The Pleasures of Port

The Pleasures of Port

Aging Port BarrelsPort, the sweet, opulent and rich dessert wine from Portugal, has been attracting loyal fans for nearly 300 years. There's a rich history behind Port wine.  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 by accident.

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 left Portugal!

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.

Map of Portugal Wine Producing Areas"Port 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 remarkable."

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.

There are two main types of Port wine: 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, centuries.

Types of Port Wine:

Vintage Character: The wine that is left over, along with wines which come from non-vintages, can go in to Vintage character Ports.  This type of Port wine emulates vintage ports but doesn'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 further ageing.

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: This type of Port wine 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 bottle.

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.  This type of Port wine has 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.  These types of port wine are usually very rare and smooth and correspondingly expensive.

The great Ports producers:

Calem PortCalem: Excellent 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 and style.

Graham:  Known for some of the richest and ripest Ports produced in the area.  Also part of the Warre and Dow houses.

Quinta do Noval:  One of the most famous producers which makes the lighter, more accessible style of Port.

Sandemans PortSandeman:  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.