to you “let’s party”—it never quite gets properly kicking. Ultimately, however, it’s educational, well produced, and visually stunning.
While A Year in Champagne remains my favorite installment in the series, A Year in Port is time well spent. You’ll learn about an important region, where patience is paramount and family history runs deep. You can watch the trailer here. It debuts on iTunes September 6.