Port wine (also known as Vinho do Porto, Porto, and often simply port) is a Portuguese fortified wine produced exclusively in the Douro Valley in the northern provinces of Portugal. It is typically a sweet, red wine, often served as a dessert wine, and comes in dry, semi-dry, and white varieties. Fortified wines in the style of port are also produced outside of Portugal, most notably in Australia, South Africa, Canada, India, Argentina, and the United States. Under European Union Protected Designation of Origin guidelines, only the product from Portugal may be labelled as port or Porto. Elsewhere, the situation is more complicated: wines labelled "port" may come from anywhere in the world, while the names "Dão", "Oporto", "Porto", and "Vinho do Porto" have been recognized as foreign, non-generic names for wines originating in Portugal.
Port is produced from grapes grown and processed in the demarcated Douro region. The wine produced is then fortified by the addition of a neutral grape spirit known as aguardente in order to stop the fermentation, leaving residual sugar in the wine, and to boost the alcohol content. The fortification spirit is sometimes referred to as brandy but it bears little resemblance to commercial brandies. The wine is then stored and aged, often in barrels stored in a cave (pronounced "ka-ve" and meaning "cellar" in Portuguese) as is the case in Vila Nova de Gaia, before being bottled. The wine received its name, "port", in the latter half of the 17th century from the seaport city of Porto at the mouth of the Douro River, where much of the product was brought to market or for export to other countries in Europe. The Douro valley where port wine is produced was defined and established as a protected region, or appellation in 1756, making it the oldest defined and protected wine region in the world. Chianti (1716) and Tokaj (1730) have older demarcation but no regulation associated and thus, in terms of regulated demarcated regions, Porto is the oldest.
Port wine is typically richer, sweeter, heavier, and possesses a higher alcohol content than most other wines. This is caused by the addition of distilled grape spirits (aguardente similar to brandy) to fortify the wine and halt fermentation before all the sugar is converted to alcohol and results in a wine that is usually either 19.5% or 20% alcohol.
Port is commonly served after meals as a dessert wine, often with cheese; commonly stilton. White and tawny ports are often served as an apéritif.
Port from Portugal comes in several styles, which can be divided into two broad categories:
- Wines that have matured in sealed glass bottles, with no exposure to air, and experience what is known as "reductive" aging. This process leads to the wine losing its colour very slowly and produces a wine which is smoother on the palate and less tannic.
- Wines that have matured in wooden barrels, whose permeability allows a small amount of exposure to oxygen, and experience what is known as "oxidative" aging. They too lose colour, but at a faster pace. They also lose volume to evaporation (angel's share), leaving behind a wine that is slightly more viscous.
The IVDP (Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto) further divides port into two categories: normal ports (standard rubies, tawnies and white ports) and Categorias Especiais, special categories, which includes everything else.
Tawny ports are wines made from red grapes that are aged in wooden barrels using the Solera process, exposing them to gradual oxidation and evaporation. As a result, they gradually mellow to a golden-brown colour. The exposure to oxygen imparts "nutty" flavours to the wine, which is blended to match the house style.
Tawny ports are sweet or medium dry and typically consumed as a dessert wine.
When a port is described as tawny, without an indication of age, it is a basic blend of wood aged port that has spent at least two years in barrels. Above this are tawny with an indication of age which represent a blend of several vintages, with the average years "in wood" stated on the label. The official categories are 10, 20, 30 and over 40 years. The categories indicate a target age profile for the ports, not their actual ages, though many people mistakenly believe that the categories indicate the minimum average ages of the blends. It is also possible to produce an aged white port in the manner of a tawny, with a number of shippers now marketing 10 year old white ports.
A tawny port from a single vintage is called Colheitas. Instead of an indication of age (10, 20...) the actual vintage year is mentioned. However, they should not be confused with vintage port: whereas a vintage port will have been bottled about 18 months after being harvested and will continue to mature, a Colheita may have spent 20 or more years in wooden barrels before being bottled and sold. A number of white Colheitas have been produced, such as one by Dalva in 1952.
Garrafeira is an unusual and rare intermediate vintage dated style of port made from the grapes of a single harvest that combines the oxidative maturation of years in wood with further reductive maturation in large glass demijohns. It is required by the IVDP that wines spend some time in wood, usually between three and six years, followed by at least a further eight years in glass, before bottling. In practice the times spent in glass are much longer. At present, only one company, Niepoort, markets Garrafeiras. Their black demijohns, affectionately known as bon-bons, hold approximately 11 litres each. Some connoisseurs describe Garrafeira as having a slight taste of bacon, although many people will neither notice nor understand such a description; the reason being that, during the second phase of maturation, certain oils may precipitate, causing a film to form across the surface of the glass that can be tasted by those who are accustomed to the difference between Garrafeira and other forms of port.
Confusingly, the word Garrafeira may be found on some very old tawny labels, where the contents of the bottle are of exceptional age.
Ruby port is the cheapest and most extensively produced type of port. After fermentation, it is stored in tanks made of concrete or stainless steel to prevent oxidative aging and preserve its rich claret color. The wine is usually blended to match the style of the brand to which it is to be sold. The wine is fined and cold filtered before bottling and does not generally improve with age.
Reserve or vintage character
Reserve port is a premium ruby port approved by the IVDP's tasting panel, the Câmara de Provadores. In 2002 the IVDP prohibited the use of the term "Vintage Character", as the wine had neither a single vintage (usually being a blend of several vintages of ruby port) nor the typical character of vintage port.
Pink port is a relatively new variation on the market, first released in 2008 by Pocas, one of the last family owned vineyards in the Douro Valley, and Croft and the Taylor Fladgate Partnership for Marks and Spencer. It is made with the same grapes and according to the same extremely strict rules that govern the production of vintage and tawny and ruby ports. It is technically a ruby port, but fermented the way a rosé wine would be, with a limited exposure to the grape skins, thus the pink colour. Bearing the hallmarks of a light ruby with its taste being lighter in style and containing a fruity flavour, it is commonly served cold.
White port is made from white grapes and can be made in a wide variety of styles, although few shippers produce anything apart from a basic product that is similar to a standard ruby. White port can be used as the basis for a cocktail or served on its own. There is a range of styles of white port, from dry to very sweet. When white ports are matured for long periods, the colour darkens, eventually reaching a point where it can be hard to discern (from appearance alone) whether the original wine was red or white.
Late bottled vintage (LBV)
Late bottled vintage (often referred to simply as LBV) was originally wine that had been destined for bottling as vintage port, but because of lack of demand was left in the barrel for longer than had been planned. Over time it has become two distinct styles of wine, both of them bottled between four and six years after the vintage, but one style is fined and filtered before bottling, while the other is not.
The filtered wine has the advantage of being ready to drink without decanting and is bottled in a stoppered bottle that can be easily resealed. This is designed to exploit the extended shelf life such wines enjoy by comparison with vintage port, once opened. However many wine experts feel that this convenience comes at a price and believe that the filtration process strips out much of the character of the wine.
The accidental origin of late bottled vintage has led to more than one company claiming its invention. The earliest known reference to a style of port with this name in a merchant's list is to be found in The Wine Society's catalogue from the spring of 1964; which includes Fonseca's Quinta Milieu 1958, bottled in the UK, also in 1964.
Unfiltered wines are bottled with conventional driven corks and need to be decanted. After decanting they should be consumed within a day or two. Recent bottlings are identified by the label wording "unfiltered" or "bottle matured" or both. Before the 2002 regulations, this style was often marketed as '"traditional", a description that is no longer permitted.
LBV is intended to provide some of the experience of drinking a vintage port but without the need for lengthy bottle aging. To a limited extent it succeeds, as the extra years of oxidative aging in barrel does mature the wine more quickly.
Typically ready to drink when released, LBV ports are the product of a single year's harvest and tend to be lighter bodied than a vintage port. Filtered LBVs do not generally improve with age, whereas the unfiltered wines will usually be improved by extra years in the bottle. Since 2002, bottles that carry the words "bottle matured" must have enjoyed at least three years of bottle maturation before release.
Crusted port is usually a blend of port wine from several vintages, although single vintage crusted ports have sometimes been made in the past. Unlike vintage port, which has to be sourced from grapes from a single vintage, crusted port affords the port blender the opportunity to make best use of the varying characteristics of different vintages.
Crusted port is bottled unfiltered, and sealed with a driven cork. Like vintage port it needs to be decanted before drinking.
Although crusted ports will improve with age, the blender often seeks to make these wines approachable at a younger age than for his vintage ports. The date on a crusted port bottle refers to the bottling date, not the year the grapes were grown.
While crusted port is required to be aged in bottle for at least three years before it is released to the market, most producers keep the bottles for considerably longer; so they are ready to be drunk when sold, and may be enjoyed by consumers who have no space to cellar bottles. This makes crusted port a popular and affordable alternative to vintage port.
Vintage port is made entirely from the grapes of a declared vintage year and accounts for about two percent of a year's total port production. Not every year is declared a vintage in the Douro. The decision on whether to declare a vintage is made in the spring of the second year following the harvest. The decision to declare a vintage is made by each individual port house, often referred to as a "shipper".
The port industry is one where reputations are hard won and easily lost, so the decision is never taken lightly. During periods of recession and war, potential "declarations" have sometimes been missed for economic reasons. In recent years, some shippers have adopted the "chateau" principle for declarations, declaring all but the worst years. More conventional shippers will declare, on average, about three times a decade.
While it is by far the most renowned type of port, from a volume and revenue standpoint, vintage port actually makes up only a small percentage of the production of most shippers. Vintage ports are aged in barrels for a maximum of two and a half years before bottling, and generally require another ten to thirty years of aging in the bottle before reaching what is considered a proper drinking age. Since they are aged in barrels for only a short time, they retain their dark ruby colour and fresh fruit flavours. Particularly fine vintage ports can continue to gain complexity and drink wonderfully for many decades after they were bottled. It is not unknown for century old bottles still to be in perfect condition for consumption.
Single quinta vintage port
Single quinta vintage ports are wines that originate from a single estate, unlike the standard bottlings of the port wine houses which can be sourced from a number of quintas. Single quinta bottlings are used in two different ways by different producers. Most of the large port wine houses have a single quinta bottling which is only produced in some years when the regular vintage port of the house is not declared. In those years, wine from their best quinta is still bottled under a vintage designation, rather than being used for simpler port qualities. In a sense, this kind of single quinta is a "second wine" of the regular vintage port and is typically sold slightly cheaper than the regular vintage Port. Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos and Taylor's Quinta de Vargellas are examples of this kind of port. Typically, this type of single quinta bears the name of both a major port wine house and the name of a quinta.
In recent times, there has also been an increase in the production and marketing of single quinta vintage port as high-end wines. Vintage port from small producers situated in the Douro valley are almost always single quinta wines and labelled as such. Some of the larger port wine houses also have introduced single quintas which are run as separate estates, rather than as a source of wine for the house's main bottling. Symington Family Estates' Quinta do Vesuvio is an example of this. Typically, this type of single quinta only bears the name of its quinta.
Much of the complex character of aged vintage port comes from the continued slow decomposition of grape solids in each bottle. However, these solids are undesirable when port is consumed, and thus vintage port typically requires a period of settling before decanting and pouring.
Vintage port should not be confused with "late bottled vintage".
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