Traditionally port for me was always associated with Christmas. I’d watch my Dad and Grandmother retrieve the same bottle of dusty ruby port each year and have a glass each evening over Christmas. Surprisingly, I wouldn’t be interested in drinking it myself until I came to Portugal and was introduced to it properly. Once you’re in Portugal, you’ll realise it’s quite a big deal and there’s a bewildering array of options! This complete guide will explain everything you need to know about port wine, what makes it special, and how to choose one!
What is Port Wine?
We’ll start with the basics, Port Wine (referred to as port) is a type of fortified wine made in the Douro Valley region in Portugal. Essentially, there are three reasons that really set it apart from other types of wine; the location, the grapes, and the fortification process. These three details are what sets Vinho do Porto (that’s port in Portuguese) apart from many other wines across the world.
The Douro Valley
In the north of Portugal you’ll find the Douro Wine Valley. Due to its unique location it has a perfect micro-climate for growing grapes. Within Portugal its particularly well known (look out for Douro DOC wine). The Marão mountains protect the valley from coastal winds and rain. Resulting in hot and dry summers, temperatures can reach as high as 45 degrees! The steep valley sides and soil is ideal for vineyards and terraces. Historically, it was demarcated in 1756 to protect the wine exports. Due to this wine production, nearby Porto, connected by the Douro river, became an important city for exports.
Fermentation and Fortification – How is Port Wine Made?
After the long hot summer, the grapes are harvested and taken to be processed in September. Although much of the industry has modernised, some port producers (also referred to as shippers) still rely on traditional methods. The traditional method was to gather all of the grapes into large stone tanks and utilise manpower to stomp on them by foot. After treading, the grape must, which is the pressed juice, the seeds, stems, and skins, are fermented for several days, until alcohol levels reach around 7 percent. This begins the process of wine fermentation, but it’s not quite port wine yet.
In traditional wine making, bacteria called yeast breakdown the sugar and create alcohol as a by-product, this is the process called fermentation. Usually, wine is left for one to two weeks to allow this to happen. The yeast breakdown all the sugar and produce a wine of around 12%-14% in strength. However, in port wine production, the process is interrupted. Within 3 or 4 days of fermentation, the producers add a grape spirit confusingly called brandy to the wine (it’s not actually the brandy most people are familiar with). This grape spirit is around 75% ABV. The high alcohol content kills the yeast and stops the fermentation process. This raises the alcohol content of the Port wine and preserves much of its original sugar content. Resulting in a much stronger and sweeter wine, this is what people mean when they say a fortified wine.
Following fortification, Port is then placed into casks for aging. Traditionally these would have been oak barrels, but modern producers use stainless steel vats as well.
The Different Types of Port
There are several categories of Port, that can usually be broken down further by their aging and quality. The terms and their definitions are strictly regulated by the IDVP (Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto). In broad terms, you’ll most commonly find a Ruby Port, a Tawny Port and a White Port.
Ruby ports are named for their distinct deep ruby colour. Often described as claret, they are young, wines with fresh, red-fruit aromas and nimble palates. Following fermentation, they’ll be stored in stone or stainless steel tanks to prevent oxidation and to preserve their deep ruby colour. Rubies are filtered before bottling and do not generally improve with age, they’re meant to be consumed when they’re bought. They’re usually aged for around three years. Although in some cases premium rubies are aged in wood from four to six years. When most people in the UK think of a port it is usually a ruby port being discussed. They are usually easy on your wallet and are particularly versatile to drink. Ruby Ports can then be further broken down into Reserve, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), Vintage, Crusted, and Single Quinta Vintage. While it might seem a confusing array of marketing names, each has a specific designation from the IDVP, so lets explore them!
Ruby Reserve Port
Reserve Port (originally called Vintage Character Port) is made by blending a variety of vintages, all of which normally have an average age of between 5 and 7 years. Like a Ruby, it retains its strong fruit flavours but has more complexity and richness than a standard ruby as it spends more time in barrel.
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)
A Late Bottled Vintage (normally just called an LBV) was reportedly created by accident, with multiple Port houses claiming its discovery. Originally, it was supposed to be a vintage port, but was left in the barrel for too long. The extra years an LBV spends in the barrel causes the wine to mature more quickly through oxidative ageing. LBV is intended to provide some of the experience of drinking a traditional vintage but without the need for lengthy and costly bottle ageing. Which results in a cheaper product. Most LBVs are ready to drink straight away. However, an unfiltered LBV can improve with bottle aging if you do want to store it. An unfiltered LBV will also need decanting.
Crusted Port is a blend of wines which spend at least four years ageing in barrels. The wines are then bottled without being filtered and then cellared for three years before being released for sale. As the name indicates, it forms a ‘crust’ or sediment in the bottle, so it will need to be decanted before being served. The formation of the crust is a natural process that occurs in the finest full-bodied ports. It is an indication that the wine will continue to improve in bottle and develop its aroma and character with age. It can take a decade or more for the wine to develop a ‘crust’, although this still represents an earlier drinking opportunity than most vintage Ports. Crusted Ports require decanting to rid them of sediment before drinking.
Vintage Port is at the top of Ruby hierarchy and are some of the most exclusive wines you can find. The word vintage is a specific term defined by the IDVP, which refers to an exceptional harvest year of grapes. It means that both the quantity and quality of the grapes have aligned to an extraordinary standard. If a house decides that its wine is of quality sufficient for a vintage, samples will be sent to the IVDP for approval. In good years, almost all the houses will declare their wines. It can take up to two years after harvest for a vintage declaration to be made. In general, this happens around three times a decade. The most recent Vintage declaration was in 2018, although it will be a year or two before you can buy them.
Single Quinta Vintage Port
Quinta is the word for estate and refers to the specific vineyard of origin. Single Quinta Vintage Port (SQVP), is wine from a single property during one exceptional year (vintage). These are some of the most exclusive to come across and sometimes most sought after by collectors. However, that might not mean they are the absolute best. In a vintage year, the port houses will blend the best grapes from a variety of quintas to produce their vintage port. An SQVP is the wine from one estate and although a vintage, may not represent the absolute highest quality of grapes. Usually, the bigger port houses will not produce an SQVP during a vintage year, as they’ll want their best grapes to support their Vintage production and not SQVP. However, most of the port houses will have single quinta when a vintage is not declared.
This means that although exclusive, they are not always as expensive as a Vintage. The smaller quintas can essentially, produce a Single Quinta Vintage whenever they feel they have enough grapes of high enough quality.
With the rubies out of the way, it’s time to discuss the second broad variety of port and a personal favourite of ours. Tawnies start their lives as ruby ports but lose their deep red colour due to their aging. As they age, they turn from deep ruby, to amber orange, before reaching their typical golden-brown colour. Unlike rubies, tawnies will typically be aged in smaller wooden casks of between 500-600 litres called pipes. The smaller casks are used to allow a gentle exposure to oxygen. This exposure is what imparts flavours described as dried fruit, caramel, or nuts to the wine.
Tawny and Reserve Tawny Port
At the lower end of the scale is the typical Tawny Port and it will be labelled without an indication of age. In this case it will usually be a blend of wines that has spent around three years in oak barrels. Above this you have Reserve Tawny Port. Similar to a reserve ruby, these will be more complex as they’re blended with aged and higher quality wines.
After reserve tawny, you have aged tawny. These tawny ports will have the age of the blend on the bottle. They come in 10, 20, 30 and 40 year ages. Here it’s an average of the wines in the bottles, and not completely made up of a specific age of wine. For example, a 10-year tawny can be made of a blend of 5 and 20 year aged wine. In most cases, aged tawnies will continue to be tested and blended to fit the house style. To newcomers to port wine, we often recommend starting with a 10-year aged tawny. It’s both intricate enough to get all the sweetness and dried-fruit characteristics of an aged tawny, while also being substantially cheaper than 20-year tawnies and Colheitas. You can find a good 10-year tawny for around €15 in a supermarket, sometimes less if you find a good offer.
Colheita is the Portuguese word for harvest, and similarly to a vintage it refers to a specific harvest year. Originally, Colheitas were produced by the Portuguese port houses in an attempt to create an exclusive tawny to rival the vintage rubies. With their success, came replication and now many of the other port houses produce their own colheita. Two dates will appear on the label, the specific year of harvest and the year of bottling. Although colheita is still the Portuguese word, you’ll find similar varieties called single vintage from other port houses.
As the name implies, white port is made from a variety of white grapes and can be made in a range from very dry to very sweet styles. It usually has the sweetness of a ruby port without retaining as much of the body. It’s usually much lighter and fresher, and often with fruit notes like apricot or peach. Similarly, to rubies though, you’ll still get notes of aged fruit or marmalade. White port comes in a range of sweetness ranging from Doce (Sweet) to Seco (Dry). In between you have Meio Doce (half sweet), and at the other end is Extra Seco (very dry). It’s also the go to variety when making a port and tonic!
At the very sweetest end you have Lagrima which is described as muito doce or very sweet. They usually have at least 130g of sugar per litre of wine and are as sweet as they sound. The word lagrima means tears as it’s said the wine should look like tears as it runs down the side of the glass its poured in.
Rosé Port is the most recent variety of port and was pioneered by Croft in 2005. It’s only been around for a few years but long enough for other producers to create their own. It’s a port that could be described as lighter than a ruby while still retaining those red fruit flavours. Whereas a white port offers the sweetness of a ruby while being light and retaining the aged fruit and honey flavours. Rosé port offers a similar lightness but with a stronger essence of fruit flavours instead of honey and dates. With fruit flavours like strawberries and raspberries, and this light and sweet nature, it’s been marketed as a both a summer aperitif to serve chilled and a cocktail mixer.
A Brief History of Port
With it’s production and the types of Port out of the way, how about a little history on how it became world famous. One of the biggest reasons for its growth and popularity was reportedly because of the British Empire’s conflicts with France. Cut off from its traditional supplier of wine in France, the British began to look for another wine supplier to fulfill its needs. The Treaty of Methuen in 1703 would result in low import duties on wine from Portugal, during times of war with France. From here, there are two stories about the creation and popularity of Vinho do Porto.
The first is based on exporting wine by long distance. Unfortunately, the distance by sea between Portugal and England was much longer than between France and England, and much of the wine was spoiled during the long journey. To remedy this, the wine producers began adding additional alcohol during its production. As described above, this alcohol, increased the alcoholic content of the wine, and increased the final sugar content of it too. This stronger and sweeter wine was able to survive longer without spoiling and became quite a hit in England.
The second, is a more personal story of two English merchants on holiday in the Douro region. While there, they would be invited to dinner with the Abbot of Lamego. He would treat the merchants to a “very agreeable, sweetish and extremely smooth wine”. The merchants would be so pleased with this wine that they purchased his entire stock of it there and then. With a promise to return and buy more.
The Famous Port Houses of Porto
The British would return to Porto, and buy up as much of the Vinho do Porto as they could. They also invested heavily into port production which is why some of the most famous houses have British names and origins. Grahams, Taylors, Cockburn, Dows, Offley and Sandeman. The Dutch and German’s would also get involved leading to Niepoort, Kopke and Burmester. And of course, the locals with Calém, Ferreira and Fonseca being some of the most traditional. Many of these brands still operate their original warehouses on the riverside of Vila Nova de Gaia today!
Other Fortified Wines in Portugal
The Douro Valley is a geographical demarcation with clearly defined limits. If you try to make Vinho do Porto outside of the region, it cannot be called port. That hasn’t stopped at least a few people trying though. Another type of fortified wine popular in Portugal is Madeira Wine. The climate in Madeira was well suited to growing grapes. However, in the 15th century they found that they could not transport the wine back to the mainland without it spoiling. Taking ideas from Port, the winemakers added a distilled alcohol – this time made from native sugar cane to the wine during fermentation. This again, retained the sugar and alcohol content which stopped it from spoiling at sea. Similarly, to Vinho do Porto, Madeira wine is also protected and cannot be sold unless from Madeira. You’ll usually find Madeira wines next to the ports at supermarkets.
Well there you go! Port wine explained, next time you’re at a bar or in the supermarket you should be able to choose a great port. Let us know in the comments what your favourites are!