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All about Port wine

The history of Port Wine

Port is recognized as probably the best fortified wine in the world due to its unique characteristics based on intense aromas, persistent flavour with high alcohol content (19 – 22%) while presenting a wide range of sweetness and colour.

Surprisingly, only in the eighteenth century, Port stood out internationally when Britain limited French wine imports during the War of the Spanish Succession. The market void was quickly filled by “England’s oldest ally”, and in 1703, the Methuen Treaty stated that Portuguese wines would have preferential treatment in the British market with reduced taxation.

In 1756, understanding the importance of regulating all the stages that involve Port wine, the Portuguese authorities led by Marquês de Pombal, established Douro as the first protected designation of origin in the world, meaning that it was the only region where Port wine could be legally produced.

Following strict requisites, Port vineyards were grouped from A to F by a complex and thorough framework that considered soil type, vineyard location, grape variety, vine maturity, elevation and sun exposure. Among the 82 grape varieties legally accepted, there are a few that stand out: Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Roriz and Tinto Cão.

Douro vineyard region is very hot during large part of the year, and since many of the Ports require maturation of at least 2 years, soon the wine barrels started to be shipped down the river stream to Vila Nova De Gaia, a seaside town near Porto with fresher and moist climate. Quickly the Port merchants understood the strategic importance of Vila Nova de Gaia and many aging lodges were built to age the wines.

Port wine became increasingly popular in England. However, there was a problem to solve related with the fermentation occurred during the long sea trips from Portugal. The need to satisfy such an important market led to the development of an imaginative solution, which was to simply add a little brandy to assure the wine longevity. Production methods evolved, and it was only by the mid-nineteenth century that Port became the sweet fortified wine we know and love nowadays.

Types of Port

The tonality of the distinctive sorts of red Port wine may differ from dark purple to light gold, and all go-between colours can appear (red, brown, gold and light gold). On the other hand, the white Port wines can also come in assorted tones (light yellow and bright white), all intimately linked with the winemaking process used.

types of port wine

Aged in bottle

Method used to produce a less tannic and smooth wine to palate when compared with wood aged. Here, the Port is matured in sealed glass bottles without exposure to air (reductive ageing), which makes the wine lose its colour very slowly throughout the aging process.

VINTAGE is a full-bodied red wine with superior quality that gets softer after some years ageing in bottle. Made from a single harvest, the Vintage is bottled between July of the second year and December of the third year after harvesting. Despite the fact that it can be instantly drunk, Vintage wine is generally stored in ageing basements for a period that can amount up to 40 years. In Portugal, the Port and Douro Wines Institute (IDVP) is the body in charge of acknowledging and categorizing Port wines as Vintage.

LATE BOTTLET VINTAGE (LBV): Great quality Port blended from several single harvest wines, this wine has an excellent ageing potential, usually done through oak or stainless steel tanks that allow a slow oxidative process. LBV is packaged between July of the fourth year and December of the sixth year after harvesting.

CRUSTED: Port originated from a blend of multiple harvested wines and bottled following three to four years of ageing in wood. Note that it is normal to expect this wine to develop sediments (coating) in the inside walls of the bottle due to its specific attributes.

RUBY: Named after the precious gem stone, this wine is considered to be youthful, full-bodied and rich in fruity flavours. The ruby colour is a result of the ageing process with almost no oxidation, usually during about three years in wooden casks. Inside this category, you can also find Ruby Reserva, produced from top quality wine blends that enable extra complexity and improved fruity flavours when compared with a regular Ruby.


Aged in wood

Acquired from the blends of three-year-old wines, these Ports are aged in cask with several transfers from barrels to force oxidation, leave sediment behind, and gradually clarify the wine into a golden colour (racking process).  As they mature, the tonality of the wines gradually become brownish and the fragrances ring a bell of dehydrated fruits and wood.

TAWNY: this sweet Port, typically served as desert, is produced from red grapes aged in wooden barrels obtained from the blends of three-year-old wines. This process implies wine exposure to oxygen that accelerates its oxidation and helps to develop the dry fruity flavour and its emblematic golden colour appearance.

Official age designation categories are 10, 20, 30 and over 40 years, which represent the average years of aging in wood from the several harvests blended together that compose the Tawny. If there is no age indication, it means you have a basic blend of wood aged Port that has spent a minimal of two years in barrel.

Note that the top quality Tawny is designated Reserva and it is produced from the blend of five to seven-year-old wines. Reserva colour can vary from red to brownish, depending on the winemaking process used.

COLHEITAsweet Port made from single harvest grapes matured in wooden casks for a minimal period of seven years. Contrary to Tawnies, Colheita label specifies the actual year when the harvest occurred and also the bottling date. Note that people often confuse Colheita with Vintage Port due to the type of the information contained in the label. However, the difference between them is very clear: Vintage is bottled 18 months after being harvested and will continue to mature in bottle while Colheita spends 20 years or even more in wooden barrels before being bottled.

BRANCOmade from white grapes, these wines can be produced in a wide variety of styles according to the sweetness level and ageing period.  When White Ports are matured in wood for long periods, the colour darkens until a level where it can be hard to understand if the original wine was red or white.

White ports of young age are often drunk as an appetizer or even used in cocktails while those of greater age are best served chilled on their own and are usually used for desert.

In white wines, you can also find the Reserva, a high-quality Port produced from blends with at least seven years of ageing period in wood. Golden colour and persistent flavour are its distinct attributes.

Based on the sweetness level, White Port can be categorized as Lágrima (tear drop), Doce (sweet) and Seco (dry):

– Lágrima: Very sweet Port wine with sugar content exceeding 130g per litre, usually produced from a blend of 2-5-year-old wines. Its singular name, Lágrima (teardrop), comes from the thickness of the liquid that actually resembles a teardrop when running down a glass wall.

– Doce (Sweet): produced from a blend of multiple aged wines, it presents different tones of yellow and contains 90-130g of sugar per litre.

– Seco (Dry): has the lowest sugar content of the white wines, with only 40-65g per litre.


Without ageing

ROSÉ is technically a Ruby port fermented with the techniques used in rosé wines where the reduced exposure to the grape skins helps to create the distinct colour pink. Considered to be a fresh and versatile wine, it is the most recent variation in the Port Wine world, released only in 2008 by Taylor Fladgate Partnership Company.

by Francisco Sobral, Wine Curator