Port: A brief history and review of styles.

Written by Scott


Port: A brief history and review of styles.

What’s that you say?  Port?
Isn’t that drunk by old English professors sitting in their dens while smoking a pipe?
Well, that’s what I always imagined when I was growing up. And you know what? It probably was. But there is so much more to Port than being a stereotypical prop for the stodgy image of the faculty of higher learning institutes.
What is port? Where does it come from? Why is it sweet? How do they get the alcohol content so high? Are there different types? Is port a grape?
All good questions. Unfortunately no one knows the answers. The mystery of Port will continue on until the end of times, never revealing itself unto the world…………………………………………………………..
What was that? You say that all these questions have answers that are not nearly as mysterious as I led on.
Well, maybe you’re right. Maybe I was just trying to come up with a quick way of ending this correspondence so I could go back to that bottle of Port sitting on the shelf calling my name. I suppose that was a little selfish on my part. So let’s get to the good stuff.

What is Port? Is it a wine? A grape?

Port is a fortified wine. And while countries such as Canada, the United States, Australia and South Africa make fortified wines (some that they refer to as port), for all intense purposes we are going to focus on the birthplace of Port, Portugal. Port actually takes its name from the Portuguese city of Oporto, where it was created in the 17th century.

As I mentioned earlier, Port is a fortified wine. Which in this case means that the fermentation of the wine is cut short by the adding of a neutral grape spirit called Aguardente (which is similar to Brandy). This leaves the sugar content higher in the wine as well as raising the alcohol content (typically between 18% to 22% per volume). It is usually drank as a dessert, pairing well with dark chocolates, nuts and older cheeses (and exceptionally well with Stilton cheese).

Port is not a grape(but in all fairness, the actual grapes used are seldom discussed) In red ports the principal grapes used are Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cao, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Francesca and Touriga Nacional. For the whites, it’s Malvasia and Verdelho amongst others.

Let’s look at a bit of this lovely wines’ history, shall we?

In the year 1678, when Britain declared war on France, it created an instant shortage of wine in the English Empire as France was Britain’s main resource for wine. The British turned to one of their other trading partners Portugal as a wine alternative. Since their wine making was not up to the quality that the English were used to, the Brits started to oversee all of the wine production in Portugal. One of the English contributions was to add a bucket or two of Brandy to each wine barrel before it was sealed. This was done to help stabilize the wine for transport back to England.

When Port as we know it was created is a matter of great debate. What we know for sure is that sometime during either the end of the 1600’s or the beginning of the 1700’s, someone came up with the idea of stopping the fermentation of the wine with the brandy while it was still sweet, fruity and strong.

During the 1730’s, the Port industry was faced with scandal, as less scrupulous vintners were adding sugar and Elderberry juice to increase the sweetness and colour of inferior wines. This led to higher standards and more strict regulations being placed on wine makers. In 1756 the region for port production was defined and all vineyards outside of this area and all of the Elderberry trees in Northern Portugal were uprooted.

By the mid 1900’s Portugal was shipping approximately three million gallons of Port per year to Britain. Then in 1879, Phylloxera (the dreaded root louse that devastated France) hit the Douro Valley of Portugal, wreaking havoc on everything in its path. To combat this, the wineries started grafting their vines to American rootstock (which was immune to Phylloxera). This seemed to do the trick for the most part, as by the year 1890, the vineyards had either been replanted in this way or had gone the way of the dinosaur. Through the years, the Port industry has faced many challenges and made quite a few radical changes to its practices, but in retrospect, they have all been for the better, and to this day, Port houses are producing some of the most delectable treats on the face of the Earth.

Styles of Port

  • Ruby Port: The cheapest type of port made. Usually a blend of multiple vintages. After fermentation, the wine is stored in tanks made of either concrete or stainless steel for 3-5 years, then it’s fined and cold filtered prior to bottling.
  • Reserve Port: A premium version of a Ruby Port.
  • White Port: This comes in two styles, sweet or dry. It is usually used as an aperitif. White Port typically does not age well, and is meant to be drunk at a young age.
  • Vintage Port: The highest categorization of Port Wine. Uses only the best grapes and only when the harvest is exceptional. Only certain years are declared a vintage by a winery, henceforth limiting the amount of Vintage Port produced. The wine is aged in barrels for 3-4 years and then bottled without filtering, which allows the sediment to continue the aging of the wine in the bottle. This can go on aging for an additional 10-30 years after bottling.
  • Crusted Port: Often considered the poor man’s Vintage Port. It’s a blend of Port from several vintages, which is bottled unfiltered. While Crusted Ports will improve with age, the blending process is intended to make them more approachable at a younger age.
  • Late Bottled Vintage (or LBV’s): Similar to a Vintage style, but usually not of as high a quality. The wine is typically barrel aged from 4-6 years before bottling. While most LBV’s are filtered before bottling, there is a small percentage that are bottled unfiltered. These are usually labeled in one of two ways, “unfiltered” or “bottle matured” and will tend to have more depth and aging potential.
  • Tawny Port: These are aged in wooden barrels, which exposes them to oxidation and evaporation. As a result they gradually mellow to a golden brown colour. This style has a few different designations of its own.
  • Tawny Reserve: These have no indication of age and are typically a blend of wood aged port that is at least 7 years old.
  • Tawny Port with an age statement (i.e. 10yr old): This is a blend of vintages with the average years in wood stated on the label
  • Tawny Port from a single vintage is called a “Colheita”. Instead of an age statement, the actual year of production is printed on the label. These are very rare and hard to come by. I personally have only tried one, and it was amazing.

The cheapest form of Tawny Port (just referred to as Tawny) are young wines made from a blend of white and red grapes. Unlike the “Reserves” and “age indicated” types, these may have spent little to no time maturing in wood at all.

In regards to pairing Port and food, I believe in the classics.

  • Vintage Port: Dark chocolate, Walnuts, old Cheddar or blue cheese (particularly Stilton).
  • Tawny Port: Pecans, Hazelnuts or milder chocolates (which is why I always recommend Tawny Port and Ferraro Rocher)
  • And for those who enjoy a fine cigar, I have yet to find a better accompaniment than an older Vintage Port.

So there you go, Port in a nutshell (a rather large nutshell) but I can honestly tell you that I have barely scratched the surface of it.


Taking each day one drink at a time

Scott @ Vintage

Last Updated on Aug112013