The Pleasures of Port
the sweet, opulent and rich dessert wine from Portugal, has been
attracting loyal fans for nearly 300 years. It has the distinction
of probably being the world's first bottled "vintage"
wine (1775), the first demarcated wine district sanctioned by the
government (1678) and undoubtedly the most famous wine discovered
Rumor has it that as far back as the 14th Century, red table
wine was being exported to England in cask. Because the reds
of Portugal were much coarser then their French counterparts, the
trip made the wines "sick." Brandy was added to help preserve
them. Oddly enough, the wine that finally docked in England
some three months later actually tasted better than the wine that
This revelation, coupled with England's war with Spain which
cut the supply of Sherry (a British favorite), forced them to seriously
look at Portugal as a source of supply for dessert wines. And
so, nearly 400 years later, we have a British "invention,"
Port, to the delight of many aficionados.
It is because of this British "invention" that most
of the premium Port producing houses are British in origin, as opposed
to Portuguese. Names like Taylor, Croft, Dow and Grahams are
decidedly British and among the most prestigious names in the world
of Port. This condition is changing, however. Very respected
houses are becoming more well-known with names like Quinta da Noval,
Martinez and others.
is produced in what must be the most inaccessible wine region in
the world," Ben Howkins of Fonseca states emphatically. All
true "Port" is grown in the Douro Valley, Portuguese
for "river of gold," on 900 acres of land covered with
schist, a crystalline rock. "There is no soil."
says Howkins. "The roots must descend at least 12 feet
to find water." Add to this the climate of the Douro
which ranges from over 100 degrees in the summer to below freezing
in the winter and one wonders how anything can grow at all. "It's
Port is produced by adding grape spirits to the fermenting wine
which stops fermentation and leaves residual sugar of between 8-14
percent. There are five basic grape varieties which become
the master blend of red port with another five or six potentially
in the blend.
In this environment, 29 different firms, controlling 55 registered
Port shippers, produce a mere 20 million cases of wine or roughly
less than 10% of what the Gallo winery produces! All ports,
however are not created equal.
Port is divided into two groups, wood aged and bottle aged, with
subdivisions in each group. The greatest of all is Vintage
Port. This is a bottle aged port which is produced only in
the finest vintages, usually three out of every ten years making
it very rare and correspondingly, expensive. After the wine
is fermented and fortified in the Douro Valley, it is transported
to Vila Nova de Gaia where by law each shipper must have his office
and cellar. This was done, according to Howkins, to keep a
very careful eye on each shipper, making sure that they didn't blend
wines from other areas in with the Port.
After "two winters and one summer" the wine is evaluated
to ascertain if it is worthy or being "declared" a vintage.
Sample bottles are delivered to the Instituto do Vinho do
Porto for evaluation. This is only done in exceptional vintages
where the sanction from the institute is merely a formality. In
spectacular vintages like '63, '77 and '85, 91, 94 and 2004 all
the shippers declare a "Vintage" and there is a "run"
of vintage ports on the market. In marginal vintages like
'72, '80 and '83 some producers declare and others don't.
These declared wines are a blend of only the finest lots of the
vintage. After the wines are declared a vintage, they must
be bottled after a minimum of two and a maximum of three years in
cask. They then need to age for decades and, in some cases,
Vintage Character: The wine that is left over, along with
wines which come from non-vintages, can go in to Vintage character
Ports. These are wines which emulate vintage ports but don't
have the power and intensity. Fonseca's Bin 27, Croft Character
and Sandeman Character Ports are excellent examples. They
are normally ready to drink upon release and will not benefit from
Late Bottled Vintage: These are selected wines from single
vintages which are aged in cask for four to six years, bottled and
then released. These too are normally ready to drink upon
release and will not benefit from further ageing.
Single Quinta Vintage: These wines can come the closest
to a vintage at less than half the price. They are produced
from single "quintas" or vineyards which are of exceptional
quality and almost always go in to the vintage blend in declared
years. Wines like Taylor's Quinta de Vargellas and Warres
Quinta de Cavadhina are prime examples. These Ports are the
only ones which, like vintage ports, can actually improve in the
Ruby: Usually taken from the lesser lots of casks and
stocks of wine, Ruby's are typically aged three to four years in
the barrel and ready to drink on release. Bright, cherry flavors.
Tawny: Aged in wood a minimum of three to ten years. Lighter
than rubys, but more character and flavor. More of a mellow,
aged taste reminiscent of caramel and oranges.
Old Tawny: Labeled as 10, 20, 30 years old older which
is the average port in the blend. Does not indicate a vintage
year. Usually very rare and smooth and correspondingly expensive.
The great Ports producers:
producer of creamy, well balanced ports. Usually good values.
Cockburn: Rich and concentrated with hints of brambleberries
and lots of black cherries.
Croft: The oldest and one of the finest producers.
Very rich and intense flavors.
Fonseca: The original name of the firm which was
briefly changed to Guimarãens and then back again to Fonseca. Considered
one of the finest and richest made. Purchased by the Yeatman
family of Taylor in 1948 but retains its own separate operation
Graham: Known for some of the richest and ripest
Ports produced in the area. Also part of the Warre and Dow
Quinta do Noval: One of the most famous producers
which makes the lighter, more accessible style of Port.
One of the largest shippers of both Port and Sherry, founded
in 1790. Full force, very appealing style.
Taylor: Usually the biggest and most inspiring Port
in any vintage year. The fullest and richest of all. The
originator of the "LBV" or Late Bottled Vintage style.
Warres: The oldest existing Port producer, founded
in 1670. Considered one of the best in any year.