Port wines

Port wine (also known as Vinho do Porto, Oporto, Porto, and often simply Port) is a Portuguese, fortified wine from the Douro Valley in the northern provinces of Portugal. It is typically a sweet red wine, but also comes in dry, semi-dry and white varieties. It is often served as a dessert wine. Wines in the style of port are produced around the world in several countries—most notably Australia, South Africa, Canada, India, Argentina and the United States. But under European Union guidelines, only the product from Portugal may be labelled as Port. In the United States, Federal law mandates that the Portuguese-made product be labeled Porto or Vinho do Porto.

Port is produced from grapes grown and processed in the Douro region. The wine produced is then fortified with the addition of a Brandy (distilled grape spirits) in order to stop the fermentation, leaving residual sugar in the wine, and to boost the alcohol content. The wine is then stored and aged, often in barrels stored in caves (Portuguese meaning “cellars”) as is the case in Vila Nova de Gaia, before being bottled. The wine received its name, “Port,” in the latter half of the 17th century from the seaport city of Porto at the mouth of the Douro River, where much of the product was brought to market or for export to other countries in Europe from the Leixões docks. The Douro valley where Port wine is produced was defined and established as a protected region, or appellation in 1756 — making it the 3rd oldest defined and protected wine region in the world after Tokaji and Chianti.

The Douro River Valley: growth and production

The vineyards that produce Port wine are common along the hillsides that flank the valley of the River Douro in northern Portugal

The vineyards that produce Port wine are common along the hillsides that flank the valley of the River Douro in northern Portugal.

The reaches of the valley of the Douro River in northern Portugal have a microclimate that is optimal for cultivation of olives, almonds, and especially grapes important for making the famous Port wine. The region around Pinhão and São João da Pesqueira is considered to be the centre of Port production, and is known for its picturesque quintas—farms clinging on to almost vertical slopes dropping down to the river.

Wine regions

The demarcation of the Douro River Valley includes a broad swath land of pre-Cambrian schist and granite. Beginning around the village of Barqueiros (located about 40 miles (about 70 km upstream from Porto), the valley extends eastward nearly to the Spanish border. The region is protected from the influences of the Atlantic Ocean by the Serra do Marão mountains. The area is sub-divided into 3 official zones-the Baixo (lower) Corgo, the Cima (higher) Corgo and the Douro Superior.

  • Baixo Corgo-The westernmost zone located downstream from the river Corgo, centered on the municipality of Peso da Régua. This region is the wettest Port production zone, receiving an average of 900 mm, and has the coolest average temperature of the three zones. The grapes grown here are used mainly for the production of inexpensive ruby and tawny Ports.
  • Cima Corgo-Located further upstream from the Baixo Corgo, this region is centered on the municipality of Pinhão. The summertime average temperature of the regions are a few degrees higher and rainfall is about 200 mm less. The grapes grown in this zone are considered of higher quality, being used in bottlings of vintage and Late Bottled Vintage Ports.
  • Douro Superior-The easternmost zone extending nearly to the Spanish border. This is the least cultivated region of Douro, due in part to the difficulties of navigating the river past the rapids of Cachão da Valeira. This is the most arid and warmest region of the Douro. The overall terrain is relatively flat with the potential for mechanization.

Grapes

Over a hundred varieties of grapes (castas) are sanctioned for Port production, although only five (Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Nacional) are widely cultivated and used. Although Touriga Nacional is the most celebrated Port grape, the difficulty of growing it and its small yields result in Touriga Francesa being the most widely-planted variety within the Douro. White ports are produced the same way as red ports, except that they use white grapes—Esgana-Cão, Folgasão, Malvasia, Rabigato, Verdelho, and Viosinho. While a few shippers have experimented with Ports produced from a single variety of grapes, all Ports commercially available are from a blend of different grapes. Since the Phylloxera crisis, most vines are grown on grafted rootstock, with the notable exception of the Nacional area of Quinta do Noval, which, since being planted in 1925, has produced some of the most expensive commonly available Ports.

Grapes grown for Port are generally characterised by their small, dense fruit which produce concentrated and long-lasting flavours, suitable for long aging. While the grapes used to produce Port produced in Portugal are strictly regulated by the Instituto do Vinho do Porto, wines from outside this region which describe themselves as Port may be made from other varieties.

Transport

Rabelos, a type of boat traditionally used to transport barrels of Port wine down the Douro River for storage and aging in caves at Vila Nova de Gaia near Porto

Whilst Port is produced from grapes grown in the Douro valley, until 1986 it could only be exported from Portugal from the Vila Nova de Gaila in Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city. Traditionally, the wine was taken downriver in flat-bottom boats called barcos rabelos, to be processed and stored. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, several hydroelectric power dams were built along the river, ending this traditional conveyance down the river. Currently, the wine is transported from the vineyards by tanker trucks and the barcos rabelos are only used for racing and other displays.

Properties

Port wine is typically richer, sweeter, heavier, and possesses a higher alcohol content than most other wines. This is caused by the addition of distilled grape spirits (aguardente similar to brandy) to fortify the wine and halt fermentation before all the sugar is converted to alcohol and results in a wine that is usually either 19.5% or 20% alcohol.

Port is commonly served after meals as a dessert wine, often with cheese; commonly stilton. White and tawny ports are often served as an apéritif.

Styles

Port from Portugal comes in several styles, which can be divided into two broad categories:

1. Wines that have matured in sealed glass bottles, with no exposure to air, and experience what is known as “reductive” aging. This process leads to the wine losing its colour very slowly and produces a wine which is smoother on the palate and less tannic.
2. Wines that have matured in wooden barrels, whose permeability allows a small amount of exposure to oxygen, and experience what is known as “oxidative” aging. They too lose colour, but at a faster pace. If red grapes are used, in time the red colour lightens to a tawny colour – these are known as Tawny (or sometimes Wood) ports. They also lose volume to evaporation, leaving behind a wine that is slightly more viscous and intense.

The IVDP further divides Port into two categories: normal Ports (standard Rubies, Tawnies and White Ports) and Categories Especiais, Special Categories, which includes everything else.

Barrel-aged port

Tawny ports

Tawny ports are wines made from red grapes that are aged in wooden barrels, exposing them to gradual oxidation and evaporation. As a result, they gradually mellow to a golden-brown colour. The exposure to wood imparts “nutty” flavours to the wine, which is blended to match the house style.

Tawny ports are sweet or medium dry and typically drunk as a dessert wine.

When a Port is described as Tawny, without an indication of age, it is a basic blend of wood aged port that has spent at least seven years in barrels. Above this are Tawny with an indication of age which represent a blend of several vintages, with the average years “in wood” stated on the label. The official categories are 10, 20, 30 and over 40 years. For each category, the average age of the various vintage is at least that of the given category. It is also possible to produce an aged white port in the manner of a tawny, with a number of shippers now marketing 10 year old White Ports.

Colheita

A Tawny port from a single vintage is called Colheitas (pronounced col-YATE-ah, meaning harvest). Instead of an indication of age (10, 20…) the actual vintage year is mentioned. However, they should not be mistaken with Vintage port (see below); whereas a Vintage port will have been bottled about 18 months after being harvested and will continue to mature, a Colheita may have spent 20 or more years in wooden barrels before being bottled and sold, at which point it will no longer mature. A number of White Colheitas have been produced, such as one by Dalva in 1952.

Garrafeira

Garrafeira is an unusual and rare intermediate vintage dated style of Port made from the grapes of a single harvest that combines both the oxidative maturation of years in wood, with further reductive maturation in large glass demijohns. It is required by the IVDP that wines spend some time in wood, usually between three and six years, followed by at least a further eight years in glass, before bottling. In practice the times spent in glass are much longer. At present, only one company, Niepoort, markets Garrafeiras. Their black demijohns, affectionately known as bon-bons, hold approximately 11 litres each. Some connoisseurs describe Garrafeira as having a slight taste of bacon, although many people will neither notice nor understand such a description; the reason being that, during the second phase of maturation, certain oils may precipitate, causing a film to form across the surface of the glass that can be tasted by those who are accustomed to the difference between Garrafeira and other forms of port.

Confusingly, the word Garrafeira may be found on some very old Tawny labels, where the contents of the bottle are of exceptional age.

Bottle-aged ports

Ruby port

Ruby port is the cheapest and most extensively produced type of port. After fermentation it is stored in tanks made of concrete or stainless steel to prevent oxidative aging, and preserve its rich claret color. The wine is usually blended to match the style of the brand to which it is to be sold. The wine is fined and cold filtered before bottling, and does not generally improve with age.

Reserve or vintage character

Reserve port is a premium Ruby port approved by the IVDP’s tasting panel, the Câmara de Provadores. In 2002, the IVDP prohibited the use of the term “Vintage Character”, as the wine had neither attribute.

Pink port

Pink port is a relatively new variation on the market, first released in 2008 by both Croft and the Taylor Fladgate Partnership for Marks and Spencer. It is made with the same grapes and according to the same extremely strict rules that govern the production of vintage and tawny and ruby ports. It is technically a ruby port, but fermented the way a rosé wine would be, with a limited exposure to the grape skins, thus the pink colour. Bearing the hallmarks of a light ruby with its taste being lighter in style and containing a fruity flavour, it’s commonly served cold in various ways.

White port

White port is made from white grapes and can be made in a wide variety of styles, although few shippers produce anything apart from a basic produce that is similar to a standard Ruby. White Port can be used as the basis for a cocktail, or served on its own. There is a range of styles of white port, from dry to very sweet. When white ports are matured for long periods, the colour darkens, eventually reaching a point where it can be hard to discern (from appearance alone) whether the original wine was red or white.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)

Late Bottled Vintage (often referred to simply as LBV) was originally wine that had been destined for bottling as Vintage Port, but because of lack of demand was left in the barrel for longer than had been planned. Over time it has become two distinct styles of wine, both of them bottled between four and six years after the vintage, but one style is fined and filtered before bottling while the other is not.

The filtered wine has the advantage of being ready to drink without decanting, and is bottled in a stoppered bottle that can be easily resealed. This is designed to exploit the extended shelf life such wines enjoy by comparison with vintage port, once opened. However many wine experts feel that this convenience comes at a price and believe that the filtration process strips out much of the character of the wine.

The term Late Bottled Vintage was first introduced by Taylor, Fladgate and Yeatman in 1969, for the 1965 vintage, and the improved shelf life of the filtered and stabilised wine over vintage port was designed to appeal to the restaurant trade.

Unfiltered wines are bottled with conventional corks and need to be decanted and drunk immediately. Recent bottlings are identified by the label wording ‘Unfiltered’ or ‘Bottle matured’ (or both). Before the 2002 regulations, this style was often marketed as ‘Traditional’, a description that is no longer permitted.

If in doubt, a prospective purchaser can check the cork, and examine the top of the bottle to see if there is a stopper underneath the capsule; the serrated edge of a stopper is usually visible, or can be detected with a thumbnail. LBV is intended to provide some of the experience of drinking a Vintage Port but without the decade-long wait of bottle aging and the obligation to decant and consume the bottle contents within a day of opening. To a limited extent it succeeds, as the extra years of oxidative aging in barrel does mature the wine more quickly.

Typically ready to drink when released, LBV ports are the product of a single year’s harvest and tend to be lighter bodied than a vintage port. Filtered LBVs do not generally improve with age, whereas the unfiltered wines will usually be improved by extra years in the bottle. Since 2002, bottles that carry the words ‘Bottle matured’ must have enjoyed at least three years of bottle maturation before release.

Crusted

Crusted Port may be considered a ‘poor man’s vintage port’. It is a blend of port wine from several vintages, which, like Vintage Port, is bottled unfiltered, and sealed with a driven cork. Like Vintage Port it needs to be decanted before drinking. Although Crusted ports will improve with age, the blending process is intended to make these wines approachable at a much younger age. The date on a Crusted Port bottle refers to the bottling date, not the year the grapes were grown.

Vintage port

Vintage port from 1870 and 1873

Although it accounts for only about two percent of production, vintage port is the flagship wine of all Portugal. Vintage port is made entirely from the grapes of a declared vintage year. Not every year is declared a vintage in the Douro; only those when conditions are favourable to the production of a fine and lasting wine. The decision on whether to declare a vintage is made in the spring of the second year following the harvest.

The decision to declare a vintage is made by each individual port house, often referred to as a ’shipper’. The port industry is one where reputations are hard won and easily lost, so the decision is never taken lightly. During periods of recession and war, potential ‘declarations’ have sometimes been missed for economic reasons. In recent years, some shippers have adopted the ‘chateau’ principle for declarations, declaring all but the worst years. More conventional shippers will declare, on average, about three times a decade.

While it is by far the most renowned type of porto, from a volume and revenue standpoint, vintage port actually makes up only a small percentage of the production of most shippers. Vintage ports are aged in barrels for a maximum of two and a half years before bottling, and generally require another ten to thirty years of aging in the bottle before reaching what is considered a proper drinking age. Since they are aged in barrels for only a short time, they retain their dark ruby colour and fresh fruit flavours. Particularly fine vintage ports can continue to gain complexity and drink wonderfully for many decades after they were bottled, and therefore can be particularly sought-after and expensive wines. That said, compared with the very high prices of Bordeaux wines, vintage ports, even from the best years (at least from smaller concerns) are still affordable, albeit for many only for special occasions. Wine dealers, specialising in fine wines in the United Kingdom have, for example, excellent examples (some over twenty years old) at around £25/$51, with the very best starting at around £60/$122 per bottle (2008 prices)or even less. Examples of the famed 1963 vintage are available at time of writing (July 2008) for £61/$125 (Cockburns 1963, bottle, duty paid). Similar classics from Bordeaux and Burgundy are sold in the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pounds, even for recent vintages. The situation in the United States is much the same.

Single Quinta Vintage Port

This is a relatively new (at least in terms of marketing) development : it is vintage port produced from a particular vineyard and sometimes from a lesser “undeclared” year. However, some of the most renowned Vintage Ports are Single Quintas.

Much of the complex character of aged vintage port comes from the continued slow decomposition of grape solids in each bottle. However, these solids are undesirable when port is consumed, and thus vintage port typically requires a period of settling before decanting and pouring.

Vintage port should not be confused with ‘Late Bottled Vintage’ (see above).

Vintages

The term vintage has a distinct meaning in the context of vintage port. While a “vintage” is simply the year in which a wine is made, most producers of Vintage port restrict their production of year-labeled bottlings to only the best years, a few per decade.

If a port house decides that its wine is of quality sufficient for a Vintage, samples are sent to the IVDP for approval and the house declares the vintage. In very good years, almost all the port houses will declare their wines.

In intermediate years, the producers of blended Vintage Ports will not declare their flagship port, but may decide to declare the vintage of a single Quinta, e.g. the 1996 Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim and Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas. Some houses now choose to declare their wines on all but the worst years: Quinta do Vesuvio, has declared a vintage every year with the exceptions of 1993 and 2002.

Improved wine making technologies and better weather forecasts during the harvest have increased the number of years in which a vintage can be declared. Although there have been years when only one or two wines have been declared, it is over thirty years since there was a year with no declarations at all.

History and tradition

Established in 1756, the Port Wine-producing Douro region is the third oldest protected wine region in the world after the Tokaj-Hegyalja region in Hungary, established in 1730 and Chianti 1716.

In 1756, during the rule of the Marquês do Pombal, the Companhia Geral da Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro (C.G.A.V.A.D., also known as the General Company of Viticulture of the Upper Douro) was founded to guarantee the quality of the product and fair pricing to the end consumer. The C.G.A.V.A.D. was also in charge of regulating which Port Wine would be for export or internal consumption and managing the protected geographic indication.

Port became very popular in England after the Methuen Treaty of 1703, when merchants were permitted to import it at a low duty, while war with France deprived English wine drinkers of French wine. The long trip to England often resulted in spoiled wine; the fortification of the wine was introduced to improve the shipping and shelf-life of the wine for its journey.

The continued English involvement in the port trade can be seen in the names of many port shippers: Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Graham, Osborne, Sandeman, Taylor and Warre being amongst the best known. Shippers of Dutch and German origin are also prominent, such as Niepoort and Burmester.

There is a unique body of English ritual and etiquette surrounding the consumption of port, stemming from British naval custom.

Traditionally, the wine is passed “port to port”: the host will pour a glass for the person seated at their right and then pass the bottle or decanter to the left (the port side); this practice is then repeated around the table.

If the port becomes forestalled at some point, it is considered poor form to ask for the decanter directly. Instead, the person seeking a refill would ask of the person who has the bottle: “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” (after the notoriously stingy Bishop). If the person being thus queried does not know the ritual (and so replies in the negative), the querent will remark “He’s an awfully nice fellow, but he never remembers to pass the port.”

A technical solution to the potential problem of a guest forgetting their manners and “hogging” the port can be found in a Hoggett Decanter which has a rounded bottom, which makes it impossible to put it down until it has been returned to the host, who can rest it in a specially designed wooden stand known as “the Hoggett.”

In other old English traditions when port is decanted, commonly at the dining table, the whole bottle should be finished in one sitting by the diners, and the table should not be vacated until this is done.

Storing and serving

PouringPort, like other wine, should be stored in a cool but not cold, dark location (as light can damage the port), with a steady temperature (such as a cellar), lying the bottle on its side if the bottle has a cork, or standing up if stoppered. With the exception of white port, which can be served chilled, port should be served at between 15 to 20 degrees Celsius. Tawny port may also be served slightly cooler.

Once opened, port wines must be consumed within a short period of time. Those with stoppers can be kept for a couple of months in a dark place, but if it has a cork it must be consumed sooner. Typically, the older the vintage, the quicker it must be consumed.

Port wines that are unfiltered (Such as Vintage ports, Crusted and some LBVs), form a sediment (or crust) in the bottle and require decanting. This process also allows the port to breathe; however, how long before serving is dependent on the age of the port (particularly in the case of Vintage ports, which, once decanted are recommended to be consumed within 3-4 days.


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