Photography: Edward Pond
Port’s stuffy reputation and its relegation to holiday-only wine status is decidedly undeserved. It is a complex, versatile, sweet wine with a long history, and it comes in a variety of styles to please any palate. Produced in the dramatic Douro Valley in northern Portugal, Port is made from a variety of native grapes grown on impossibly steep terraces, some 2,000 years old. The special soil and climate make intensely flavourful, sweet grapes. Neutral grape spirit is added to the grapes to stop fermentation, increase the alcohol content and preserve some sweetness.
1. Port is not a single-varietal wine. The best ones are blends of complementary grapes, sometimes up to a dozen varietals, such as Touriga Nacional (powerful, rich), Touriga Francesa (fragrant, refined), Tinta Roriz (cherry-like fruit) and Tinta Barroca (sweet). Most Port is red, but some white Port is made from white grapes.
2. Port takes its name from the city of Porto (sometimes called Oporto in English), even though it is made in the Douro Valley, about 100 kilometres upriver. The cooler climate in Porto doesn’t suit grape cultivation, but it is the site of the traditional aging cellars for Port, in Vila Nova de Gaia. Porto’s location on the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Douro made downriver transport and overseas export of the wine easy.
3. Port comes in a number of styles. It may be aged in bottles or wood, blended from different years, or come from a single vintage. Most are wood-aged blends that are ready to drink when bottled. Some different types of Port include ruby, tawny, vintage, late-bottled vintage and single quinta (estate) vintage.
4. In Portugal, Port is often drunk as an aperitif. White Port mixed with tonic water makes a refreshing drink on a hot summer day.
5. Even though Port is produced in Portugal, many of the famous Port houses were created by British businessmen, as the British were then the wine’s biggest consumers. This is why you’ll often find names such as Sandeman, Graham, Dow and Warre gracing the labels.
6. Vintners began fortifying Port with neutral grape spirit in the 17th century to make it more stable during sea voyages to England, its main market. Initially, only a little was added, but the great 1820 vintage convinced shippers to add more brandy sooner in the fermentation process to create a sweeter, richer wine.
7. Vintage Port only accounts for about three per cent of all Port production. It is only made in the finest years – roughly one in every three. The industry “declares” the vintage, and only the best grapes from each estate are used. Vintage Port is bottled after a couple of years in wood, then spends 10 to 50 years coming into its prime. Alone among world wines, vintage Ports can attain great age – 80 years or more – and still retain fruit flavours. Single quinta vintage Ports are made in undeclared years by well-known estates. They are usually ready to drink sooner and offer excellent value.
8. Tawny Port is a much subtler, gentler style of wood-aged Port. Long cask aging gives it its golden hue – bottles are labelled 10-, 20-, 30- or over-40-year-old. Tawny Port is delicious with chocolate and some cheeses.
9. Port need not be decanted unless it is a type that “throws sediment,” such as a vintage or single quinta style.
10. Many Port houses also produce excellent Douro table wines, particularly reds. With Port slightly out of fashion in recent years, producers are using their grapes and equipment to make other high-quality wines.