From plots to assassinate Lenin to championing malts over blends, the dramatic story of ‘RBL’.
Does the name Joseph James Forrester ring any bells? No? Unless (like me) you’re bit of a Port geek, there’s no reason why it should. But he popped into my head the other day when I was reading Iain Russell’s fascinating account of the life of Robert Bruce Lockhart.
Forrester was never involved in plots to assassinate Lenin (he died before the Russian revolutionary leader’s birth, so it would have been tricky), but he led a life almost as full of colour and controversy – and his death was far more dramatic (remind me to tell you about that at the end).
Born in Hull in 1809, Forrester joined the family Port shipping business, Offley Forrester, at the age of 22 and, once in Portugal, refused to follow the herd.
At a time when British Port shippers tended to remain within their own little clique in the port of Vila Nova de Gaia (a bit like drinks writers on the Sussex coast), Forrester made a point of exploring the wilder lands upstream, and particularly the Port vineyards of the Douro Valley.
He learned to speak good Portuguese and published two remarkably detailed maps of the Douro from Spain to the Atlantic – a boon to the traveller at a time when the Douro was a treacherous mountain river, long before modern damming projects transformed it into the broad, serene waters of today.
Treacherous river: Forrester’s maps of the Douro remain much admired
Forrester also concerned himself in some detail with the production of Port – again, something the British shippers eschewed, except during harvest.
If his pursuits left him outside the inner circle of the British Port establishment – he was never invited to join their ‘club’ in Porto, The Factory House – his estrangement was complete with the publication in 1844 of an impassioned treatise, A Word or Two on Port Wine.
So extreme were the views stated in the pamphlet that, at first, it was published anonymously. Forrester, you see, questioned the very basis of Port production: the addition of brandy to stop fermentation and create a sweet, strong wine.
Great Douro wines, he argued, needed no brandy, but could stand proudly on their own: pure, unadulterated; based on grape, soil, aspect and altitude; reflective of the conditions of the year, for good or ill.
This is where the Lockhart connection comes in. Real Port, to Forrester, was pure and untouched by brandy; real Scotch whisky, for Lockhart, was pure (malt) and untouched by grain.
Fast-forward to 2015 and both would note current trends with a degree of satisfaction. Scotch malt whisky is flying in markets around the world and – rightly or wrongly – increasingly considered by many consumers as more ‘authentic’ than blended Scotch.
Meanwhile, the unfortified table wines of the Douro have increased hugely in number, quality and diversity over the past few decades, winning a place in the top echelons of the fine wine hierarchy. You can now pay £60 for a bottle of unfortified Quinta do Vesúvio, a vineyard Forrester knew well (he spent the last night of his life there).
Man of the Douro: even Forrester’s death was inextricably linked to the river
But there’s a twist. Without the skyrocketing global success of blends in the 20th century, most of the single malt distilleries so beloved of Lockhart would now be in ruins or silent, overrun by retail developments and housing estates.
Similarly, without the international achievements of the Port trade, the vineyards of the Douro – that inhospitable, rocky place that oscillates between furnace-like summer heat and brutal winter cold – would be neglected, overgrown, their proud terraces crumbling into the waters below.
Both Lockhart and Forrester recognised an inherent truth in their respective worlds: the underrated quality of two products overshadowed by (to their minds) inferior alternatives.
But what both failed to see was not simply the finer qualities of the products they dismissed, but also the symbiotic co-existence of those supposedly opposing forces: blends and malts; Port and table wine.
One could not thrive without the other and, just as Douro table wines and single malts have Port and blends respectively to thank for their current success, they are now in a position to repay the debt by using their new-found fame to convert consumers to the delights of their sister products. A kind of virtuous circle of life, if you will.
What’s that? What about Forrester’s death, you ask? He set off on 12 May 1861 from Quinta do Vesúvio, high in the Douro, travelling downstream by boat with Dona Antónia Ferreira, the grande dame of the valley, who went on to own no fewer than 24 of its most famous vineyards.
As the boat negotiated the notorious rapids of Cachão de Valeira, it capsized and – according to legend – the contrasting fates of the pair were decided by the clothes on their backs.
While the whalebone of her crinoline allowed Dona Antónia to float gently to safety, Forrester’s sovereign-laden money belt dragged him down below the Douro’s fierce waters, never to be seen again.
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