The Unsung Heroes Of Port
Within the colourful and varied tales of Taylor’s is many an unsung hero. Just as the Port trade could never have developed without the barco rabelo, which carried the courageous sailors who risked their lives shipping Port from vineyard to coast, the same could be said of the coopers.
For centuries, generations of coopers have devoted their lives to the art of cooperage – handcrafting the thousands of wooden casks and vats used to transport and age Taylor’s Port.
Today, whilst these wooden casks and vats are no longer needed for transportation, they are still a prerequisite in the production of our highest quality, wood-aged Port, which means that the cooper’s craft is as essential as ever.
Indeed, it is thanks to these dedicated, passionate men that the same time-honoured skills and attention to detail go into crafting cooperage as into every other step of making Taylor’s Port.
Coopers often say, ‘As long as there is Port, there will always be coopers’, and how right they are.
A Tale Of Father And Son
Taylor’s tale of coopers is a tale of families, of ancestral skills and of secrets passed down from father to son.
Manuel Alves de Jesus, Head Cooper at Taylor’s lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia
At only 5 years of age, Manuel Alves de Jesus, now Head Cooper at Taylor’s lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia, began learning his skills from his father. By 12, he could master most of the basic techniques of cooperage. Adelino Silva, Head Cooper at Taylor’s Douro Valley lodges, is a third generation cooper.
For these two men, the craft is in their blood. But the skills and intuition to become a master cooper are developed over many years of apprenticeship and experience, and continue to be honed for their entire working lives.
Fitting a large hoop to a very large balseiro
In fact, master coopers – including Adelino’s father – are often called back from retirement to work on particularly demanding projects, where their long experience and skill is invaluable. Manuel insists that his father, now 73, and still working full-time as a cooper, would find it impossible to retire: the urge for a cooper to use his skills is simply too strong.
A Master Cooper At Work
Manuel and Adelino are perfectionists who take a fierce pride in their work. Their knowledge of every aspect of cooperage is instinctive, and they are trained to do nearly everything by eye. Manuel says of coopers, ‘our eyes are our tape measure’.
A large part of Manuel and Adelino’s work is looking after more than 4,000 casks and 158 large vats lying in the Taylor’s lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia and the Douro Valley.
A collection of Cooper's tools
All of this cooperage must be regularly inspected and periodically cleaned to ensure that the air permeating through the wood can continue to reach the wine. In a highly skilled operation, vessels showing signs of warping or leakage will be completely dismantled by the coopers and the old wood used to build new cooperage which fulfils the ageing requirements of Taylor’s winemakers.
Manuel can always pick out a cask he constructed himself. To the layman, they may all look the same, but to the cooper there are subtle differences imprinted on every cask by the man who crafted it.
Wood And Wine In Perfect Harmony
Working with winemaker Manuel Aranha, the coopers’ finely honed skills play a vital part in ageing Taylor’s Ports.
One of the main functions of wooden vessels in the making of Port is to allow the wine to be in very limited but constant contact with the air. It is this gentle aeration which softens the tannins of the wine, making it smoother and rounder and producing the complex and delicate aromas associated with a wood-aged Port.
Over long years of service, the wood will also absorb some Port. The average age of a Taylor’s cask is nearly 40 years old, so it is extremely important to know which particular Port has been aged in every vessel before deciding which Port can be aged in it next.
Different types of cooperage provide different ageing properties, and it is this understanding that also governs their use. In a cask, which usually holds around 600 litres of Port, the wine has greater contact with the wood than in a large vat. Casks are generally used to age Tawny Ports – which help to produce the Tawny’s rich, smooth texture and sumptuous, mellow flavours.
Large vats, usually holding at least 20,000 litres, are used to mature fruitier styles, such as Taylor’s First Estate Reserve or Late Bottled Vintage, with their firm structure, youthful vigour and fresh, fruity flavours.
The Devil In The Detail
Master coopers like Manuel and Adelino are understandably proud of their skills; acquiring them is a lifetime’s work. According to an old cooper’s legend: when the devil set out to learn the secrets of every human skill, the better to wreak mischief on it, the only craft he could not master was that of the cooper.
So let’s raise a toast to the ancient craft of the cooper and Taylor’s devilishly fine Port.