According to an old saying in the Port trade, every wine would be a Port, if it could. Certainly these sweet, fortified wines demand centre stage whenever they appear. Rich, saccharine, intensely-flavoured and, at their best, wonderfully majestic and harmonious, they are wines to be savoured on their own, or with a fine chunk of cheese after a meal.
Port comes from the Douro region of Portugal, about 50 miles east of Oporto, specifically the regions of the Cima Corgo, Baixo Corgo and Douro Superior. The Cima (Higher) is the heart of the Port-producing region, centred around the town of Pinhão, and is the source of most high quality Ports. The vineyards are steep, the granite and schist soil inhospitable, and the temperature very hot. Mechanisation is tricky to say the least. The landscape, with the Douro River at its heart, is stunning.
The British have played a vital part in Port’s history, which continues to this day. Port started life as a full-bodied, dry red wine, known in 17th century London as ‘blackstrap’. Brandy was often added to the wine by British merchants to ensure it arrived in good condition. In 1678, however, two English wine merchants visiting the Douro region found the “sweetish and extremely smooth” wines of the Abbot of Lamego, with whom they were staying, better than any others they had tasted. The Abbot admitted adding brandy to the wine during (rather than after) fermentation, and the two Englishmen bought all of his stock and shipped it home.
At the same time several now-famous companies were being established in the region: what was to become Warre was set up by Englishman John Clark in 1670, Croft was founded in 1678, Quarles Harris in 1680 and Taylor’s in 1692.
The Methuen Treaty of 1703 that gave Portuguese wines preferential duty rates in Britain added a welcome boost, while the measures introduced by the Marquis of Pombal – including the demarcation of the Douro Port region in 1756 and the ban on using elderberry juice – helped improve and ensure quality.
More than 80 grape varieties are allowed for Port production, with quality varying considerably. Led by the elegant and aromatic Touriga Nacional, the finest varieties are the fruity Touriga Francesca, the soft Tinta Barroca, the succulent Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo), the fine Tinta Cão and the dark Tinta Amarela. For white Port, Gouveio (frequently confused with Verdelho), Malvasia Fina and Viosinho are considered to be the best.
Grape-growing in the Douro region has traditionally been a fairly unscientific affair with up to 30 different varieties grown in field blends on small-holdings across the region. Such plots are beginning to be replaced by single varietal vineyards, but with 28,000 individual growers farming 39,000 ha of vines, this is unlikely to be a quick fix.
All Port wine is fortified. The grapes were traditionally crushed by foot in large stone troughs called lagares although these days this process has largely been automated, with the aim of extracting as much colour and tannin as possible. When the sweetness in the fermenting grape must reaches a certain level – normally when the alcohol is about six to eight percent – a clear, flavourless 77 percent alcohol brandy known as aguardente is added to stop the fermentation. The maturation process then harmonises the fruit, tannins and alcohol in the wine, which by this time is about 19 to 20 percent alcohol. Ports are normally labelled under the name of their shipper - e.g. Graham, Dow or Fonseca - who is responsible for blending, maturing and bottling the wines.
Port is made in two different styles: bottle-aged and cask-aged. The bottle-aged styles are aged for a short time in cask or tank and then do most of their maturing in bottle; Vintage and Single Quinta Ports are classic examples. These are rich, full-bodied and packed full of red and black fruit.
Cask-aged Ports are aged in wooden casks until they are perfectly ready to drink. The cask-aged styles include Tawny, Aged Tawny and Colheita Ports (aka Single Harvest Reserve). These tend to be lighter, nuttier, and slightly less sweet. They display dried fruit flavours, are more food friendly, and are usually silkier and finer. Ruby, Crusted and Late Bottled Vintage Ports are aged from two to six years in cask or tank and are ready to be drunk as soon as they are bottled. They are closer to the up-front fruit style of bottle-aged Ports but only the Crusted and traditional LBV styles improve in bottle.
Even though it is very much in the minority, White Port is also made. It comes in two different styles, dry and sweet, although even the dry style is normally medium-dry.