The development of Port wine, or vinho do Porto has a long and complex history, that is inextricably tangled with the history of Europe, shipping and, of course, Portugal, which is the only place in the world where the grapes that are used in Port are grown.
One of the most notable moments in Port’s fascinating history took place in 1765 when the Marquis de Pombal created the very first state controlled wine districts in its honor. The following quote is from Taylor, one of the original Port wine “lodges,” which was established in 1692.
“In establishing the geographical limits of the Port vineyards, classifying them according to quality and establishing standards for the production of the wine, Pombal was a visionary precursor of the modern concept of an AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée).
These pioneering measures laid the foundations for today’s legislation which is one of the most sophisticated of any classic wine region.”
What is Port?
Port is a fortified wine. The definition of fortified wine is a wine which has had grape spirits or brandy added to it at some point during production. In the case of Port, that addition occurs before the wine has finished fermenting.
Port wine grapes are grown only in the Douro Valley of northern Portugal in rocky hillside vineyards. Some of the grape varieties that are used are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa or Tinta Barroca, among others. Some of the vineyards are so old that they have been declared World Heritage Sights.
There are many different types of Port, as we will see below. Traditionally Port is served later in the meal, with cheese or dessert. Classically it was known to be a great after dinner drink with chocolates or fine cigars. Some white Ports may be served as an aperitif.
This is changing, however, and some creative chefs now pair Port, which can come in dry and semi-dry types as well as sweet, with many different parts of a meal.
Types of Port
There are two broad categories of Port:
- Wines that have matured in sealed glass bottles, and have had no exposure to air and therefore experience what is known as “reductive” aging. This process leads to the wine losing its color very slowly as it ages and procures a wine which is smooth on the palate and less tannic.
- Wines that have matured in wooden barrels. This allows a small amount of exposure to oxygen, and creates what is known as “oxidative” aging. They too lose color, but at a faster pace. They also lose volume due to evaporation, leaving behind a wine that is slight more viscous.
Within these two types are many different varieties of Port wine. I owe thanks to Gretchen Thomas, the Wine & Spirit Director of the Barcelona Restaurant Group for much of the information that follows.
Ruby 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. This process takes a few months.
White is made from white grapes and can be made in a wide variety of styles, although until recently few shippers have produced anything other than a standard product. Ordinary white ports make an excellent basis for a cocktail while those of greater age are best served chilled on their own. There is a range of styles of white port, from dry to very sweet.
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) was originally wine that had been destined for bottling as vintage port, but because of lack of demand was left in the barrel or longer than had been planned. LBV is intended to provide some of the experience of drinking a vintage port but without the need for lengthy bottle aging. To a limited extent is succeeds, as the extra years of oxidative aging does mature the wine more quickly. Some refer to this as “baby vintage” Port.
Vintage is made entirely from the grapes of a declared vintage year and accounts for about two percent of overall port production. Not every year is declared a vintage in the Douro. Vintage Ports are aged in vats for a maximum of two and a half years before bottling, and generally require another ten to forty years of aging in the bottle before reaching what is considered a proper drinking age.
Single Quinta Vintage Port are wines that originate from a single estate, unlike the standard bottlings of the port wine houses, which can be sourced from a number of quintas (farms). Producers use single quinta bottlings in two different ways. Most of the large port wine houses have a single quinta bottling that is only produced in some years when the regular vintage port of the house is not declared.
Crusted Ports are not made from wines of a single year but, like Vintage Ports, are capable of maturing in bottle. Also like Vintage Ports, they are not filtered before bottling and will form a ‘crust’ (natural sediment) in the bottle as they age.
Tawny Port is made from red grapes that are aged in wooden barrels, exposing them to gradual oxidation and evaporation. They are usually labeled as having aged 10, 20, 30 or 40+ years and are sweet or semi-dry. If not labeled, they will have aged for at least two years.
Colheta a tawny Port from a single vintage.
Garrafeira is an unusual and rare intermediate vintage dated style of Port made from the grapes of a single harvest that combines the oxidative maturation of years in wood with further reductive maturation in large glass demijohns.
How do you choose the variety that is best for you? The only way is to try! Some producers package different types of Port into small bottles in a gift box and this can be a great way to taste the different types to see what you like best.