The notion that wines improve with age is as untrue as it is true. The vast majority of wines—99% or all wines—are not meant for “cellaring” or storing for extended periods. Instead, they are meant to be drunk while fresh and young in the bottle. Most white wines are best if drunk within a year or two after being bottled, and most bottled reds sediment, begin losing their bright claret color, and start turning vinegary after five or six years in the bottle. The ability to improve with age, however, is true for one of the world’s great fortified wines: Port. Port, it is said, is bought by a grandfather so that it may be drunk by his grandsons. And it is not uncommon for families to purchase a quantity of Port in celebration of the birth of a child so that the child may be presented with the Port upon his marriage, thereafter drinking the bottles of his liquid dowry for the rest of his life.
Many countries—from Australia to Argentina to South Africa and the United States—produce port-style “pseudo-ports,” those wines legally labeled “port” in those jurisdictions. But true Port is made exclusively in the Duoro Valley (“Valley of Gold”) in the northeastern regions of Portugal, where a micro-climate exists that is optimum for the cultivation of almonds, olives, and especially the types of grapes used in the production of Port.
The Duoro Valley became a Protected Designation of Origin in 1756, making it the third-oldest protected wine region in the world, after the Tokaj-Hegyalja in Hungary (1730), and Chianti in the Tuscan region of Italy (1716). [In 1756, during the rule of the Marquês de Pombal, the Duoro Wine Company, officially known as the Companhia Geral da Agricultara da Vinhas do Alto Duoro (C.G.A.V.A.D.), was founded to guarantee the quality of the product and its pricing for end-consumers. In addition to managing the protected geographic designation, the company was also responsible for determining which Port wines would be used for export and for domestic consumption.] Encompassing some 618,000 acres, only approximately 82,000 acres are cultivated with grapes. The region is considered one of the world’s most difficult wine-growing regions, vines having to eke out sustenance from the harsh, otherwise-barren, rocky mountains that rise up from the Douro River and its tributaries. Some grapes are grown as high up as 1,800 feet, but it is said that the best Port comes from grapes that “can hear the river’s flow.” The region, referred to simply as “the Duoro,” begins at the Serra do Marão, a mountain range situated 40 miles inland and extending eastward for almost 100 miles to the Spanish border. The region, at its widest point (measuring north-south), is a mere 16 miles. The Serra do Marão mountains serve as a weather barrier, significantly reducing the amount of rain that falls to the east of them. As such, the weather of the Duoro is one of extremes: exceedingly hot and dry in the summer months, with temperatures reaching 110°F, and very cold winters, some days visited by below-0°F. The Serra do Marão mountains also render the region a remote one—even to this day, communication and transportation daunting tasks.
Interestingly, there is very little soil on the mountains; and what does exist is a hard schist that retains little water and offers few nutrients. It is also very acidic on account of its high potassium and low calcium and magnesium content. Then, to make matters worse, the sparse soil his high in aluminum content, which is toxic to the vines’ roots. But with the ingenuity and tenacity of the Portuguese people, what would otherwise appear a barren, or even lunar, landscape is today a premier wine-growing region: Over a period of about 300 years, the region’s inhabitants created a gritty soil by crushing the schistose rocks to a depth of approximately three feet—earlier generations using simple, hand-held iron tools, and then in the 20th century, dynamite. Thus, the mountainsides have been transformed into agricultural terraces. The grapevines cling to the terraces, following the contours of the mountains, and in their desperate pursuit of precious, life-sustaining water, send their roots to depths of 65 feet through the fissures in the schist. And it is said that vines that flourish under the most adverse conditions produce wines of the greatest character. That truism proves true in the case of the great Ports of the noble Duoro Valley.
The Duoro is divided into three sub-zones, as determined by natural conditions: the Baixo (lower) Corgo; the Cima (higher) Corgo; and the Duoro Superior. The smallest sub-region, the Baixo, is situated westernmost. And because of its closest proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, it receives the most rainfall, is the most fertile, and provides the highest yields, accounting for approximately 50% of all Ports made. The sub-region tends to produce the “lightest” wines, such as the ruby and tawny Ports. Upstream from the Baixo is the Cima (from where the Corgo River intersects the Duoro River, to the Cachão de Valeira Gorge), about twice size of the Baixo and containing approximately 235,000 acres, 14% of which are planted in grapes. The zone’s most famous vineyards, called “quintas,” surround the town of Pinhão. With only about 28 inches of rainfall per annum, the sub-zone is renowned for its high-quality tawny, late-bottled vintage, and vintage Ports, accounting for about 36% of all Ports. The largest of the three sub-zones, Duoro Superior extends all the way to the Spanish border and encompasses 271,700 acres. But because it is the most arid and least cultivated, only 13% of Ports are produced in the Duoro Superior.
Typically, Port is a sweet red wine, usually served with the cheese or dessert course or as a dessert in its own right. But Port is also available in dry and semi-dry varieties, and there are also white Ports. Port is produced only from grapes grown in the demarcated Duoro region.
After the grapes have been crushed [In some quintas, grapes are still crushed the old-fashioned way: trodden by feet in large, shallow, trough-like stone vats called “lagares.”] and the naturally occurring yeasts of the region begin consuming the natural sugars in the grape must, emitting alcohol [and carbon dioxide] as the waste product in the process, added-alcohol—in the form of a neutral, brandy-like spirit called “aguardente” [meaning “fiery water”and being 77% alcohol by volume]—is added to the grape must. The added-alcohol serves to kill the yeast, thereby interrupting the further conversion of the sugars in the grape must into alcohol. And it is that remaining natural sugar content in the grape must that accounts for the characteristic sweetness of most Ports. The added-alcohol (Most Ports have an alcohol content of 19 – 23%, whereas most unfortified wines have alcohol content of approximately 8 – 11%) also serves to fortify the wine, considerably extending its shelf life, thereby enabling Port to age and improve across decades and into centuries.
Port received its name during the second half of the 17th century. The name “Port” (also called “Oporto,” “Porto,” “Port wine,” “Vinho do Porto,” and “Dão,” derives from the seaport city of Porto (also called “Oporto,” meaning “The Port”), today Portugal’s second-largest city, situated at the mouth of the 560-mile-long Duoro River, where much of the wine is brought to market and for export to other countries.
It is widely believed that Port was invented in the middle of the 17th century when British sailors would allegedly spike Portuguese wines with brandy so as to preserve them for their long ship journeys north to the British Isles. But truth be told, what the British could correctly be credited for is realizing that the already-fortified wines of Portugal, unlike most other wines, would survive the long journey to London. The Portuguese, like their Spanish neighbors to the east and their French neighbors to the north, had been making wine for hundreds of years—since the Romans introduced wine-making to the Iberian Peninsula in the first century B.C.E. [Other evidence suggests that wine-making was introduced to the peninsular one thousand years earlier by the Phoenicians]. And by the beginning of the 1600s, they were shipping large quantities of wine down the Duoro River to Oporto each year. In 1678, a Liverpool wine merchant dispatched two of his representatives to Viana do Castelo, just north of Oporto, to learn the wine trade. While on vacation in the Duoro Valley, the two representatives visited the Abbot of Lamengo, who, it is said, served them a “very agreeable, sweetish, and extremely smooth” wine that had been fortified with a distilled spirit. Exceedingly pleased with the wine, the two British representatives purchased the Abbot’s complete inventory and shipped it home to Britain. But it was war that made the wine called “Port” a household name in Britain: The signing in 1703 of the Treaty of Methuen, a military and commercial agreement between Portugal and England as part of the Spanish War of Succession, permitted English merchants to import Port with insignificant duties. And England, at war with France and thus deprived of French wines, delighted in the delicious Portuguese alternative. (From as early as 1373, Portugal and England had become allies and trading-partners, as evidenced by a signed agreement pledging “perpetual friendship.” By the early 1700s, a considerable amount of British Port merchants had already established companies in Oporto. So to meet demand, by the 1730s, there was an unprecedented expansion of wine-making in the Duoro Valley: The rocky mountainsides were converted into vineyards [called “quintas” in Portuguese]; the Portuguese would trade resin-treated goat skins for wooden barrels; a system of transporting the wine-filled barrels down the river onboard flat-bottom boats called “barcos rabelos” was organized and improved; and exporters built “lodges” in the riverside town of Vila Nova de Gaia (until 1986, the only port from which Port could be exported), situated on the south side of the Duoro River, across from Oporto, to warehouse and age their Port. [Today, the wine is transported on tanker trucks]. In 1727 British Port traders in Oporto established an organization called “Factory House” for the purpose of gaining bargaining power with the Portuguese growers—but by 1814 Factory House had abandoned its original mission and become an exclusive private club, its membership open only to British principals in the Port trade. The club exists, with its exclusive character, to this day. Its official membership consists of about 25 traders). And the English taste for Port would endure long after the war, as evidenced even today by the many renowned shippers of Port bearing British names: Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Forrester, Gould, Graham, Kopke, Offley, Osborne, Sandeman, Taylor, and Warre.
More than 100 varieties of grapes are permissible for the production of Port; but only five are widely cultivated and used in the production of red Ports: Tinta Barroca; Tinta Cão; Tinta Roriz (“Tempranillo”); Touriga Francesca; and Touriga Nacional. While Touriga Nacional is widely considered the absolute most desirable grape for the production of Port, it is difficult to grow, and its yields are small. But the other Touriga—Touriga Francesca—is the most widely planted Porto grape. White Ports are made exactly as their red counterparts, except that white grapes are used: Donzelinho Branco; Esgana-Cão; Folgasão; Gouveio; Malvasia Fina; Rabigato; and Viosinho. While it is possible to produce Port with only one variety of grape, most commercially available Ports are the made from a blend of at least three types of grapes. The various grapes used for Port are typically small and dense, with concentrated, prolonged flavors—qualities conducive extensive aging.
Styles of Port
Port comes in various styles but are divided into two broad categories: Ports that are matured in sealed glass bottles; and Ports that are matured in sealed wooden barrels. Bottle-matured Ports, exposed to no air, undergo what is called “reductive” aging, the result of which is a smooth, less tannic wine that retains most of its original color. Barrel-matured Ports, on the other hand, because barrels tend to be somewhat porous, thereby exposing their contents to small amounts of oxygen, undergo “oxidative” aging, whereby the wine (in the case of red wine) loses some of its original claret color, taking on tones of amber, and reduces in volume due to natural evaporation (the evaporated portion romantically referred to as “the angels’ share”), the result being a slightly more viscous wine. [The IVDP (Instituto dos Vinhos do Duoro e Porto) further divides the wines into two subcategories: “normal Ports”—rubies, tawnies, and white Ports; and “Categorias Especiais” (Special Categories), which includes everything else].
Ruby Port is the least expensive and most commercially available style of Port. After fermentation, it is stored in tanks made of concrete or stainless steel in order to prevent oxidative aging and to preserve its claret color. It is then aged in large wooden casks for two to three years. After “fining” (the process whereby wine is clarified and stabilized by removing the insoluble matter that is suspended in the wine) and cold-filtering, the wine is bottled. Once bottled, Ruby Ports do not improve with age. And because they are filtered, they are not decanted; instead, they are poured directly from the bottle.
Ruby Reserve Port
Ruby Port Reserve is a premium Ruby Port that has been approved by the IVDP’s tasting panel, Câmara de Provadores. It is like Ruby Port, but made from a blend of higher-quality red wine. Most Port blends contain at least three wines.
Tawny Ports are made from red grapes and aged in wooden barrels for at least two years. Because of the oxidation and evaporation that occurs while maturing in the barrels, the wines attain a golden-brown color and a slightly “nutty” flavor. Sweet or medium-dry, Tawny Ports are typically consumed as a dessert wine. A Port labeled as “Tawny” but without any indication of age is a Port that has aged at least two years “in wood.” Then there are the Tawny Ports labeled with a year specified on the bottle, the official age-categories being 10, 20, 30, and over 40. But such numerical declarations, unbeknownst to many a gentleman, are nominal—meaning in name only—not mathematical. The number stated on the bottle, therefore, is not to be read as the age of the Port or the average or minimum age of the Ports blended therein. Instead, the number represents a target-profile of the Port.
Port made of white grapes may also be aged in wooden barrels and produced like Tawny Ports. And when such is the case, they attain a golden-yellow color that is almost indistinguishable from their red-grape-derived counterparts.
A Colheita Port is a single-vintage Port that has been aged, Tawny-style at least seven years—in barrels. But instead of an indication of age (i.e., 10, 20, 30, etc.) as is the case with Tawny Ports, the age indicated on the label of Colheita Ports is the actual vintage year (e.g., 1961, 1967, 2004, etc.). But a Colheita Port should not be confused with what is categorized as a Vintage Port (See below). Unlike a Vintage Port, which typically is aged in wood only for about 18 months (but may be wood-aged for a maximum of 30 months) before being transferred to bottles for maturation, Colheita Ports may be aged in wooden barrels for 20 years or more before being bottled and sold. [There are also white Colheitas].
Garrafeira Port is a peculiar Port for several reasons: Unlike other Ports, which are usually a blend of wines from various harvests of different years, Garrafeira is made from the grapes of a single harvest; and Garrafeira is aged extensively first in wood, thereby undergoing an oxidative maturation, then in large (approximately 3-gallon), dark-green glass demijohns called “bon-bons,” thereby undergoing a reductive maturation, before bottling. The IVDP requires that Garrafeira wines spend from three to six years in wood, then at least eight years in the glass demijohns. But in practice, the time spent in the demijohns far exceeds the eight-year minimum.
The various styles of White Port are made exactly like red Ports, except with white grapes, and range from dry to very sweet. Ordinary White Ports—the equivalents of Ruby Ports—are most common, and are oftentimes used as the foundation of a cocktail that includes a few cubes of ice, half Port, half tonic water, and a sprig of fresh mint or a fresh basil leaf. White Ports of a higher quality are chilled and served as any other white wine. When White Ports are matured for extended periods in wooden barrels, they darken, oftentimes to the extent that they are indistinguishable in appearance from their wood-aged red counterparts.
First introduced to the market in 2008, Rosé Ports are essentially Ruby Ports that, during the fermentation period, like other rosé wines, were allowed only limited contact with the red-color-imparting skins of the grapes. To date, Rosé Ports have enjoyed little critical or commercial acclaim.
Vintage Port is the ne plus ultra of all Ports, even if from a volume/revenue standpoint it accounts only for a small percentage of the Port trade. Vintage Port is made entirely from the grapes of a declared vintage year, and not all years are declared as such in the Duoro, a decision made by each Port house 16 months after the harvest, based on the quality of the harvest. On average, “vintage” years are declared about thrice in a decade. Reputations are of paramount importance in the Port industry; no bona-fide Port house would declare a “vintage year” without justification. Besides, once a vineyard has declared “vintage,” its wine selected for the designation must be submitted to the IVDP for approval. If approved, the Port house will typically announce the honor to the media. [While the term “vintage” simply means the year in which a wine was made, the word “vintage” has a distinct meaning within the context of “Vintage Port”: The individual Port house decides if the wine is of a quality sufficient to be bestowed with the honor; samples are sent to the IVDP for approval; and if the wine qualifies, the house may declare “vintage.” In a year of an exceedingly good harvest, it is not uncommon for all Port houses to declare a vintage year. Improved wine-making technology has resulted in the increased frequency of vintage declarations; but rainfall and temperatures figure most significantly in the quality of grapes and therefore wines. The year 2011 was declared a vintage year by most producers. Other widely declared years in recent history are: 2007, 2003, 2000, 1997, and 1994].
Vintage Ports may be aged in wooden barrels for a maximum of two-and-a-half years before bottling, then they generally require another 10 to 40 years of aging in the bottle prior to attaining what is described as “proper drinking-age.” Because of the short barrel-aging period, Vintage Ports retain their dark ruby color and fruity flavors. Especially fine Vintage Ports can improve and continue to gain complexity for many decades after they have been bottled. Much of the complex character of aged Vintage Port derives from the sustained decomposition of grape-solids in each bottle. It is not uncommon for Vintage Port dating from the 1800s to still be in perfect drinking-condition. A customer who purchases Vintage Port before its proper drinking-age must be prepared to store it properly until the drinking-age is achieved. (See “Storage” below).
Single-Quinta Vintage Port
The Port that ends up in a particular bottle is typically the result of blends of wines, sometimes sourced from different estates. Single-Quinta Vintage Ports, however, are wines that that originate from a single estate.
Two different sets of circumstances typically lead to the production of Single-Quinta Vintage Ports:
- When a large, reputable Port house elects not to declare a Vintage Port, it may alternatively secure a superior wine from a single supplier-vineyard and bottle it under the name of the house, along with that of the particular quinta, typically selling it for a slightly cheaper price than the Port house’s regular Vintage Ports.
- When a small “boutique-like” quinta, which typically does not purchase wines from other suppliers, declares “vintage” and bottles, labels, and markets its wine as a Single-Quinta Vintage Port. Such “boutique Ports” are typically priced as luxuriously as other Vintage Ports. And, increasingly, some large Port houses maintain separate estates under their umbrella organizations and bottle Single-Quinta Vintage Ports under the individualized names of those separate estates (rather than using the wines produced thereon merely as a supply-source for the house’s main bottling needs), pricing those Ports as luxury items. In such instances, the Port bears only the name of the supplier-quinta.
Unlike Vintage Ports, which must be sourced from wines of a single vintage, Crusted Port is usually a blend of wines from different vintages (years), thereby allowing the Port-blender to capitalize upon the varying characteristics of the different vintages. Because Crusted Port is bottled unfiltered and sealed with a driven-cork, like Vintage Port, it should be decanted before drinking. And although a Crusted Port will improve with age, the aim of the Port-blender is to mix a wine that will be at its optimum at an earlier age than that of Vintage Port. The year that appears on a Crusted Port refers to the year of the bottling, not the years of the harvesting of the grapes.
Crusted Ports are required to be aged in the bottle for at least three years before it may be released to the market. But most producers keep the bottles for considerably longer so that they are ready to be drunk when sold. As such, Crusted Ports are a practical alternative to Port enthusiasts who do not have the luxury of wine cellars. For many customers, Crusted Ports serve as an affordable alternative to Vintage Ports.
Late-Bottled Vintage Port (LBV)
Oftentimes labeled by acronym only, Late-Bottled Vintage Port is Port that was originally destined to be bottled as Vintage Port but, because of lack of demand, was left in the barrel longer than permissible for Vintage Port. And over time, two distinct styles of wine emerge, both of which are bottled between four and six years after vintage: one style is “fined” and filtered before bottling; and the other is not. The fined, filtered Late-Bottled Vintage Ports are ready to be drunk without decanting and are bottled with a stoppered cork that allows for easy resealing and reopening. (However, many Port experts are of the opinion that filtering reduces the wine’s particular character. And filtered Ports tend to improve only marginally with aging). The accidental origins of LBV has led to various claims to its invention, but the earliest written reference to a Port so named occurs in 1964. Unfiltered LBV is bottled with conventional driven-corks and needs to be decanted before being drunk. Once decanted, a Port should be drunk within a few days.
Now that LBV is an established style, its aim is decidedly to provide a Vintage Port-type experience without the need for lengthy in-bottle maturation, an aim which is only partially achieved—on account of the expedited aging that occurs due to the oxidation that takes place during the wine’s extended stay in wooden barrels. Since 2002, bottles that carry the description “bottle-matured” must contain wine aged in the bottle for at least three years prior to release.
LBV Ports are typically ready to drink when released. They tend to be lighter-bodied than Vintage Ports.
Port, like other wines, should be stored in a cool (but not cold), dark (light can damage Port) place with a steady temperature (such as a cellar), lying on its side if the bottle is sealed with a conventional driven-cork, and standing upright if stoppered.
With the exception of White Ports, which may be served chilled, Port should be served between 59 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit (15 to 20 degrees Celsius). Tawny Ports may be served at slightly cooler temperatures.
Unfiltered Ports—such as Vintage Port, Crusted Port, and some LBV Ports—sediment during the bottle-maturing process and must therefore be decanted. (Decanting also permits the precious wine to breathe). At least one day before the wine is to be served, it should be stood upright in its cool, dark, temperature-stable environs so that the sediment can accumulate at the bottle’s bottom. But the sediment should not be disturbed as the bottle is being opened! (In that unfortunate occurrence, the wine will have to be stood upright again for another day to allow for resettlement of the sediment—a time frame that might not be correspond with the dinner at which the wine is slated to be served!). Besides conventional corkscrews tending to compromise the cork that is likely to have become brittle from age, the agitation generally associated with opening a bottle of wine with a hand-held corkscrew only serves to unsettle the sediment. The solution, then, is to employ pageantry, panache, and “Port tongs.” Placed into a flame until red-hot, the Port tongs are used to clamp the bottle neck of the Port, just below the bottom of the cork, as the bottle is held steadily with the other hand. After the hot tongs have clamped the bottle’s neck for about 30 seconds, the tongs are unclamped and a bird’s plume, dipped into ice-cold water, is passed around the heated section of the bottle, the sudden temperature-drop causing the bottle neck to make a clean break. The Port is then carefully poured into the decanter through a cheesecloth filter so as to assure guests that no shards of glass are contained in the luxurious liquid. [A gentleman inexperienced in the technique should practice the procedure beforehand on an empty wine bottle so that when he employs his skills at the dining table, he accomplishes his task without incident or accident, for ridding white damask of 100-year-old Port stains is no simple matter. Besides, a Port is a terrible thing to waste…].
Because part of the beauty of the Port experience is its old, cellar-soiled bottle, Ports that may be poured without decanting (filtered ports) should be poured directly from their bottles. And Ports that must be decanted should be decanted—with requisite pomp and ceremony—at the table. Evidence of the Port’s time in its cellar should not be removed.
Because Port is a fortified wine, it lasts longer than unfortified wines once opened, but it is still best if drunk within a few days. Tawny and LBV Ports, for example, remain palatable for several weeks after opening—on account of their sustained exposure to oxygen during the barrel-aging process and, as such, developing a certain “immunity” to the havoc that oxygen generally exacts upon wines. Vintage Ports, on the other hand, are aged primarily in oxygen-free bottle environments and are thus more susceptible to degradation from oxygen. Vintage Ports, therefore, are at their absolute best if consumed within a day or two after opening but, because of the alcohol content, may be enjoyed even for several days after opening.
Much has been made over the years as to why Port is traditionally passed clockwise—to the left—around the table. The age-old custom is for each guest at the table to pour his own Port—whether from a decanter of from the bottle. And since drinking-glasses are always situated to the upper-right side of the place-setting, it only makes sense for each guest to receive the bottle or decanter conveniently into his right hand as he receives the vessel transferred from the left side of the diner seated to the immediate right. But practicality and logistics tend not to make for interesting table-tales. So many a myth has been offered to explain the tradition. Similarly it is customary not to rest the vessel of Port onto the tabletop while being passed around the table. And despite fable, the real reason is the table—as in tablecloth: With so many persons pouring, it is likely that droplets of Port will find themselves cascading down the outside of the vessel and onto the tablecloth if the bottle is permitted to rest atop the table. But truth or tale, Port at the end of a meal is one of life’s great pleasures.
Traditionally, Port is served towards the end of the meal as a complement to cheeses, as a dessert wine, or as an after-dinner drink. But some Ports, especially White, dry and semi-dry Ports, are sometimes drunk as aperitifs. And Tawny Ports serve as excellent complements to foie gras, cigars, and chocolate. Connoisseurs insist, however, that Vintage Ports should be savored without complement–but with compliments to the host.