Uncork the Secrets of Port Wine: Varietals, History, Tasting Notes, and Ideal Pairings
Port wine is the most well-known and popular fortified wine in the world, and it also has the longest history.
But what’s special about this sweet wine?
Everything starts with grapes and 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 fermented like normal wine, only that at a certain point the winemakers block the fermentation by adding local brandy, which at 77 degrees is colorless and tasteless, practically alcohol, but made with the same local wine. As a result, the yeasts stop converting 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, 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 grapes, but it is susceptible to diseases, so much that the Touriga Francesa is gaining ground. After fermentation, the wines from the various parcels are assembled to find the right balance. Consider that unless you want to make a Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV), Cohelita, or Porto Vintage, exceptional wines from a single vintage harvest, it is common practice to blend wines from different vintages and vineyards.
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 to 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 barrels for 10, 20, 30, and 40 years, like the Tawny, and the others that age in big barrels (less invasive aging) and then in bottles
The entry-level wine is never dry, a minimum of sugar remains, and 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 that we’re talking, Ruby Port is the first step in appreciating this noble wine. It’s aged in large wood barrels, just to soften 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”: When you think about how Rubys make up the biggest part of a company’s sales, it is a prized honor.
Late Bottled Vintage Port: LBV
It is always a ruby, but it was born in an exceptional vintage and has spent more time in the barrel. It was “invented” in the mid-nineteenth century for serendipity because, no matter how good, it could not be sold and thus remained in the barrel for years. Aging takes 4-5 years, and then it is ready. It’s a ruby, so it’s fresh and fruity, but with increased intensity, finesse, and depth.
Porto Singla Quinta
“Quinta” is the vineyard, the cru, and these wines must be strictly produced from a single parcel. These are wines of exceptional value and distinction that can compete with vintage port. Indeed, very often when a vintage is very good, but not optimal enough to become Vintage, the production companies choose to label it as Porto Singla Quinta.
Wines with great intensity and character: they are a blend of fine and particularly structured wines that are not filtered before being mixed by the cellar master to create one-of-a-kind wines. It’s the concept behind spirits like Cognac, Armagnac, and Brandy and of course Madeira, Sherry, and Champagne, where different vintages and cuvées are mixed. It is aged in large barrels for three years before being bottled for three to four years. The name “crusted” is due to the deposits that form on the bottom: tannins and polyphenols that decay and form sediments.
And finally, we get to the holy Grail, the wine that is only made in special years and is the epitome of sweetness and class. It is the wine that, although it represents only 2% of production, acts as a barometer for the prestige of the great houses of Port. It is not a recognition given lightly, so much so that “the vintage” is declared two 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 and not on the entry-level wines that can be easily manipulated in the cellar. A vintage wine must be aged for two 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 in big barrels, the Tawny goes right into the barriques, which speed up the wine’s maturation. 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 intensifies, 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, and 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 tawny port, which means it is rich and sumptuous, made from grapes from a single vintage and aged for 7 years. But be careful, unlike Tawny, there are no indications of aging, only the vintage on the label. But above all, it is not a unique and unrepeatable product like the Vintage Port.
What is the alcohol content of Port wine?
We’re talking about a strong, alcoholic wine with a temperature of at least 19-20 degrees.
The history of the Port
The history of Port is written in English, because it was invented by the English, again by chance… 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. The heat and uncertainty of the journey, however, compelled some merchant-winemakers to cut wine with brandy in order 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 the 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 more mature, and 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 to 50 euros, you can buy an excellent LBV.
Port wine food pairings
The Port is a true champion of wine and food pairings. The most structured and rich dessert wines are excellent with chocolate cakes, chocolate muffins, tiramisù, chocolate tartlets, and 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…