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The Master Blender of Porto

“Wines are like people,” Natasha Bridge tells me one late-autumn morning a couple of vintages ago.  She brushes her straight, blonde, shoulder-length hair away from her face to dip her nose into a glass of young Port in her laboratory office in Vila Nova de Gaia, Port’s winemaking nerve center.  “They don’t always do what you want them to do.  And, like difficult children, you sometimes have to turn them around.”

As you read this post, Bridge is working with her latest brood of liquid charges, the 2010 vintage, and January is her busiest time of the year – smelling, tasting and spitting lot after lot of powerful, raw, young Port. 

I first met Natasha Bridge on a visit to the Douro Valley during the harvest of 2003.  Two colleagues and I were leaving the city of Porto the next morning to take the rickety train up valley to our base at the legendary Quinta de Vargellas, but that evening we were having dinner with a Fladgate contingent in “Gaia” – the fabled district of Port lodges (maturation warehouses) that overlooks the city from across the river.

As my main course of squab with a chestnut puree and matchstick potatoes was being served, we were joined by Bridge, who explained she was late because her three children, then all under 10, needed some tending.  Later, over a course of cheeses – what else at a Port dinner? – and a glass of the 1970 Taylor Fladgate vintage, Natasha detailed her work as chief blender for The Fladgate Partnership, a position she still holds.

While wine, as the current cliché goes, is made in the vineyard, a wine’s true greatness is actually determined in the cellar.  Almost no legendary wine – sparkling, red table, white table, dessert – is made from one grape variety from one vineyard, in some cases even from the same vintage.  Most commercial wine cellars are like giant pantries of flavors, and the person who leads the blending team – usually a small group of palates – for the assemblage is the most important person in that pantry.  In Natasha Bridge’s case, her cellar is a Port lodge, where I returned to visit her a few years after that initial meeting. 

Bridge works in tandem with wine director and Fladgate partner David Guimarãens, but she says she’s “taken over the day-to-day to free David for the strategic overview. I work until 3 p.m.,” Bridge tells me at the time, “then I go to be with the children” – Kit, who is now 16, Maximilian 14, and Tatiana (aka Yana) 12.  “There has to be some balance in our lives.”

Just as there needs to be balance in the Ports she blends. Like many of the people who make Port, Bridge grew up in the business.  “The joke was they laced my milk with Port when I was a baby to keep me quiet,” she laughs.  Her father, Alistair Robertson, ran Taylor’s, as it known outside the U.S., for years and helped put together the partnership that now includes the Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft brands.  The Delaforce brand was sold in 2008. 

Natasha knew she wanted to make Port from the time she was 16.  “A blender at the time took me in, and we had some delightful days,” she recalls. She formally studied winemaking at UC-Davis and started to work in the business.  And she met the dashing Canadian-born Englishman Adrian Bridge, once a member of the Queen’s Dragoon Guards and an investment banker whose business brought him to the Douro to work with the Port trade.  The two married in 1989.  Adrian became managing CEO of Fladgate when Robertson retired, and Natasha held her own career steady while raising a young family.

In spite of a button nose that a Domecq might judge not worth a good sniff, Natasha Bridge loves the art of blending, leading the team that annually decides whether there will be a vintage declared, and, if so, which lots will compose it and in what proportions.  There is also the matter of helping oversee the daily management of the lots which, at the partnership, falls to the blenders and not winemakers.

Although there are other Port styles, including the very popular tawnies, “Vintage is our finest and rarest, our crème de la crème,” she says in her laboratory office, and blenders are “under enormous pressure to produce the best.”  Bridge leads a team or panel that each year tastes and “preserves lots from each harvest that we believe to be the very best.”  Later, they also must decide if the best lots are worthy of declaring as a vintage – something each Port house decides individually.  In the case of Fladgate Partnership, the decision is announced by St. George’s Day in April, barely a half year after harvest.

As each of their handful of primary vineyards or quintas has its own winery up the Douro where the grapes are grown, the young wines remain there until spring.  Then they are brought down to the Gaia lodges, today by truck rather than small boats as in the days when the now-tamed Douro was wild.  Samples taken up-river continue to be routinely collected during this period, however.  “We are looking at them every week,” Bridge said, “and we are proposing various blends.”

If the decision is made not to make a vintage (and, as the market will not absorb vintages every year, this is sometimes an economic as well as quality determination), then the next option is to make vineyard-based vintage Ports called “single-quinta vintages.” 

“The best of the lots from all quintas will be used if a vintage is declared,” Bridge says, “and once a [blended] wine has been made, the blender becomes in charge of those wines.  The next six weeks are fine tuning, and the vintage is bottled in May or June.”  Then it rests Gaia and, later, in someone’s cellar until it is ready for drinking.

A blender’s life is both stressful on the mind and taxing on the palate.  “During the January tastings I have porridge every morning,” Bridge laughs, “because it is comforting and soothing.  Tasting is all-encompassing, like painting, and at the end of tasting, we are euphoric and at the same time exhausted. We all go out and have a steak – some solid food.”

Natasha says she and Adrian hope that one or more of their children will be caught up in the business as get older.  “They smell and try everything,” she reports.  “That’s very Portuguese, and wine is as much a part of their life as is food at a meal.”

And in the very traditional Douro Valley, the best wines are still made when one generation blends into another.

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