Port: Exploring the Fortified Wines of Portugal

Rebelo boats carrying Port casks down the Douro River

Port wines are an ideal, sweet accompaniment for desserts, making an excellent companion for a range of after-dinner treats, from a cheese plate to chocolate cake.  When it comes to Port, there’s quite a lot of information to wrap your head around, from its interesting evolution, to the many different production styles.  Below you will find a digest of Port’s history, production and the various Port styles that are available to us…

Port wine is named for the city of Oporto, which lies at the mouth of the Douro River.  These wines have been shipped from Oporto for over 300 years, and aged across the river, in the famous, damp cellars of Vila Nova da Gaia.  Port entered the European market in the 17th century during the trade wars between England and France.  In the late 1600s, the import of French wine into England had been prohibited for some time, which then caused English wine merchants to seek out the wines of Portugal.  In search of hearty wines, the merchants followed the Douro River inland, where they found the dark, tannic red wines that they were after.  In order to preserve the wines for the journey back to England, the merchants would add brandy to the wine.  In 1678, the English had found a monastery high in the mountains above the Douro River.  The abbot was adding brandy to wine during fermentation, killing off the active yeasts and producing a sweet red wine with high alcohol content.

The grape varieties approved for Port winemaking are numerous, however, it has been determined that the best black grape varietals are Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) and Tinot Cão.  The best varietals for White Port productions have been identified as Gouveio, Malvasia Fina and Viosinho.  These grapes are cultivated in some of the harshest growing conditions in the mountainous, stony soils on the steep slopes of the Douro River valley.

Traditionally, each winery had granite troughs, called lagares, in which vineyard workers would manually stomp the grapes.  The increased heat produced by the continous treading of the fermenting grape juice, skins and stems, imparted Port’s signature extracted character.  After approximately 24 to 36 hours of treading, the wine was run-off into a container of grape spirit with a strength of about 77% alcohol.  The high alcohol kills the yeast and fermentation is stopped, resulting in a sweet fortified wine with around 19% alcohol by volume.

The Douro wine region is divided into three subregions, the Baixo (Lower) Corgo, Cima (Higher) Corgo and Douro Superior.  The Baixo Corgo gets the most rain of the subregions and the grapes grown here are mostly used for less expensive Ruby and Tawny Ports.  The Cima Corgo produces higher quality fruit that is used in vintage and Late Bottled Vintage Ports.  Finally, the Douro Superior is the hottest and driest subregion and has the least vineyards of the three.

Port wine is made in quite a few different styles that can be divided under either of two broad “umbrella” categories, Ports aged in wooden casks and Ports aged in glass bottles.  Wood-matured Ports are aged in wooden casks for longer periods of time than the other Ports and are ready to drink after filtration and bottling.  Those intended to age in bottle are aged for a shorter time in wood and are usually not filtered before bottling.  It can take 20 to 30 years before these bottle-aged wines are ready to drink.  Wood-aged Ports include Tawny, Colheita and Garrafeira.  The bottle-aged styles are Ruby, Vintage Port, Late Bottled Vintage, Single-Quinta Vintage, Crusted Port and White Port.

Tawny Ports are semi-sweet or sweet wines made from red grapes and aged in wooden barrels using the Solera process, which gradually blends wines from different years.  These wines are slightly oxidized, turning a golden-brown color over time and have flavors of dried fruit and nuts.  Tawny Ports labeled with an “age” of 10, 20, 30 or 40-plus years, are comprised of a blend of wines from several vintages.  The age classification is actually the average number of years that the blended wines spend ageing in wooden casks.  Colheitas are wood-aged Ports that come from a single vintage and must spend a minimum of eight years in wooden casks.  The rare Garrafeira Port wines come from a single vintage, are aged in wooden casks, and then get further ageing in large glass demi-john containers.

Under the bottle-aged category, we find the common and inexpensive Ruby Ports that are meant for consumption soon after release.  Ruby Ports are not produced from single vintages, but from a blend.  They are sweet, full-bodied and have a deep ruby color.  The higher quality Ruby Ports are labeled Reserve and age in wooden casks for up to five years prior to bottling.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Ports are from a specific vintage, and have been aged in wooden cask for four to six years prior to bottling, adding complexity and tannins.  LBVs are either filtered or left unfiltered before bottling.  The filtered variety do not require decanting and are not meant for bottle ageing, while the unfiltered variety will continue to improve with bottle ageing and need to be decanted.  LBVs will keep and drink well for two weeks after opening.

Vintage Ports are produced from a specific year’s harvest and are from the very best vineyards.  They are bottled at two years old and can be aged for years before they peak.  Vintage Ports are not made every year, only in the best years, and are some of the longest-lasting and superb wines out there.  If you’re looking for an excellent Vintage Port to drink now, pick up the 1977 Graham Vintage Port or the 1985 Fonseca Vintage Port.  The 2003 Croft Vintage Port is one to put down in your cellar.

Single Quinta Vintage Ports are from single estates as well as from a single vintage.  Single Quinta producers will sometimes sell these Ports as their best bottlings, while others sell them as their “second” bottling, a step down from their Vintage Ports. One to try now is the 1994 Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port, receiving 96 points from Wine Spectator and praised for its exceptional balance and concentration.

Crusted Ports are higher quality Ports that are bottled unfiltered and throw a heavy “crust” (a.k.a. sediment) and need to be decanted.

Finally, White Port, made from white grapes, is produced in a range of styles, from off-dry to sweet.  These wines are wood-aged prior to bottling, which imparts nut and honey aromas and flavors.

If you are new to Port, I always recommend trying different styles to see which you like the best.  If you enjoy oxidized flavors of honey, caramel, dried fruit and nuts, then you’ll most likely be happy with a Tawny Port.  If lively fruit flavors are more to your taste, start out with a young Ruby Port.  Regardless of the style you choose, Port is a lovely, sweet finish for any meal.