When it comes to wine, there are none more favored by the traditional gentleman than that of Port and Sherry. Fortified wines from Portugal and Spain (respectively), they have been enjoyed by the elegant dandy for centuries as an after-dinner drink in the parlor rooms of their residential estates.
Ranking high amongst connoisseurs in both modern and historic times, Port and Sherry are often celebrated the world over, as being a traditional evening beverage served with dessert or after as a relaxant similar to that of brandy.
In this installment, we’ll focus on Portugal’s fortified wine from the Douro Valley, most commonly called Port but often referred to as Vinho do Porto or simply, Porto.
What is Port Wine?
Port as I already mentioned is a fortified wine from Portugal that’s made exclusively in the northern provinces within the Douro Valley. In comparison to Spain’s Sherry, Port is generally quite sweet, most often served as a dessert wine, but also coming in dryer and white grape variations.
Of course, like Brandy, there are many regions the world over that produce fortified wine reminiscent of Port, however, they are just similar in style and do not have the right to call themselves Port or Porto wine. Many of these similar wines are made outside of Portugal in Canada, South Africa, India, Australia and Argentina. The only exception to this rule is in the United States, where wine from any country may label itself as “Port”, however the titles of “Oporto”, “Dão”, “Porto”, and “Vinho do Porto” are still reserved as non-generic names for wines that originate solely from Portugal.
The History of Port
Since the dawn of ancient times, grapes have been grown in Portugal’s Douro Valley where the Romans have been producing wine since the dawn of the second century BC. However, despite the regions exportation of wine since antiquity, Port, as we know it today, was not contrived until the second half of the 17th century.
In the year 1386 the Treaty of Windsor established a close alliance between England and Portugal with a three-fold focus on military, politics and trade. Under the terms of the treaty, each country gave the others merchants the right to reside in its territory and trade on equal terms with its own citizens. Thanks in part to this treaty and Portugals warmer climate, a significant number of English merchants settled in Portugal’s Douro Valley and by the second half of the 15th century Portuguese wine was being exported to England in exchange for their salt cod fish.
In 1654, Europe saw the birth of the Anglo-Portuguese commercial treaty which was poised to create new opportunities for English and Scottish merchants living in Portugal. This treaty permitted them to receive special privileges and preferential customs duties. Because of the preferential treatment, the Lima River became a reliable transportation hub from Viana do Castelo, a small yet elegant coastal town that served as the epicenter of the winemaking region at that time.
The Lima River soon flourished and became a hotbed for transportation where commodities such as wool and cotton were imported in exchange for fruits, oils and red Portugal, a light, yet acidic wine produced in the verdant Minho region.
Then, just a few years later, in 1667, Louis XIV’ minister by the name of Colbert, embarked on a plan to increase the exportation of Portuguese wine by restricting the import of English commodities into France. This series of calculated measures provoked Charles II of England to increase the duty on French wines and later forbidding their import altogether in an effort to oblige the English wine trade to seek alternative suppliers.
Upon hearing of this conspiracy in Viana do Castelo, the English merchants afforded favors by the commercial treaty began to rapidly increase production of their wines. Unfortunately, due to this rapid change and lack of regulatory command, they soon realized that the astringent wine they were producing in the humid coastal climate of the Minho region was unstable and virtually abhorred by the English consumers who were so used to French wine and brandy. With costs rising and profits dwindling, they began to look at new regions inland that could product a more stable, full bodied wine. This is how they stumbled across the scorchingly arid hillsides of the Douro Valley.
Immediately, they began to realize the natural benefits of producing wines using the grapes found in the Douro Valley, however, due to the wild rocky terrain, the wines couldn’t be transported over land to Viana do Castelo’s Lima River, but instead, now had to be shipped down the River Douro by boat to the flourishing city of Oporto which was close to the coast. long distance and the wild and mountainous terrain meant that the Douro wines could not be transported overland to Viana do Castelo but had to be carried down the River Douro by boat to the city of Oporto which lay near the coast.
From Oporto, commercial ships would then carry the wine across the Atlantic, through the treacherous mouth of the Douro River all the way to England. By the dawn of the 19th century, most of the original merchants from Viana do Castelo had established offices in Oporto in order to further their business in the Douro Valley. Despite the wine being produced in the distant mountains of the Douro Valley, the wines became known as Vinho do Porto (meaning Oporto wine), adopting the name from the city they were shipped from. It was because of the long and tiresome journey to England, that the wine makers began to fortify their wine using a small addition of brandy which was introduced immediately prior to loading it on the ships and thus increased the wines strength which prevented it from spoiling during the long voyage.
Since the Port wines produced in the Douro Valley were far more palatable to the English consumer than their counterparts known as the red Portugal from the Minho region, in 1703 a new treaty was signed between Portugal and England called the Methuen Treaty which further encouraged Port wine production by providing them the benefit of paying one third less duty than the wine imported from France.
Then, in the second half of the 18th century, Portugal gave birth to a new development in wine making that would transform Port into the superlative fortified wine we drink today. As you may recall, brandy was often introduced into Port wine immediately before shipping to prevent it from spoiling during its long voyage to England. However, it was in the latter half of the 18th century when wine makers began to realize that by adding brandy to the wine before it finished fermenting, it resulted in a more diverse flavor profile that was far more aromatic and sweet, thereby resulting in a stronger, more satisfying and elegant wine that appealed a greater population of English consumers.
Despite this brilliant realization, it wasn’t until well into the 19th century that this method of fortification was widely adopted. In fact, until the 19th century, most winemakers scoffed at the process and discouraged it as an insult to their fine wine making process.
Regardless of their pride, they soon began to realize that the few merchants who did fortify their wine were drawing significantly higher profits from England and their wine resulted in superior taste with unprecedented aging potential. However, it was only after the exceptional harvest in 1820 which produced ports so magnificent that subsequent vintages couldn’t compare to their unparalleled quality without being fortified, that the process of adding brandy before the wine was fermented became utilized by each and every Port wine maker in Douro Valley, with the exception of one – Baron Forrester.
Baron Forrester was a legendary winemaker who became the most outspoken proponent for the traditional port-making process. He valiantly spoke out against the use of brandy in fortifying wine and was fierce in his opposition. Many believe that it was only due to his death in 1862 when his boat capsized and he drowned due to the weight of gold in his money belt. Due to his determination to overthrow the newly adopted process of fortifying Port wine, in addition to his legendary status as one of the predominant authorities on Port wine, most experts believe that had he not been killed in the rapids, that he would have convinced his colleagues to revert to the original manufacturing process which would have drastically altered the iconic wine we love today.
Until just recently, almost all Port wine was transported exclusively via the river which brought the wines from the vineyards to the “lodges” of the Port shippers in Oporto. This had been the method used along the Douro dating back as far as 1200 when the ships were gallantly referred to as “barcas taverneiras” and later, “barcos rabelos” which was the name used for throughout of most the history of Port all the way throughout the 20th century.
At times there could be hundreds of vessels found transporting up to 100 casks of Port wine from Portugal to England on any given day. These oversized rabelos were often prone to accidents due to the treacherous and rapidly changing waters of the river, so in 1779 legislation set the limit at 70 casks with the largest ones usually carrying no more than 50 come the 20th century. Due to the thriving wine market, a railway was completed along the Douro in 1887 which gave birth to a new form of transportation. However, despite the rail offering a safer and faster form of transportation, the shippers continued to favor the river as their method of choice. Even well into the 1930s, there were more than 300 registered rabelos. Then as access to the Douro Valley improved, roads began to be built and by 1961 a total of just six rabelos were still operating with the final rabelo taking its final voyage in the year 1964.
Despite many hiccups in the years past, from war and famine to the scourge of the Phylloxera bug, Port wine has had a turbulent but illustrious history where it has successfully thrived and adapted to change, culminating its success in the last decades of the 20th century. It was then that the world began to settle and wine makers throughout the Douro Valley began to swell which caused a significantly further broadening of consumption within and beyond Europe. Although Britain continues to be the highest consumer of quality Port wine, both the United States and Canada have taken a strong hold and are now fierce contenders for that coveted title. In addition Asia and Latin America have proven to be emerging markets and have recently acquired a taste for fine Port wine.
How Port is Made
Early autumn marks the beginning of the production process for Port. Sometime in the middle of September, scores of pickers head into the historic vineyards that line the steep hillsides and rugged canyons of Portugal’s Douro Valley. Called the Stairways to Heaven, the pickers ascend these centuries old vineyards, carefully selecting and then picking the commonly used Touriga, Francesa, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Cão grapes by hand. While these relatively small thick-skinned grapes are ideal for the concentrated syrupy must (grape juice) that make up the vast majority of Port wine, in the interest of full disclosure, it should be mentioned that more than 100 sanctioned varieties can be found in the bottles of port that line your local liquor stores. What makes these grapes so intoxicating to the senses is that the varieties used in Port are perfectly suited to the scorching, dry climate found within the northern provinces of Portugal. It is these unique grape varieties that are the source of most of the wine’s uniquely distinctive flavor profile.
What’s interesting to note is that although the pickers have to collect each variety of grapes from separate vineyards in most cases, despite being planted separately, the collection as a whole is typically harvested and fermented together in a single batch. The reason for this is because each berry contributes something different to the character of the finished product. From intense woody flavors to delicate floral aromas, some of the grapes maintain peppery flavors while others are musty or resemble apple blossom. The end result is a complex flavor profile with aromas that can only be attributed to a conspiracy between nature and the historical influence of man in what was once considered one of the most uncompromising and harsh landscapes in all of Europe.
Once the grapes are picked, they are taken to the nearby winery in small trays which help to ensure the grapes are kept in the same condition in which they were found. Once they finally make their way to the winery, each grape is inspected individually by the wine maker before they are de-stemmed. What often separates Port from other wines is that even today, the majority of wineries in the Douro Valley maintain the same traditions their ancestors imparted on them. Once the stems are removed the grapes are poured in granite treading tanks known as Lagares. These thigh-high tanks allow the Treaders to climb inside where the grapes are trodden by foot. Despite the manual process being laborious and expensive, it is still the ideal way to ensure gentle but complete extraction of the must which helps to produce consistent wine with incredible depth and balance.
The first stage of the treading process is called the Corte where the Treaders line up shoulder touching shoulder and advance very slowly across the lagar to ensure each grape is thoroughly crushed by their feet. The purpose of the corte is to crush the solid grapes which cause the berries to explode releasing juice and pulp.
Once the corte is finished and each grape has had its juices and pulp expelled from the skin, the second stage called the Liberdade begins. It is during this process where the Treaders move freely around the lager individually ensuring that the skins from the grapes are kept submerged under the surface of the must by stepping on them and using long wooden plungers called Macacos which push the skins down under the wine. Within a few hours the fermentation process will begin and the heat and alcohol it produces begins to release the color, tannins and aromas from the skin of the grapes which allow them to be diluted in the fermenting wine.
Once the wine maker has determined that about half of the natural sugar from the must has been turned to alcohol, they will then signal for the fortification process to begin. The treaders will immediately cease their operations and the skins will naturally begin to rise to the surface, floating on top of the wine where they form almost a film onto of the alcohol. The wine underneath the skin is then drained from the lagar into a vat and a very young, but high quality Brandy is introduced to the wine. Since an immature brandy is used, it’s colorless and neutral in flavor and aroma, at a strength of 77% alcohol. It is added at a ratio of typically 115 litres of brandy to 435 litres of wine. By adding the brandy to the fermenting wine, it increases the strength of the wine to a level where the yeasts responsible for fermentation begin to die off. This process ensures that the fermentation stops before all the sugars in the must have been turned to alcohol thus preserving the natural sweetness of the grapes in the finished Port.
Once the harvest is over, the wine remains in the Douro Valley wineries where it settles naturally until the spring of the following year when each wine is evaluated and the winemaker decides what style of Port the wine is best suited for. The wine is then taken to a slightly cooler climate to be matured, blended and bottled.
Once it arrives at the warehouse, the wine is placed in casks or vats depending on what style of Port it’s being turned into. Since Port is fortified, it can be aged for a significantly longer time period than most other wine variants. Once the style is determined, the wine is aged in a variety of different ways and for different periods of time which produces a wide range of varieties giving each bottle its own flavor profile and aroma.
Types of Port
As we’ve seen, there are several varieties of Port which can be divided into two broad categories:
Bottle Aged Ports
Since Port is a fortified wine like no other, it will continue to age in the bottle as it sits idle in the cellar. Known as reductive aging, bottle aged ports are matured in air tight glass bottles where they begin to lose color at a snails pace producing a wine which is far smoother with less tannins.
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)
Late Bottled Vintage (often referred to simply as LBV) is wine that was originally made for bottling as a vintage port but due to a lack of demand, was left in the cask for a significantly longer period of time. It is divided into two distinct styles of Port, both bottled between four and six years after the vintage wine, but one style is fined and filtered prior to being bottle and one is not.
The filtered wine, while appealing to the vast majority of consumers, is in my opinion of far lesser quality as the filtration process strips the wine of its intended character. Because it is filtered, it is capable of being consumed without the use of a decanter and is typically bottled in a stoppered bottle rather than a cork allowing it to be resealed.
On the other hand, the unfiltered wine is usually bottled with a cork and needs to be decanted prior to enjoying its splendor. Once it is decanted, you should attempt to consume the wine as quickly as possible, ensuring it doesn’t sit for more than a few days at most. While most unfiltered bottles are identified as such, some may be marked as “bottle matured” if they have undergone bottle aging of a minimum of three years before release. Bottles older than 2002 may be labeled as “traditional”.
The primary purpose of LBV is to provide a glimpse into the experience of drinking a fine vintage port but without the need for lengthy aging and at a fraction of the price. In most cases, the LBV can be consumed immediately upon purchase but you’ll notice that in exchange for a dip in price, it will be a far lighter bodied wine than that of a true vintage port.
Typically ready to drink when released, LBV ports are the product of a single harvest and tend to be lighter bodied than a vintage port. It should be noted that while filtered bottles can improve to a limited extent with age, the unfiltered wine will improve with long term aging in most cases.
While it may not necessarily sounds very appealing, Crusted Port is actually one of my favorite styles of Port wine. In a nutshell, a crusted port is an unfiltered blend of several vintage ports, although there have been rare cases where a single vintage crusted port has been produced. What differentiates Crusted Port from Vintage Port is the capability of the Master Blender to use varying vintages rather than a single vintage. This lets the Blender customize the port affording it an extremely diverse flavor profile. Just as Vintage Ports improve with age, so does the Crusted Port. However, because it’s so carefully curated by the Blender, most Crusted Ports can be consumed at a far younger age than their single vintage counterparts. While Crusted Ports are required to be aged in bottle for at least three years before being released to the public, most producers will allow them to age for a much longer time frame since a strong percentage of Crusted consumers enjoy them upon purchase rather than aging them in a cellar. Unlike with whisky, the date on the bottle refers to the date the blends were bottled together, not the date of the youngest blend.
Vintage Port is made entirely from the grapes of a declared vintage year and accounts for just two percent of the marketplace. It’s important to mention that a vintage year is declared in the spring of the second year following the harvest and is decided upon by the individual port lodge (or house), often referred to as the “shipper”. Since Port producers rely heavily on their reputations, this decision is never taken lightly. In most cases a vintage year only gets declared on average, three times a decade.
Vintage Port is without question, equivocation or reservation, the pinnacle of all Ports. They are typically aged in cask for at least two and half years before bottling and then require up to forty more years of bottle aging before they can be consumed. Despite being aged in cask for a short time, they are considered Bottle Aged Ports because of the extensive aging required in the bottle. However, since they do spend some time in a cask, they are generally a dark ruby color and very aromatic with hints of fresh fruit and bright floral notes. Since they continue to age so gracefully, it is not uncommon for bottles from the early 19th century to still be in perfect condition to enjoy.
Single Quinta Vintage Port
Single quinta vintage ports are wines that come from just one estate. Since most bottles of Port are sourced from a number of quintas, the single quinta bottles are a variation of the typical vintage ports mentioned above.
Wood Aged Ports
Wines that have matured in oak casks or vats, unlike bottle aged, are permitted trace amounts of exposure to oxygen which his why it’s commonly called oxidative aging. In contrast to bottle-aged Port, the wood aged wine will lose its color at a much faster pace in addition to an “angel’s share” leaving behind a slightly thicker, more full-bodied wine.
Tawny Ports are the second most common style of Port wines. They are typically made from red grapes and aged in oak casks which expose them to oxidative aging. Because of this, they are typically a golden brown color with a very nutty flavor profile due to the oxygen exposure. In most cases, Tawny Ports are sweet and most commonly consumed as a dessert wine. Often you’ll hear a port described as being “tawny” which without an indication of age, just means that it’s a basic blended port that’s aged in wood casks for at least two years. Higher on the ladder are age indicated Tawny ports which are labeled with the year (10, 20, 30 and over 40 years) followed by “in wood” on the bottle. It should be mentioned that these are not the actual ages of the port, but rather a target age used to profile the bottle.
While Tawny Ports get more expensive with age, 10 and 20-year Tawnys often have the best value proposition.
Any Tawny Port that comes from a single vintage is automatically called a Colheita. Instead of the aforementioned target age listed, the label will declare the actual vintage year. However, despite having a vintage year on the label, they should not be construed as being a Vintage Port, as a true vintage port will have been bottled approximately 20 months after harvest and will continue maturing thereafter. A Colheita, in comparison, can spend 20+ years in its wooden cask before being bottled and sold.
A Garrafeira is a far more rare bottle of port with a vintage date that’s made from the grapes of a single harvest. What makes it so unique is that it is a culmination of oxidative aging in wood casks with further maturation in large glass demijohns. These Garrafeiras are required by the IVDP to spend between three and six years in their wood casks, followed by at least another eight years aging in glass. Due to the second phase of the aging process, an oily film can often develop on the glass demijohn which can cause the wine to have slight hints of bacon in its flavor profile. In an effort to confuse you even more, the word Garrafeira can sometimes be found on very old Tawny Port labels, despite them not being a true Garrafeira.
Ruby port can only be described as the Budweiser of Ports. It’s the least expensive and most mass produced style of Port available. Once it’s gone through the fermentation process, it’s stored in large concrete or stainless steel tanks to preserve its rich ruby color. It is then blended to match the style of the brand it will be labeled under at which point it is fined and chill filtered before bottling. In my opinion, Ruby Port isn’t worth your time or attention in most cases. It does not improve with age and while it’s useful for cooking, it is nothing more than the moonshine of Portugal’s wine industry.
Reserve Port is a “premium” version of Ruby port, but again, really isn’t worth your time to read or my time to write about.
Rose port was recently introduced in 2008 by Poças and Croft, as part of the Taylor Fladgate Partnership. Technically it is a Ruby Port but it’s fermented the same was as a rose wine with very limited exposure to the skins of the grape. If you value my opinion at all avoid this at all costs. It’s appalling.
White port is simply a port made from white grapes instead of red and is marketed in a variety of the aforementioned styles both as a wood aged port and a bottle aged port.
Aged whites can be great sipping drinks, and they are also good for use in cocktails and are often consumed in the Porto region mixed with tonic water on ice. There is also a wide variety of them available from very dry to very sweet, although the sweet ones are ususally more complex.
Once opened, they turn bad more quickly than red ports because it oxidizes faster.
How to Store Port
Despite Port being far more complex than most wines, it still, like other wine variants needs to be stored in a cool, dark place ideally at 55°F but anywhere between 45°F and 65°F. The area you store it should be dimly lit without nearby windows as light can damage the port. The sun’s UV rays can degrade and prematurely age wine just as warmer temperatures can. In fact, the reason most wine bottles are colored is to act in a manner similar to sunglasses which protect the contents from those damaging rays. Similar to our discussion on cigar humidors, your cellar should ideally be at a similar humidity level of 70% as dry air can actually dry out the cork allowing oxygen to enter the bottle. However, for those without a professionally built cellar, the range of 50 to 80 percent is perfectly acceptable.
If the bottle is corked, it should ideally be stored on its side, where as if it has a stopper, it should remain standing upright.
The only exception to these storage guidelines are for White Port which can be served chilled and may be stored in a properly calibrated wine fridge. With the exception of White Port, all other styles of Port should typically be served at between 59 to 68°F, although Tawny Ports can be served slightly cooler.
How Long Can You Store It?
Many people assume that because Port is a fortified wine, it will last forever once opened. While it’s true that it will last slightly longer than unfortified wine, it is still intended to be consumed within a very short period of time, no more then a few days. The standard rule of Port is that the older the bottle, the faster it needs to be consumed. The reason for this is that once the wine is exposed to oxygen, it begins to rapidly deteriorate. This is why a wood aged port can generally last longer once opened in comparison to a bottle aged port, because while maturing in the wood cask, it was introduced to gradual oxidation.
How to Open a Bottle & How to Drink Port Wine
When serving Port it’s important to remember that the vast majority of Port wines are unfiltered, meaning that they develop a sediment in the bottle and require decanting before being consumed. In addition, the decanting process also allows the wine to breathe. I typically will decant the wine within an hour of serving it but this is something that is based on personal preference and is very specific to the type of wine and its age.
It must be mentioned that you MUST NEVER disturb the sediment before decanting. If you disturb the sediment it can take a number of days to properly resettle which will, in most cases, render the bottle undrinkable.
Today, it’s rather easy to open a bottle of port since most bottles comes with reusable cork. However, the traditional way to open a bottle of Port is to use Port Tongs which are tongs made of iron with wooden handles that are heated to a “red-hot” glow and are perfectly shaped to surround the neck of the bottle. In order to use the tongs, you want to heat the tongs until they’re glowing red hot and then close them around the neck of the bottle just below the cork. It’s important that the bottle is held firmly in place and isn’t moved during the process. Once the red-hot tongs have been touching the glass for about thirty seconds, quickly twist the tongs with one sharp movement to snap the neck of the bottle off cleanly without a single shard of glass. Another technique that can be used is to take a towel that has been soaked in ice water and grasp the pre-heated neck of the bottle with the towel which will quickly sever the neck. If you’re a novice and haven’t had much practice, ensure that you take all safety precautions and pour the wine into the decanter through a filter to ensure no shards of glass are present.
Once the Port is opened and decanted, it should be served by passing it to the left (port to port) and the bottle or decanter should never touch the table until everyone has been served.
When you serve port, you should ideally decant it but sometimes that’s impractical, and so pouring it directly into the glass is not ideal but you can still enjoy Port that way. More importantly, use specific Port glasses, which are smaller and hold about 3-4 fl. oz. Fill them about half and you will have the perfect amount for a dessert wine after dinner. With a bit of luck, you may find them at estate sales or more conveniently on amazon.
Cooking with Port
Of course, there are all kinds of recipes that include port. I always like to soak raisins in port or rum, and a steak with a port sauce is delicious too. So, next time you bake or cook, keep in mind that port might add the special flavor to your creations.
Videos & Books about Port
Below you can find a video introduction to port wine in general and if you are interested in videos about specific port wines, please take a look here.
We hope you have enjoyed this guide to Port wine. Please stay tuned for our next installment on Sherry and as always, please feel free to post any questions in the comment section below.