Port wine, the sweet reward for patience

It is said that you cannot get more British than port wine. It was made like a tailored suit, precisely so that it would suit the English taste and succeed there. The truth is that Port wines are the gateway to the extensive wine world of Portugal. This small but great country has perhaps one of the highest number of vinifiable native varieties at around 500!

So let’s find out a bit more about these wines that have put Portugal among the best in the winemaking world.

vino de oporto

How about we start with a bit of history?

The city of Porto is considered to be Portugal’s “capital of the north”. It is the second biggest city after Lisbon and its name, like that of its famous wine, means “The Port”, perhaps due to its geographical location. It is the northern gate to Portugal facing the Atlantic.

Port wine, or vinho do Porto in Portuguese, is a fortified wine, a wine that has alcohol added during the production process, which increases the alcohol content and gives it texture, sweetness and stronger flavours, as well as an extremely long life. All these wines have residual sugar, so many are sweet and others are extremely sweet.

Fortified wines were first made in the 16th century as a result of looking for ways to preserve wine from the adverse conditions it was subjected to during transport so that it would reach its destination in a drinkable condition.

The English have always preferred French wine but in 1678, importing wines from France to the United Kingdom was prohibited. In 1703 they signed the Methuen treaty with Portugal, which resulted in increased trade between the two countries. At that time, Portuguese wines did not have the structure to withstand the journey across the sea to the United Kingdom, and their acidic, light taste did not go down well with the English consumer.

They say that two English merchants who travelled to Portugal to buy wines visited a monastery high in the Douro Valley where they tasted a slightly sweet red wine that surprised them. They thought it would be a success with their consumers. The Abbot of the Monastery confessed his secret: he added brandy to the wine before the end of fermentation.

The success of this “new” wine in Britain was such that they set up the first wine houses in Portugal themselves. Even today many of the producers have names of English origin.

What is port wine like?

We have already said that it is a wine made by adding alcohol to stop the fermentation before it ends naturally. This process results in wines with an alcohol content of between 17º and 25º and that can be sweet or very sweet, depending on the amount of residual sugar. They are also characterised by their aromatic intensity and the properties they acquire from the aging process, which we will talk about later.

Port wine may be one of the longest-living wines in the world.

We have also mentioned that Portugal is one of the countries with the highest number of native strains.

Port wine is made from coupages that can include a wide variety of different grapes. More than 80 are authorised, with Malvasía Dourada, Malvasía Fina, Gouveio and Rabigato being used most commonly for white port wines which, unlike the reds, are produced in a very small quantities; red port is mostly made with the Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Franca, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cāo varieties.

The funny thing is that these vines do not really grow in the city of Porto, rather they can be found in the Alto Douro Wine Region, which is an area in northeastern Portugal with more than 26 thousand hectares and that has been classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site where heroic harvests have been carried out for centuries on the steep shale, granite and slate slopes that overlook the Duero pass with views of one of the most spectacular landscapes in international winemaking.

This region was the first in the world to be officially demarcated in 1756 and this is where we find most of the Quintas or Port-making estates.

The second most famous city connected to port is Vila Nova de Gaia, located just in front of Porto, on the other side of the river Douro. This city is home to many of the great port wineries or ármazens and exporters and it is even where the grapes from the Alto Duero are vinified. Today many producers do this directly in the Quintas, near the vineyards.

How is port wine made?

After harvesting, the clusters used to be taken to the wineries where traditional grape treading was carried out, which is a full ceremony for port wines. The clusters, tread or not, are poured into granite containers called lagares where a group of workers tread the grapes for 12 hours to extract colour and tannins with dancing interspersed with the treading. This method is an efficient and more gentle way to get the must. Nowadays, many Quintas still use it to make their high-end port wines.

Other wineries have replaced traditional treading with mechanised battonage.

The must obtained is allowed to ferment and one part spirit, which must be grape-based, is added to four parts wine at the right moment to reach the desired amount of residual sugar in the final product. This addition of alcohol kills yeasts and stops fermentation. That is the point where the wine is taken to age in barrels to prevent the high alcohol content from increasing the presence of more potent tannins.

How many styles of Port wines are there?

The best known are the following:

White Port is a young port wine that is made with white grapes and is classified by its amount of residual sugar (from medium dry to sweet). They are wines without a vintage, which means they are made with a variety of wines from different vintages that are aged in wood for an average of three years before being released to the market for consumption.

Ruby Port is a young port wine, with no vintage and a beautiful ruby red color, hence its name. They are usually full-bodied and fruit-filled wines, with well-integrated alcohol. They age in wood for two or three years before being bottled and released to the market for consumption.

Tawny Port is a port wine that is often the most successful and certainly one of the best known. Its name “Tawny” comes from its “tawny” colour, a kind of amber brown that is more or less intense depending on its aging. It offers aromas of nuts, coffee, chocolate and caramel. The best are Reserve Tawny Ports that age for an average of seven years in barrels before being bottled.

Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV) is a port wine from a specific vintage selected for its quality and aged in the barrel for an average of four to six years. It is bottled later than a Ruby port. The most modern styles are filtered before bottling so they are ready for consumption without having to be decanted. They offer more intense fruit than Rubies and can be stored up to two weeks after opening.

Colheita port is a very popular style of port wine in Portugal. It comes from individual crops and is aged in barrels for an average of 8 years. They are very fine and old Tawny ports with the labels stating that they have aged in a barrel, the harvest and bottling date.

Vintage port is a style of port wine that is among the longest-living wines worldwide. It is made from exceptional crops of a particular year from the best vineyards. In its youth, a Vintage port is complex, rich and tannic. It is bottled when it is two years old. Unlike Colheita or Late Bottled Vintage ports, Vintage ports age in the bottle, mature slowly and can reach their peak at around 20 years old. They are so long-living that they could even reach one hundred years old or more.

The port wines are, without a doubt, a world treasure. Young or long-living jewels that are full of history, character and personality. A real reward for patience. A sweet way to get to know Portuguese viticulture, which is so rich and diverse, and has something for everyone.

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