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 Editorial  Share this article     Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 27, February 2005   
PortPort  Contents 
Issue 26, January 2005 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 28, March 2005

Port

The great fortified Portuguese wine, which in the past played a leading commercial role, still today keeps its charm and its elegance in many different styles

 Portuguese enology, no matter in recent times is being pretty successful in the world for the production of very good table wines, is still today indissolubly associated to its most renowned wine: Port. This wine made famous both the area in which it is produced - the Douro Valley - as well as the city from which it took its name. In fact, Port wine was named after the city of Oporto, located in the mouth of Douro river in the Atlantic coast, because it was right in this port city the wine was shipped all over the world and - in particular - in England. In past times Port was shipped to Oporto by using the characteristic boats - locally called barcos - along the Douro river to the city of Vila Nova de Gaia where they were aged taking advantage of the oceanic climate. Even today many Port producers ship their wines to Vila Nova de Gaia, however instead of the romantic boats, today are used trucks.

 Despite in the world are being produced other wines in the style of Port, sometimes even using the same name, nothing compares to the genuine Port made in Portugal in the Douro Valley. As it happened for Jerez (Sherry), Madeira and Marsala - the other renowned fortified wines - even the fortune and history of Port is strongly connected to the one of English merchants and still today many of the famous brands carry their names. When at the end of the seventeenth century English merchants began to find alternatives to highly taxed French products, they landed on the coastal cities of Portugal therefore starting flourishing commercial relationships, most of the times affecting the development. The Portuguese wine - as well as Port - represented the alternative to French wine and English merchants started strong relationships both with viticulturists and with bottlers. Many of them even moved to Portugal therefore becoming themselves Port producers and still today they play a relevant role in the trading and in the production of this wine.


The production area of Port
The production area of Port

 It is more likely the first Portuguese wine the English “discovered” was Vinho Verde, typical of the northern and coastal part of Portugal, and it was only when they began to enter the internal territory, up to the Douro Valley, they “discovered” the robust wines they were looking for. These wines, because of the high continental temperatures, fermented very quickly and in a tumultuous way, producing astringent and very colored wines. From the inside areas of Portugal, these wines were transported to the coast and from there they were shipped in England. In order to keep wines from the stress of the journey, many merchants added to the barrels a small quantity of brandy - about 3% - a trick that was also used later for Marsala. However it was not this system who contributed to the origin of Port in the way we know it today, even though the discovery of its production system is still today uncertain between history and legend.

 The most famous legend about the discovery of Port has two English merchants and one monk. It is said about the end of the 1670's, two young English merchants were searching for wines suited for the English market. After some time, the two merchants arrived in a monastery near the city of Lamego, near the Douro river. Here a monk offered them a sweet, rich and smooth wine, very different from the one to which they were used to and they found it excellent. After having longly insisted, the monk confessed them that wine was produced by adding some brandy to the fermenting must, a condition which allowed to keep natural sweetness as well as adding alcohol. In other words he fortified the must, a technique still used today for the production of Port wine as well as many renowned French Vin Doux Naturels. Whether this event is a legend or reality, it is still today hard to tell.

 The events passed by history tell the Port was born in very different circumstances. The 1820 vintage produced extremely rich and sweet grapes which allowed the production of an extremely rich, concentrated, smooth and naturally sweet wine, an event which literally boosted the trade of the wine. The success was so high that Port merchants - in the hope of emulating the same commercial fortune - the following year tried to remake that very same wine, of course by using very different grapes. They decided to add a high quantity of brandy to the fermenting must in order to stop the fermentation, keeping sweetness and at the same time increasing the alcohol level. The idea worked and it was again a great success: sweet, concentrated and richly colored Port was born. In the course of years the technique was improved, the quantity of brandy used for the fortification was increased, therefore creating that unmistakable style of Port - sweet and concentrated - appreciated and looked for still today.

 The Douro valley - the suggestive area in which are planted the vineyards from which it is produced Port - is a very hard region for viticulturists. The sides of the hills sloping down to the course of the river, are so steep that vineyards are cultivated in terraces specifically dug in the soil. The inclination of sides can also be of 70 degrees and the difficulties of harvest are also worsened by the torrid summertime temperatures, period in which the grapes are being harvested. The soil is composed by schist and granitic, a condition which forces the vine to set its root very deep in order to search for water. The torrid climate conditions of Douro valley forced Port producers to transport their young wines - sailing the course of Douro river with the traditional barcos - to Vila Nova de Gaia, in the Atlantic coast, in order to ensure a more adequate climate for the aging, a practice that was mandatory by law until 1985. Despite this is not mandatory anymore, even today many producers prefer having their Port wines aged in the cellars at Vila Nova de Gaia, however the transport is today done by using trucks which replaced the traditional barcos.

 

Classification of Port

 Port is a complex and charming wine, produced in many styles - precisely eleven - each having its own personality. According to a technical point of view, Port is a fortified wine, that is a wine to which is added some quantity of brandy during its production. The first classification of Port derives from the way it was aged: Port mainly aged in large containers - wood casks or inert tanks made of steel or concrete - and Port mainly aged in bottle. Port wines aged in large containers are destined to a more or less immediate consumption and do not require any other aging in bottle. Port mainly aged in bottle spend a short period of time in wood casks and then are bottled and aged for very long periods, even tens of years. The most representative Port of this category - as well as the most looked for - is Port Vintage. Ports aged in bottle - as time passes by - tend to throw huge amounts of sediments, therefore decanting is always necessary.


 

 Among the styles of Port, the one which is very different from all the others is White Port. Produced with white berried grapes - including Códega, Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Rabigato and Viosinho - this style of Port is considered a lesser wine from Port lovers and it does not have the same fame and prestige of red Ports. White Ports undergo a short period of aging in cask or in large containers, and most of them have a sweet taste, sometimes very sweet - the so called lagrima - as well as an off-dry style, called leve seco. The most simple style of red Ports certainly is Ruby Port. This style of Port is produced by blending young Ports of different vintages, aged in casks or in steel tanks from one to three years. Ruby Ports are characterized by intense colors - hence the name - and pretty fruity organoleptic qualities, generally produced with grapes cultivated in less prestigious areas. Tawny Port - not to be confused with Aged Tawny Ports - are wines aged for not more than three years, therefore pretty young and usually produced with grapes cultivated in lesser prestigious areas. Their color is generally pale garnet red and are more transparent than Ruby Ports, because of a shorter period of maceration of the must in skins or - more frequently - because of the adding of White Port.

 Aged Tawny Port - which can be recognized by the number of years of aging written in the label - represent a very appreciated style of Port and are generally aged for 10, 20 or 30 years and even more than 40 years. Aged Tawny Ports are produced by blending wines of different vintages and aged for many years, period in which develop pretty complex aromas and the intense ruby red color gets into a red brownish color - that is tawny - hence the name. Indeed, the designation of the years of aging is defined by the average age of all wines used in the blend and determined by their taste. This means that a 20 years Tawny Port has a taste similar to a Port wine aged for about 20 years. Aged Tawny Ports are however produced with high quality wines and they usually are destined to the production of Vintage Port, a very looked for and appreciated style. A very rare style of aged Tawny Port is Colheita (meaning harvest in Portuguese) which is exclusively produced with wines of the same vintage. Colheitas must have at least seven years of aging, however the most frequent production is about wines aged for some tens of years, even more than fifty.

 Despite aged Tawny Ports are excellent and appreciated products, the most looked for and enchanting style is the so called Vintage. The term vintage usually refers to a wine produced with grapes harvested in the very same year, however this term is also used in a style which can be origin of confusion. Vintage Character Port is a wine resembling the style of real vintages, however it is produced with wines of good quality and of different years usually aged in cask from four to six years. In order to increase complexity, sometimes in these wines are also added Ports from older vintages. Late Bottled Vintage Port - abbreviated as LBV - is a wine produced with grapes coming from the same vintage and aged in cask from four to six years. As opposed to real vintage, this style of Port is produced every year and generally filtered, therefore with an aging in bottle, it will hardly throw sediments. Traditional Late Bottled Vintage Port is produced with grapes from the same vintage and officially declared by the producer as vintage and therefore of higher quality. Wines belonging to this category ages four years in cask - two years more than real vintages - and generally are not filtered, therefore tend to throw sediments to the bottom of the bottle.

 Among all styles of Port, the one which has always caught the interest of Port lovers is undoubtedly Vintage Port. These wines are exclusively produced in exceptional years and in pretty limited quantities, last but not the least, they are also pretty expensive. The grapes used for their production come from the best Douro areas, a factor which increases their quality as well. Vintage Port are aged in cask for two years, then they are bottled and from this moment begins their real evolution. During the course of years this Port slowly ages while throwing huge quantities of sediments, for this reason it is always advised to decant Vintage Port before consumption. Generally speaking, these wines are aged in bottle for about ten years, a period which is considered adequate, however longer period are pretty common as well. Single Quinta Vintage Port represents the highest qualitative style of all Ports. The term Quinta - whose literary meaning is farm - refers to a single vineyard or estate, therefore these Ports are exclusively produced with grapes harvested in vineyards of particular value. Single Quinta Vintage Port are produced in even lesser quantities than vintage and therefore they are more rare and expensive.

 Among the lesser known styles is found the Crusted Port, name derived from the English word crust whose meaning is sediment. These wines are produced by blending wines belonging to many vintages - with an average aging time of four years - and bottled non filtered. These Ports tend, with the aging in bottle, to throw a pretty good quantity of sediments - hence the name - and therefore require decanting. Another style produced in very limited quantities is Garrafeira Port (from Portuguese Garrafa whose meaning is bottle). These Ports are uniquely produced with grapes of a single year, considered exceptional, just like vintage. Garrafeiras are being aged in cask for a pretty short period of time, then are transferred in large glass containers - called bonbonnes - in which are being aged for tens of years, generally from twenty to forty. At the end of this period, the wine is bottled in regular bottles and therefore commercialized.

 

The Production of Port

 As already mentioned, Ports are produced as white and red. White Ports are generally produced with the grapes Códega, Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Rabigato and Viosinho, whereas for red Ports are used the grapes Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz (known in Spain as Tempranillo), Tinto Cão and Touriga Francesa. The grapes used for the production of Port are traditionally pressed for many hours by feet in concrete tanks called lagares. This operation allow the extraction of huge quantities of color from the skins, avoids the breaking of pips and the skins can macerate in the juice in order to extract their aromatic substances. Despite few producers still use this method for their best Ports, today this procedure is done by means of machines. After about 24 hours of maceration of the skins in the must, the fermentation begins therefore converting sugar into alcohol, just like in any other wine. As soon as about the half of sugar has been converted into alcohol, the fermentation is interrupted by adding some grape brandy until reaching an alcoholic percentage of about 20%. The adding of alcohol definitively stops the action of yeast while leaving a good quantity of sugar which will give the wine its typical sweetness. The next production phases depend on the style of Port to be made and in each of them will be adopted the specific aging practices according to each specific style.

 




 Editorial  Share this article     Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 27, February 2005   
PortPort  Contents 
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