Port wines: Fortified treasures in a wide array of styles
A fascinating, adaptable wine, undeniably traditional and resolutely modern, Port is one of those wines that boasts an immense historical heritage. The name suggests that it originates from the city of Porto. However, it is in the heart of the spectacular Douro Valley, located more than a hundred kilometers to the east of the city, that the birthplace of Port is found.
The vineyards of Portugal have been known since Antiquity, but the history of Port took an extraordinary turn thanks to trade with England, caused by the embargo set by Colbert, Prime Minister to France’s King Louis XIV in 1667 on English goods, and the subsequent signing of the trade Treaty of Methuen between England and Portugal in 1703.
Port wine did not take to sea travel well and often arrived to England spoiled. A British merchant, Job Bearsley, had the idea of increasing the proportion of wine brandy, modifying the wine and stopping fermentation, while retaining residual sugars. Port was born. The resounding success of Port would also cause its endangerment by threatening the quality of the production. In 1756, the Marquis of Pombal limited the Douro vineyards by imposing production criteria. Without knowing it, he had just created the first delimited and regulated wine region in the world, well before the birth of the first AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) in France in 1936 with Chateauneuf-du-Pape. More than 400 years after its creation, the prosperity of the Port trade continues thanks to a perfectly orchestrated and centralized commercial organization from Vila Nova de Gaia, the historic trading district of Port merchants, where one can find the finest Houses such as Taylor's, Croft, Dow's, Quinta do Noval, Ramos Pinto or Fonseca.
Today, the Douro region is where Port wine is produced, covering almost 30,000 hectares of vineyards with small producers owning an average of 1 hectare of vines. There is a saying about this region: "9 months of winter and 3 months of hell." The climatic conditions in the Douro Valley are indeed harsh, with severe winters and very dry summers with scorching temperatures.
Port wine is made from a wide variety of indigenous grape varieties and comes in different styles. Although white Port is available, the finest is red Port. Tawny, Ruby, Late Bottled Vintage (L.B.V) and finally the most noble, Vintage Port, Port is the result of ancestral know-how which is expressed through its complexity and its exceptional aging potential.
A sweet red wine made from a blend of grapes grown exclusively in the steep vineyards of Portugal’s Douro River Valley with very traditional winemaking techniques that result in a dazzling array of styles, Port wines can seem intimidating even to the most experienced wine connoisseur. These are bottles steeped in local custom and molded by centuries of treaties and trade, with brand names that hint at a fascinating story of continued British involvement over time.
Today, Port wines are living the most illustrious chapter of their history so far, with demand growing among a clientele that is more curious and knowledgeable than ever. From the brooding dark fruit of an LBV to the toffee and nougat of a Ten Year Old Tawny, the wisdom and complexity of a decades-old Vintage Port to the candied orange peel of a dry white expression, Port unlocks a world of dazzling aromas through bottles unparalleled in their potential to age. A tried-and-true must-have at any holiday table, but also a treat to sip and savor year-round, Port fully encapsulates the ethos of the modern wine consumer: to drink less but drink better.
The fascinating history of Port wines
Inextricably linked to England
While the history of winegrowing in Portugal dates back two thousand years to Roman times, the wines of Port have their beginnings in the second half of the 17th century. The Companhia Geral da Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro (C.G.A.V.A.D.), known in English as the General Company of Viticulture of the Upper Douro (or simply Douro Wine Company) was established in 1756, making the Douro wine region the third oldest protected wine designation in the world after Tokaj-Hegyalja in Hungary (1730) and Chianti (1716).
The Treaty of Windsor, signed in 1386, established a commercial alliance between England and Portugal that would last centuries and shape the development of Portugal’s wine industry. Under the terms of the treaty, each of the two countries granted the merchants of the other the rights to reside within its territory and trade freely. This led many English wine merchants to settle in Portugal and set up shipping companies through which to trade wines produced here. In 1654, this relationship was bolstered even further by a treaty between the Portuguese and the English, which allowed English and Scottish merchants preferential customs duties.
During the early 1700s, war between France and England deprived English consumers of French wine and importers began focusing elsewhere for trade. The English merchants, at this time-based in the Portuguese coastal town of Viana do Castelo, seized this opportunity and increased their production. However, the thin and rather astringent red wines they had been producing from vineyards in humid coastal regions would rarely survive the boat trip to England. They began looking inland for the fuller-bodied, more robust wines of the Upper Douro Valley. The wines produced in the latter region would be transported down the Douro River by boat to the town of Oporto, which became the new hub for merchant houses. The wines eventually took on the name of this port, from which they were shipped out. In order to ensure that the wines would survive the voyage, merchants would add a small amount of grape spirit or brandy, which prevented them from spoiling.
Nevertheless, the technique of fortification during the fermentation process, which today is an integral part of Port production, was not developed until the second half of the 18th century. This process resulted in wines that were stronger and sweeter, with greater aromatic appeal, whose success in the English market led producers to widely adopt it. Another step in the development of Port production was the introduction of vintage Port at the end of the 18th century, made possible by improvements in glass manufacturing. Some historians trace back the very first Vintage Port to 1775.
The 19th century brought periods of political turmoil and civil war in Porto, followed by a period of great prosperity and expansion in the 1840s. The legendary vintages of 1863 and 1868 helped develop the reputation of the region’s wines, which by this time were quite similar to the fortified Port wines we know today. Ironically, these “golden years” of Port would be followed directly by some of its toughest times, brought on by the arrival of the phylloxera epidemic in 1868. By the end of the 19th century, the winegrowers of Port would graft their vines onto American rootstock and return to the trade. The demand for Port in England and France grew significantly during the 20th century, even during war years, although some of the smaller shippers could not afford to keep their businesses running during World War II and were bought out by larger companies.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a period of innovation in the region, with the development of different Port styles (like Late Bottled Vintage and Tawny Port) to best suit the needs and preferences of an increasingly diverse clientele. New vineyard practices and modern technologies in the winery have led to greater precision and higher quality overall, allowing Port wines to compete on the global market. Today, these wines, so steeped in tradition and know-how, are living the most illustrious chapter of their history so far, with demand growing among a more knowledgeable and curious clientele.
Where is Port made?
The Douro River Valley: An iconic terroir
The birthplace of Port wines is the Douro Valley, on the banks of the Douro River, in the demarcated Douro region of northeastern Portugal. This region is cut off from the coast by the Marao mountains, which also block the rain-bearing winds blowing in from the Atlantic. The area enjoys a continental climate, characterized by hot and dry summers and harsh, cold winters. The estates that cultivate fruit for the production of Port wines are known as Quintas, with many of the most prestigious Port houses (including Fonseca, Taylor Fladgate and Croft), owning their own and using fruit from these as well as fruit purchased from other Quintas. These houses often produce Single Quinta Vintage Port bottlings, which bear the name of their Quinta of origin on the label. These are considered some of the very best wines, bearing the signature style of each house.
Three areas in the Douro Valley
The Douro Valley wine region is subdivided into three areas, depending on geography. The Baixo Corgo is the westernmost of the three and closest to the mountains, where the vineyards receive the most rainfall, resulting in the highest yields. The wines from here tend to be lighter in style, destined to be enjoyed in their youth.
To the east of the Baixo Corgo is the Cima Corgo, where many of the region’s best Port vineyards are located, producing concentrated and age-worthy wines.
The easternmost subregion is the Douro Superior with the driest climate, where some of the best Vintage Ports originate.
The best Port wine vineyards of the region can be found on the very steep hillsides bordering the Douro River and its many tributaries. They are planted using one of three vineyard landscaping strategies: on traditional terraces supported by dry stone walls, patamares (or platforms) supported by tall earth banks, or vertical planting (locally called vinha ao alto) with the vines running perpendicularly up the hillsides. The soils of the Douro Valley region are made of schist, a metamorphic rock similar to slate. These soils capture just enough humidity to allow the vines to thrive even during the summer, which tends to be very dry. Nevertheless, they restrict the vines’ access to water, thus naturally limiting their yields and leading to highly concentrated and flavorful fruit.
The dazzling variety of grapes
The diverse array of micro-terroirs, topographies and climates found within the Douro Valley explains the equally diverse array of native grape varieties grown in this region. While roughly 30 different grape varieties can be blended to produce Port wine, most winegrowers cultivate a selection of five to six major red grape varieties, along with a few others in smaller quantities. Touriga Nacional is by far the most famous of these varieties, thriving in nutrient-poor, stony soils with plenty of sunshine. This is a small grape with thick skin and low yields, producing very concentrated, tannic and inky-dark wines.
Touriga Francesa is the most widely planted grape in the valley and is grown in more fertile sites with less wind. This variety produces a more subtle yet more aromatic wine, lending a tannic backbone and structure to a blend.
Tinta Barroca, grown in cooler sites with north or east-facing slopes, produces luscious and fragrant wines that are soft and round on the palate, while Tinta Roriz is known for its structured, elegant and complex wines. Lastly, Tinta Cao is one of the oldest varieties of the region, planted in hot and dry sites and producing wines with great aging potential.
While these grapes are planted separately, they are usually harvested and fermented together. Each variety brings its own unique nuances to the blend, resulting in a finished wine that is truly complex and multi-dimensional.
A Unique Winemaking Process
Traditional Portuguese methods
Following a manual harvest around mid-September, the grapes are transported to the wineries, usually in small crates or trays. Upon arrival, they go through a meticulous sorting process before being destemmed and filled into granite tanks called lagares, where they undergo treading by foot. The manual treading of the grapes is an iconic tradition unique to Porto and a particularly important part of the winemaking process. The treaders first crush the grapes through the “corte” stage, then liberate the juices through the “liberdade” stage, making sure that the skins are submerged under the juice. Fermentation begins naturally after a few hours, releasing color, aromas and tannins from the skin into the juice. Sometimes, wooden plungers (macacos) are used to punch down the skins to increase their contact with the juice. While manual treading is still regarded as the best technique, some wineries have successfully mechanized the process with equipment that replicated this natural extraction process.
Once half of the sugar has been converted to alcohol, the treading stops and the skin cap allowed to separate from the juice and rise to the top of the lagar. The fermenting wine underneath the cap is run out of the lagare and mixed with a colorless, odorless neutral spirit, with an average 77% ABV. This fortification process raises the alcohol level, killing the remaining yeasts and halting fermentation before all of the sugar has been converted to alcohol. The end result is a wine with residual sugar, which tastes sweet.
In most cases, the wines remain at the production wineries in the Douro Valley until the spring of the following year. They are then transported to the various Port house lodges near the Atlantic coast, where they are matured, then blended and bottled. The wines are evaluated and the desired style is defined for each before they are matured in vats or casks. The aging process determines the style of the wine.
A Wide Array of Styles
Port is a dessert wine that can be classified into two main styles based on how it is matured: Ruby and Tawny.
To achieve a full-bodied and fruity Ruby Port style, winemakers try to minimize the effect of oxygen on the wine, aging them for a relatively short period of time in either large oak vats or stainless steel tanks. The result is a wine with predominant primary fruit flavors of dark fruits (cherry, blackcurrant and blackberry). Ruby styles range from inexpensive styles aged only one to three years to the longer-aged Reserve Ruby Ports, Vintage Ports and high-quality Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Ports, which are vintage wines matured for four to six years in large oak vessels before bottling. Importantly, most LBV wines are fined and filtered and thus are ready to drink upon release without any further aging. However, there are some producers who make unfiltered LBV wines with sediment at the bottom, which should be carefully removed by decanting. These unfiltered LBVs are more similar in style to barrel-aged Vintage Ports and can benefit from further aging in the bottle. LBV wines develop over time complex tertiary aromas of cooked fruit and vegetal nuances of prunes and wet leaves.
In the very best years, the producers of Porto will also make a Vintage Port from grapes of the same vintage. They must register the intention to do so two years after the harvest is finished. For Vintage Ports, the maturation process takes place in large oak vessels or stainless steel tanks. These wines are always unfined and unfiltered, producing very concentrated and tannic wines, which have a remarkable aging potential that spans decades. Over time, they throw a heavy sediment in the bottle, which must be removed through decanting before service. Vintage Ports tend to be the flagship cuvées of each estate, with its blend composed of fruit from the producer’s highest quality vineyards.
When a vintage port is produced from a single estate (Quinta), the name of that quinta appears on the label, making the wine a Single Quinta Vintage Port. In the best years, producers will blend fruit from all of their Quintas to produce their Vintage Port. In lesser quality vintages, they will forgo making a Vintage Port and will instead release their top wines as Single Quinta Vintage Ports. These wines are typically aged in bottle at the estate and released only when they are ready to be enjoyed.
The other main style is that of Tawny Ports, which undergo an extended period of oxidative maturation in specialized barrels called popes. Exposure to oxygen during the aging process results in the wines turning a garnet, then tawny and finally brown over time. These wines also lose their primary fruit aromas, which are replaced by tertiary notes of walnuts, chocolate, coffee and caramel. As these wines throw their sediment during the maturation process, they do not need decanting. They are ready to drink upon release and do not benefit from further bottle aging. Reserve Tawny Ports must be age in oak for a minimum of six years. Other Tawny Ports have an indication of age on the label: either 10, 20, 30 or 40 years old. This age indication refers to the average age of the wines in the blend. Tawny Ports with age indication are considered the finest, most complex of all Tawny styles and exude a rich bouquet of tertiary aromas.
Finally, some producers also make White Ports from the classic white grapes of the region. These are typically matured for two or three years in large vats. They range from dry to sweet in style.
How to best enjoy your Port wines
To decant or not to decant
One of the most important considerations when opening a bottle of Port is the style and whether it needs to be decanted to remove sediment. As Tawny Ports typically throw their sediment before bottling they will not need to be decanted. Fined and filtered styles, like most Ruby Ports, will also not need to be decanted. However, unfiltered LBV Port and Vintage Ports that have aged in bottle for a longer period of time will often have a significant amount of sediment in the bottle, which must be removed before serving. In order to decant, remove the seal of the bottle and ease the cork out with a waiter's friend bottle opener. Pour the Port steadily into the decanter, ideally through a small funnel with a strainer. If the amount of sediment is significant, the wine may benefit from filtering with a clean muslin in the funnel.
To fully enjoy these sweet wines from Portugal, we recommend serving them in a Port wine glass, which is smaller than a regular wine glass. The typical serving size is roughly 3 oz. Younger Ruby Ports and LBV will be best enjoyed slightly chilled (55°F to 65°F), while Tawny Ports should be served cool (55°F to 60°F). Vintage Ports are best when served at cellar temperature (around 65°F).
Food and Port pairing
The many diverse types of Port wine make this a highly versatile food pairing wine. Younger Ruby Ports, characterized by a fresh, fruit-forward profile will pair beautifully with classic desserts like cherry pie or chocolate ganache, along with blue cheeses. LBV Port wines are traditionally paired with sheep’s milk cheeses (like the local Queijo da Serra) but will also go nicely with dark chocolate desserts like German chocolate cake or a molten lava cake. Vintage Port wines will pair beautifully with strong blue cheeses, like Stilton, Roquefort or Gorgonzola. It will also pair nicely with desserts including dark chocolate, walnuts or figs. Meanwhile, Tawny Ports with their tertiary aromas of spiced toffee and dried apricots will go beautifully with smoked cheeses or desserts featuring caramel, like crème brulee. And finally, a chilled glass of White Port will go perfectly with a handful of salted nuts or gourmet potato chips.