The origins of port — the great fortified red wine — go back to the seventeenth-century trade wars between England and France. The British had developed a real affection for the wines of Bordeaux, but import bans and high taxes forced the English merchants to look elsewhere for their red wines. That “elsewhere” was Portugal. They found wines to their liking along the Douro River. To make sure that the wines survived the trip to England, merchants added brandy to stabilize them before shipping.
As for the discovery of the winemaking technique that results in port, there is a legend. In 1678 a British wine merchant from Liverpool sent his sons to Portugal to seek out some wines for transport. They ended up at a monastery in the mountains above the Douro where the abbot added brandy to the tank before the natural end of fermentation. The alcohol stopped the fermentation process, leaving a sweet, high-alcohol wine. The secret to making port was now out.
What's in a Name?
English merchants set up trading companies in the city of Oporto to ship these fortified wines back home. The wine itself thus became known as Porto, and, to this day, that label designation means that the contents are authentic port. These merchants are also responsible for the English names of so many port producers.
The quality port producers that are of British descent are Cockburn, Sandeman, Croft, Taylor, Syington, Dow, Graham, and Warre. The “Grand Dame” of port is Ferreira. Equally good port houses are Fonseca and Quinta do Noval.
Much like the rules governing the use of the name Champagne, port wine must come from a specific place — the Douro region of Portugal. Portstyled wines are made all over the world, but they're not true port.
Port-styled wines are made in areas such as California, Washington State, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. By law these wines must include the area of production alongside the port name. Producers tend to use grapes from their own areas in the blends, not necessarily the traditional grapes of Portugal.
The regulations governing port's production allow 80 different grape varieties to be used. In practice, though, it really comes down to a handful. There are only five classic port varieties:
Tinta Roriz (the same as Spain's Tempranillo)
Ports come in a head-spinning number of styles. Most of them are red and sweet, but some are white. The style varies according to the quality of the harvest, how long the wine ages in wood before bottling, and whether the wine is from a single year or blended with wines from other years.
Top of the Line: Vintage Port
Vintage port is not made every year. On average, only about three years in ten are suitable enough for vintage port. Even in those years, only about 10 percent of the total production will be bottled as vintage port. The rest will be used for other types of port.
Vintage port is aged in the bottle for most of its life. It spends two years in cask before bottling, which for port is not a long time. When it is bottled, its tannins are still quite fierce, so a long bottle aging is in order. Vintage port often requires at least twenty years of aging, and it can continue to improve for decades after that.
Vintage port is bottled unfiltered and unrefined, so a discernable crust will be visible in the bottle once opened. Taking time to decant the port will remove the accumulated sediment.
Single Quinta (meaning “single farm”) ports emerged in the 1980s and have become very popular. They're made from grapes from single-vineyard sites, and they can be produced in years when vintages have not been declared. The producer has deemed the quality of the wine from that location to be exceptional.
Late-Bottled Vintage Port (LBV)
LBVs are probably the next best thing to vintage port. They're vintage dated and made from a producer's best grapes, but they come from undeclared years. The grapes can originate from several vineyards or farms. LBVs are bottled four to six years after harvest, meaning they've aged in cask longer than a vintage port, and are ready to drink upon release.
Tawnies are aged in wood for years — as long as forty — until they fade to a tawny color. They're a blend of wines from several years and are ready to drink immediately. Once opened, they can retain their vitality for a few weeks.
A tawny port will often be categorized by age, which appears as “10 Year Old,” “20 Year Old,” “30 Year Old,” and “40 Year Old” on the label. The number is really an average age because older, more complex wines are blended with younger, fruitier wines. Colheita ports are tawny ports from a single year (
Vintage Character ports are ruby ports made from higher quality grapes. They are blends from several harvests, and you won't see the term “vintage character” on the label. These wines are given proprietary names like Bin 27, Six Grapes, and Boardroom.
Ruby port is one of the least expensive ports. It consists of wines from various vintages which have been aged two or three years in vessels ranging from oak barrels to stainless steel tanks. It retains its dark ruby color and has a limited shelf life.
White port is produced just like red port except It's made from white grapes — principally Malvasia Fino, Gouveio, and Rabigato grapes. Many white ports are dry, and these are typically served as an apéritif.