Port Wine: A Primer

Posted on Jan 19, 2022


Port wine portugal

Port wine is prized by collectors.

Port is a deliciously rich, sweet wine made from various grapes, grown in Portugal’s Douro Valley, that is fortified with brandy. It can make one of the most age-worthy wines, with top examples lasting half a century and beyond. It’s definitely a connoisseur’s wine, prized by collectors and laid down for decades in cool dark cellars, but there are also many excellent ports that are quite affordable and ready to drink now. Port is a delicious drink; one that is well worth learning more about. Though Port-style wines are made in many areas, we will focus here on just those wines made in Portugal.

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Oporto, Portugal.

Port takes its name from the Portuguese city that sits at the mouth of the Douro River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean in Northern Portugal. The city of Port (sometimes called Oporto in Portugal) and its sister city directly across the river, Gaia, are the home of port, the place where all the big port houses (or lodges) turn the grapes into wine and store the wine in barrel or bottle before releasing it to the market.

Port comes in several different styles, but each starts out in the same way.

Douro Valley portugal

The view at Quinta do Noval.

It is the final steps in the winemaking process that determines the final port style. All the grapes for port wine are sourced further up the Douro River, where the Serra do Marao mountains block the cooling influence of the Atlantic Ocean, leaving a hot, dry, continental viticultural region. Behind these mountains are the three sub-regions of the Douro Valley where the grapes that make port wine are grown.

The westernmost and furthest downstream is the Baixo Corgo; it has the least dry and coolest climate of the three. Further upstream is the Cima Corgo which is centered around the beautiful village of Pinhão. We stayed in Pinhão and it is one of the most beautiful cities we have ever been to. Located right on the banks of the Douro it has a spectacular view of the very steep slopes that rise up from the river and are lined with row upon row of terraced vineyards. This region is drier and warmer and generally is regarded as producing the highest quality port grapes.

Further upriver and extending almost to the Spanish border is Douro Superior. It is the least cultivated region as there are rapids at Cachao de Valeira which are very difficult to navigate. To this day the river is the primary way of transporting the grapes or barrels to Oporto.

portuguese wine grapes

38 different varieties of grapes are used to make port.

Some 38 different varieties of grapes are used to make port, but there are 5 primary varieties that are most commonly used: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cao. There are small amounts of white port made from grapes such as Codega, Malvasia, and Rabigato.

Port today is made largely the same way it has been for over 300 years. We recently toured the region and some of the top port houses. In the wineries, very little modern equipment is in sight.

Most houses still crush their grapes by foot stomping them in shallow cement tanks called lagars.

Douro Valley portugal

The Lagar at Quinta da Pacheca.

The grapes are placed into the lagar and a team of workers (usually about 8) steps barefoot into the lagar, lock arms together, and form a chain from one edge of the lagar to the other. A similar team lines up facing them at the other edge of the lagar. A foreman will call out a chant that the workers will stomp to, gradually moving forward until they meet the other team, then stomping backwards until they return to their wall of the lagar. A slow, and seemingly primitive process, but one that results in a gentle and thorough pressing, and one that mechanization has yet to improve upon.

As the grapes are stomped and the skins break, the juice is released. After a while the natural yeasts existing in the winery and on the grape skins interact with the grapes natural sugars that exist in the juice.

The reaction between the yeast and those sugars is fermentation. The yeast consumes the sugars and converts them into three products: alcohol, carbon dioxide and heat. Because the end result is to be a sweet wine, the winemaker wants to stop the fermentation process before all the sugar has been fermented, usually about halfway through, when the wine has achieved about 7% to 9% alcohol. This is the time when brandy is then added to the grape must. The addition of high (77%) alcohol kills the remaining yeasts and stops the fermentation process. A ratio of about 80% wine and 20% brandy will leave the resulting port at the desired finished alcohol of 18% to 20%. It is from this standard base that that the various different styles are made.

White port can be made in both a sweet and a dry style. Generally, not as sophisticated as red port, it can be enjoyed as we did, in a cocktail with tonic water and a mint leaf making for a very refreshing aperitif.

Red port can be divided into two primary styles: Ruby and Tawny.

Ruby port, as its name implies, has a deep red colour and is aged in large wooden or stainless-steel tanks for up to 3 years. Minimal contact with oxygen preserves its deep red colour and blueberry/raspberry flavour profile. The result is an intensely fruity wine with unctuous sweetness, clocking in at around 100 grams per litre of residual sugar. The wine is simple, and pleasure driven.

Port, Portugal

Taylor’s LBV 2017.

Those seeking more complexity might want to try a Reserve Ruby port. These wines are generally higher quality and have had at least 5 years aging. The additional time in barrel softens the texture and brings out greater nuance. Both Ruby and Reserve Ruby will be a blend of different vintages.

Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV) ports are Reserve Ruby Ports, but all of the grapes used come from a single vintage.

Finally, the top of the Ruby quality pyramid is Vintage Port. Vintage ports are made only in exceptional years and all grapes come from a single harvest. Vintage Port spends comparatively little time in barrel so as to preserve its red fruit characteristics.

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The tasting lineup at Dow’s.

After long ageing in bottle (a decade or longer), these wines will take on great complexity to add delicious nuance to the primary black cherry and blueberry flavours. Time tends to mellow the strong tannins and create a most seductive mouthfeel. Great recent vintages have occurred in 2017, 2016, 2011, 2007, 2000, 1997, 1994 and 1985. A Dow’s 1985 Vintage Port we recently drank was delicious and showed no signs of breaking down. Another 20 good years drinking would not surprise us in the least.

Tawny is the other style of port. What distinguishes Tawny from Ruby is that it is aged in small oak barrels where some oxygen transfer naturally occurs. As the wine oxidizes it turns slightly brown in colour, similar to how and apple does when its flesh is exposed to air. As oxidization slowly occurs over long periods of time, its eponymous tawny colour appears and its flavour profile mellows and takes on notes of fig, caramel and nuts.

Portugal winemaking is steeped in tradition.

Tawny port is aged in barrels of different ages and these barrels are all blended together before bottling. Long-aged Tawny port will carry the label 10 year, 20 year, 30 year or 40 year, being the average age of the wines that make up the blend. Naturally, these wines increase in price the older the average age of the blend. To us we think that 20 year Tawny hits a sweet spot as the difference in complexity, intensity and mellowness when compared to a 10 year old is quite noticeable without a commensurate bump in price. After 20 years, the law of diminishing marginal returns seems to set in as 30 and 40 year olds are quite a bit pricier without as noticeable an increase in quality, at least to our palates.

Finally, there are Tawny-style ports that are not blends but are made from a single vintage. These wines are referred to as Colheita.

port wine portugal

The 3 main styles of port.

Port is generally served in a small glass usually with a 2 to 3 ounce pour. Serving it at cellar temperature suits our palates but room temperature is also nice. We do not recommend refrigerating port before serving as the cold temperature tends to mute the flavours. Once a ruby port is opened it should ideally be consumed within 48 hours as the exposure to oxygen starts to degrade its naturally fruity flavour. Since Tawny ports are already oxidized, they can be left open for several weeks before noticeable changes can be detected.

While we were port fans before our recent trip to Portugal, the experience of seeing the vineyards and the cellars and being able to taste many different styles from many wineries definitely worked its magic on us. Port is now a regular staple in our cellar.

6 Comments

  1. Robin@crushedgrapechronicles.com'

    Such an amazing and complex beverage. I am tempted to go pick up a variety of Ports to do a side by side tasting, accompanied by your notes!

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    • If we lived in the same city, we would definitely be having regular wine tastings together!

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  2. lwg.mine@gmail.com'

    Super primer! Agree with you regarding 20-year Tawny. They seem to taste fresher than the older and as you say given the price. But a good LBV can steal my heart. Did you two by chance see the ceramic murals in the Pinhão train station?!?

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    • Yes! So beautiful. We loved Pinhão and our hotel was very close to where the murals were. A beautiful start to the day doing a morning walk and seeing them first thing. And agree with LBV, arguably our favourite of all. Definitely need to add it to our ‘meet up’ list…we’ve got plans for you!

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  3. martindredmond@gmail.com'

    A wonderful overview…and good advice to not refrigerate port before serving. Which of the styles do you prefer?

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    • Thanks so much Martin. Vintage Port is a wonderful treat but the 20 year Tawny was our biggest ‘a-ha’ of what we enjoyed regularly over several days (and what we’ll likely keep as a regular staple in the cellar). We know you’re a big Port fan, what is your preferred style?

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