History of PortFor almost two millennia, a unique viticultural landscape rose on the schistous hillsides along the Douro River valley and that has produced an exceptional wine. More than a gift of nature, Port Wine is at heart the expression of this history, a collective cultural heritage of work and experience, know-how and art, that has built up from generation to generation. Port Wine was, and is, a key product for the national economy and even more importantly, a symbolic asset that represents Portugal throughout the world.
The history of vineyards in the Upper Douro is a detailed and ancient one. There is no lack of archeological discoveries and documented references to witness the cultural persistence of viticulture from past eras.
Remains of stone treading tanks and casks dating back at least to the 3rd and 4th centuries can be found throughout the region. The designation Port Wine, however, only appears during the second half of the 17th century at a time of the expansion of Douro viticulture and rapid growth in wine exports.
During the last third of the 17th century, a time of great rivalry between the maritime empires in the North, the Flemish and the British increased their demand for Iberian wines, to the detriment of wines from Bordeaux and other regions of France. Specifically, England increased its quantity of Port Wine imports. In 1703, the Treaty of Methuen put the diplomatic seal of approval on this trade by exchanging privileges for British textiles on the Portuguese markets.
Production of Douro wines, stimulated by the rising British demand and very high prices, tried to adapt itself to the new requirements of the market. However, as it has occurred with all great wines, active trading instigated rivalries that often gave rise to fraud and infractions.
The RegionPort is a fortified wine that comes from the world’s oldest regulated and demarcated wine region. The region was created with the establishment of the Companhia Geral da Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro in 1756 and demarcated in 1757 with solid granite pillars, called the Marcos de Feitoria.
Port’s grapes are grown in the Alto Douro vineyards, located approximately 60 miles east of the city of Porto in northwest Portugal. The Douro Valley is surrounded by rugged mountain ranges that produce a hot, dry climate. The flaky, arid soil presents unique challenges for winemakers who build row upon row of terraces, but it’s the combination of climate and soil that make Port wine unique. The demarcated region covers a total of 617,000 acres – 96,000 of which are vineyards.
The region is regulated by the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto (IVDP), which analyzes, tastes and approves every shipment. The IVDP was created in 1933 and serves as the ultimate guarantee of the authenticity of Port wine. The rigorous quality control procedures and regulations ensure the unique value of any wine that bears the region’s seal of approval.
The ProcessThe Port winemaking process dates back for centuries and involves ongoing, hands-on, human intervention.
Harvest. Each year in late September, the harvesting process begins. The exact dates and other specifications for picking the grapes, as well as the entire process, are set by very strict rules that apply within the demarcated region.
Pressing. After the grapes are picked, they are transferred to the quintas, or estates, where workers crush the grapes. Today, most of the Port producers use machines to press the grapes and produce must. A small number of producers, however, still use granite treading tanks where workers tread the grapes.
Fermentation. After crushing, the grape juice is left to ferment just like other wines. The difference with Port, however, is that after half of the initial amount of grape sugar has fermented, grape brandy is added to the wine. This stops fermentation and allows the winemakers to make adjustments for taste and sweetness.
Aging. Historically, Port wine was transported from the quintas on ships down the Douro River to Vila Nova da Gaia, which is located south of the city of Porto on the other side of the river. Now, the wine is typically shipped by tanker truck to the houses in Gaia, where it is stored in vats and casks to mature. The length and method of aging depends on the wine variety – Vintage Port continues to age in the bottle, while Tawny Port ages in oak barrels.
The GrapesGrapes grown for Port are generally characterized by their small, dense fruit which produce concentrated and long-lasting flavors, suitable for long aging. While the grapes used to produce Port are strictly regulated by the IVDP, wines from outside this region which describe themselves as Port may be made from other varieties.
Over a hundred varieties of grapes (castas) are sanctioned for Port production, although only five are widely cultivated and used – Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Touriga Francesa and Touriga Nacional (the most celebrated Port grape).
White Ports are produced the same way as red ports, except that they use white grapes — Esgana-Cão, Folgasão, Malvasia, Rabigato, Verdelho, and Viosinho.
A Variety of StylesThere is an enormous variety, from taste to color to age, of Port wines on the market today.
Ruby Port is a blend of several different harvests that age for two to three years before it is bottled. It usually has a deep red color and tastes young and fruity.
Ruby Reserve Port is the product of a selection of the best Port Wine made each year, blended together to create a young, powerful, fruity and intense wine that is also rounded and versatile. It is deep ruby red in color.
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port is made of high-quality red wines that come from grapes harvested in a single year that have been aged for four to six years in wood before being bottled. Many are ready to drink immediately, but some will age in the bottle (check the label). These Ports are a deep ruby red, extremely full-bodied and rich.
Vintage Port is the finest and most expensive style. It is produced from a single, exceptional-quality harvest, which must be declared a vintage within two years of the harvest. The wine then ages for many years in the bottle and should be decanted before serving. Excellent vintages currently available are 1994, 1997, 2000, 2003 and, most recently, 2007.
Tawny Port is made from various wines that are aged in wood casks before being bottled. These Ports are usually light brown in color, getting deeper in color with age and have flavors of wood, nuts and dried fruit.
Tawny Reserve Port is aged for a minimum of seven years in wood casks. It is light brown in color and has smooth, toasty, woody flavors with hints of fruit.
Tawny with an Indication of Age is a high-quality Port produced by combining different wines to achieve just the right complementary tastes and level of complexity. It is then labeled with the approximate average age of the blended wines – 10, 20, 30 or 40+ years old.
Colheita is a Port made from the grapes of a single year’s harvest. It is aged for at least seven years in wood and often longer. This extremely rare wine features the year of bottling on the label.
White Port varies in style according to whether it has aged for a shorter or longer period of time and also varies in different degrees of sweetness according to the manner by which it is made. Flavors range from floral to complex, and some white styles have a minimum alcohol content of 16.5% (Light Dry White Port) capable of meeting the demand for less alcoholic Ports. White Port is also used in a Portonic, consisting of equal parts of Dry White Port and tonic water, served with ice cubes and a slice of lemon.
White Reserve and White with an Indication of Age Port can bear the related designation ‘Reserve’ or ‘Indication of Age’ (10, 20, 30 or more than 40-years-old) on the label, provided that the criteria of the Port Wine regulations are met.
Enjoying PortWhen it comes to Port, it’s not just the winemaking process that is steeped in tradition. The experience of drinking Port is also infused with rituals. Historically, the decanter full of Port is placed in front of the host and then passed from right to left. Other intricate traditions add yet another unique level of complexity to the wine and broaden the many ways there are to enjoy Port.
Serving. While White Port is best chilled, Ruby and Tawny Port should be enjoyed slightly chilled. There are several different types of glasses from which to drink Port, including some specifically designed to bring out its flavors. The glass should be a robust wine glass filled about halfway full in order to allow the wine to breathe and the aromas to be enjoyed.
Decanting. Vintage Ports that have been aged for more than eight years in the bottle need to be decanted prior to serving. To do this, stand the bottle upright for 24 hours and then remove the cork a few hours before serving. Being careful not to disturb the sediment, pour the contents into a clean decanter in one continuous pouring motion. Once you see the sediment appear in the neck of the bottle, stop pouring or pour the wine into a glass and check for sediment.
Pairing. Port Wines are most often enjoyed leisurely after a meal, paired with desserts like chocolate, fresh fruit, pudding and ice cream, but many can also be enjoyed with the meal:
- Chilled White Port makes an excellent aperitif either by itself or in a “Portonic” Tawny Ports are perfect accompaniments to meals that include dried fruit, pâté, smoked ham, foie gras or eggplant
- Ruby Ports are also well-paired with cheese, particularly blue cheese
- Vintage Port and Stilton cheese are a traditional pairing and an extraordinary treat.
Visiting the RegionIn the Port wine region, tourism and gastronomy run side by side with the visitor being lead from one discovery to another. The Douro region offers many opportunities for travelers to learn about the people of this region, the wine growers and the estates ( or “quintas”), such as the Port Wine Route. A web of national heritage, and of scenic, gastronomic, cultural and historic interest, it is comprised of 54 sites of renowned tourist value. The Port Wine Lodges are located in Vila Nova de Gaia, a city facing Oporto and a UNESCO world heritage site. It is in these lodges where most of the region’s unique treasure – Port – is gracefully aged. These premises date back to the 19th century and visitors may enjoy a guided tour plus a Port Wine tasting. The region is also the discovery of the Solares do Vinho do Porto, in Régua, Oporto and Lisbon, run by the I.V.D.P.-Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto. Here, visitors may try different styles of Port Wine in a refined and welcoming atmosphere. Finally, it is the discovery of Port Wine itself and the fascinating art of buying, keeping and enjoying it.
Did You Know?
- When passing the Port, someone who keeps the decanter in front of him for too long might be called “The Bishop of Norwich,” after a famously stingy priest. Likewise, if you would like someone to pass you the Port, simply ask, “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?”
- There are more than 100,000 individual vineyards and approximately 25,000 farmers in the Douro region.
- Before 1986, all Port Wine had to be shipped from the Vila Nova da Gaia. But today, Port can also be shipped directly from the Douro demarcated region.
- There are more than 90 different grape varieties that grow in the Douro region.
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