All you need to know about Port wine: wine, grape varieties, history, characteristics and food pairings
The Port is the most famous and appreciated fortified wine in the world and is also the one with the most ancient history.
But what’s special about this sweet wine?
Everything starts with grapes and the soils of volcanic origin, the rest is done by the sea wind that wedges itself into the Douro valley and travels 100 kilometers eastward, away from the maritime city of Oporto.
But then what happens? The grapes are harvested, squeezed and ferment like a normal wine, only that at a certain point the winemakers block the fermentation by adding local brandy, at 77 degrees, colorless and tasteless, practically alcohol, but made with the same local wine. And so the yeasts stop turning sugar into alcohol. Indeed they die and leave room for sweetness.
Organoleptic characteristics of Port Wine
The result is a fortified wine of incredible and seductive sweetness. But like all fortified wines born in sea areas, like Marsala and Madeira, these wines are not only sweet and velvety, but they also have great breadth, broad structure, charming aromas and lots of saltiness, which helps ease the massive dose of sugar. The contribution of the brandy then helps to widen the aromatic horizons and gives further thickness and allows the wine to oxidize, but not fade. This is the secret, a slow maturation that takes on the aromas and flavors of dried fruit, spices with the call of the sea in the background.
How is made Porto and which vines are used
Port wine is produced from Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, Tempranillo, Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Nacional grapes. The Touriga Nacional has always been the champion, with excellent quality of the grapes, but is susceptible to diseases, so much that the Touriga Francesa is gaining ground. After fermentation, the wines of the various parcels are assembled to find the right balance. Consider that it is common practice to mix wines from different vintages and vineyards unless you want to make a Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV), Cohelita or Porto Vintage, exceptional wines from grapes of a single vintage-harvest.
At this point, the Port wine is aged in wooden barrels to let the wine slowly mature and preserve its acidity. This is a fundamental point: the Port must be rich and sweet, but it doesn’t have to lose its freshness, otherwise, it won’t age successfully.
Classification of Port wine
But before moving on, let’s take a look at the various types of Ports. What we’ve said applies is a general discourse, but then it is necessary to make a further classification, considering that the Port is divided into 7 major categories with different characteristics. Before moving on, it is good to remember that there are two other differences to be made a priori. The Ports that age in casks and then in barriques for 10, 20, 30 and 40 years like the Tawny and the others that age in big barrels (less invasive aging) and then in bottle.
The entry-level wine is never dry, a minimum of sugar remains, it is very approachable and easy to drink. It is divided into dry, semi-dry and sweet.
Born about ten years ago to ride the pink wine craze that the British love so much: it’s not a memorable wine but a super easy-going fermented juice.
Now we are talking, Ruby Port is the first step you want to make to appreciate this noble wine. It’s aged in large wood barrels, just to dampen the edges, but it’s never too complex or structured. It focuses on the fruit, which must be fresh, vinous and pleasant. Do not keep a Ruby Port in the cellar for your children’s graduation, drink it now, baby!
A Ruby that stands out for its excellent quality can receive the name Reserva: It is a coveted recognition if you consider that Rubys represent the largest slice of a company’s sales.
Late Bottled Vintage Port: LBV
It’s always a ruby but born in an exceptional vintage, only that it has spent more time in the barrel. It was “invented” in the mid-1900s for serendipity because no matter how good, it could not be sold and therefore remained in the barrel for further years. Aging takes 4-5 years and then it is ready. It’s a kind of Ruby, so it is fresh and fruity, but where intensity, finesse, and depth are enhanced.
Porto Singla Quinta
“Quinta” is the vineyard, the cru and these wines must be strictly produced from a single parcel. These are wines of great value, unique that can almost compete with the Vintage Port. Indeed very often when a vintage is very good, but not optimal to become Vintage, the production companies choose to label them as Porto Singla Quinta.
Wines of great intensity and character: they are a blend of fine and particularly structured wines that are not filtered and then mixed by the cellar-master to make unique wines. It’s the concept behind spirits like Cognac, Armangan, Brandy and of course Madeira, Sherry, and Champagne, where different vintages and cuvées are mixed. It ages in large barrels for 3 years and then usually for 3-4 years in the bottle. The name Crusted is due to the deposits that form on the bottom: tannins and polyphenols that decay and form sediments.
And finally, we come to the sacred Grail, the wine produced only in exceptional years, the quintessence of sweetness and elegance. It is the wine that, although it represents only 2% of production, acts as a barometer for the prestige of the great houses of the Port. It is not a recognition given lightly, so much that “the Vintage” is declared 2 years after the harvest. To be 100% sure and avoid foolishness, given that all the big wineries base their notoriety on the crystalline quality of their Vintages, not on the entry-level wines that can be easily manipulated in the cellar. A Vintage must be aged for 2 and a half years in wood or steel and then rest for at least 10 years in the bottle. Although it is advisable to let the wine rest in the bottle for 30-40-50 years. There are 100-year-old Ports that are still in perfect condition, thanks to the powerful structure, tannins, and remarkable acidity. So in this case time is a necessary ingredient.
The wine is essentially a Ruby, however the refinement changes. After 3 years of aging in large barrels, the Tawny goes directly into the barriques to stimulate the maturation of the wine. In these small casks the wine oxygenates itself much faster and is tinged with spicy aromas. As the wine ages, the dull red color turns to amber, the oxidation and the evolved tones become more intense, even if the freshness always remains present to support the wine. The Tawny Ports are very complex, decadent and baroque, have aromas of dates, nuts, ripe fruit, spices, notes of cocoa, coffee and vanilla. In the mouth, they are sweet but structured and never cloying. The Tawny can age for 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years in cask.
It is a Port produced in Tawny style, therefore rich and sumptuous, with grapes coming from a single vintage that then ages for 7 years. But be careful, unlike Tawny, there are no indications of aging, but only the vintage on the label. But above all, it is not a unique and unrepeatable product like the Vintage Port.
How strong is Port wine?
We are talking about a mighty, alcoholic wine, at least 19-20 degrees.
The history of the Port
The history of the Port speaks the English language, because it was the English who invented this wine, by chance once again… Certainly, the Douro valley has been famous since Roman times, however, it was only thanks to the profitable trade relations between England and Portugal and the crisis with France that England fell back on the wines of the Douro Valley, to the detriment of the Bordeaux claret. Around the second half of the 1600s, the wine from the Douro Valley was transported to Oporto and then embarked to reach the white cliffs of Dover. However, the heat and the uncertainty of the journey pushed some merchants-winemakers to cut wine with brandy to preserve it during the perilous crossing. And so the legend of the wine of Oporto was born and still today many of the Porto producing companies are English and if you check the list of most famous bodegas, more than half have English names. Alongside Fonseca, Ramos Pinto and Ferreira we can find Graham Offley, Robertsons, Sandeman, and Tylor, just to mention the best known
Drinking a good Port wine is a unique experience, it is not like a simple passito wine, it is more complex. The sweetness is less dominant, the nuances are mature, the flavors of dried fruit titillate the palate. Not to mention that you can choose the Port closest to your preferences. It is not a wine, but a world to explore. And do not think that thousands of euros are needed for a Vintage, even starting from 30-50 euros you can buy excellent LBV.
Port wine food pairings
The Port is a true champion of wine and food pairings. The most structured and rich are excellent as dessert wines for chocolate cakes, chocolate muffins, tiramisù, chocolate tartlets, chocolate brownies. But it is with pure chocolate that it manages to find its most successful combination: thanks to its structure it manages to withstand the impact even with extra dark chocolate.
Another fabulous combination is the aged cheeses and the blue cheeses, try a Ruby with a Castelamgno or a Tawny with Cheddar and say goodbye to all your precious onion jams…