Port wine takes its name from the city of Porto located at the head of the river Douro in Portugal, facing west out into the Atlantic. Although vintage Port is famously associated with the wine lodges in Porto, the local vineyards cannot actually supply the port wine grapes, as they mainly grow the lighter, drier grapes for vinho verde.
Vintage Port History
The success of Port wine was born of adversity when England and France were at war in the 17th century. With French wine unobtainable the British wine merchants had to look elsewhere for their supplies and Port was the answer.
However, the local wine was a little thin and acidic compared with what the British were used to – heavier, richer Bordeaux wine. So two adventurous English traders headed further inland in the Douro where they came across a local wine that was smoother and richer than most red Portuguese wines of the day. The difference was that it had been fortified with brandy, a practice still used today in all port wine production.
Port Wine Making in the Douro Valley
Port wine grapes are grown in the upper reaches of the Douro valley, almost to the Spanish frontier like Taylors Quinta de Vargellas, where the vineyards cling precariously to the steep hills in terraces of thin soil over slate and granite. This area undergoes extremes of weather; snow is not out of the question and in summer the vineyards bake in almost constant sun and temperatures in the high thirties Celsius.
The Douro port wine region is divided into three districts; the Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior – unlike French wines these districts will rarely appear on the label of a bottle of Vintage Port. However, the Baixo Corgo tends to be the wettest region and hence the grapes are less ripe resulting in less concentrated port wines. The Cima Corgo produces the ripest grapes thanks to its balance of heat and rainfall, whilst the Douro Superior produces equally high quality port wine grapes but is isolated with fewer vineyards.
Vintage Port Grapes
Port wine is inherently a blend of varieties; however, the Touriga Nacional has now received almost universal consent to be the Port wine grape. It produces very deeply coloured and tannic vintages with blackcurrant notes and intense fruit character. Other grapes used are Tinta Roriz, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cao.
Making Vintage Port
Since the Douro area is so rugged the port harvest is still mainly done by hand and in some of the older quintas the treading to produce “must” is still done primarily by the human foot. The skin of the grapes provide the colour and tannin of the port wine and these days modern fermentation vats circulate the fermenting “must” – when it is half-fermented and still sweet, the grape skins are discarded and the port wine is fortified by the addition of neutral grape brandy, killing the yeasts and halting further fermentation.
This young Port wine is rough and tannic and will need two or three years as a minimum to mature to something drinkable (basic ruby Port) and at least a decade to mature into the premium Vintage and Tawny port that are characteristically smooth and rich. Maturation can be either in wooden casks or in the bottle in the case of Vintage Port.
The following spring most of the port wine will be transported to Oporto where the more even, temperate climate guarantees a long, slow maturation process. The lodges hold thousands of elongated old oak casks, known as “pipes” which hold approximately 712 bottles of port.
Storing Vintage Port & Laying Down
Vintage, traditional Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) and Crusted Port can be kept for sometime and may benefit from medium to long term storage. The port bottles should be stored on their side with the label or white paint splash uppermost – this keeps the cork moist and, if the label was to the top, the sediment or crust will be on the other side, simplifying the later port decanting.
Aged tawny and Colheita port will stay in good condition for a few years if stored in a cool, dark place – don’t keep any port wine near a radiator or central heating boiler! Other port wines like ruby and modern LBV can be stored upright and should keep for a year or two before opening but they will not improve anymore in the bottle.
How to Decant Vintage Port
Port Decanting has a bit of mythology surrounding it and most people seem to imagine it is difficult to do correctly. In reality all it really requires is a spare clean bottle (a port decanter if you have one) and a steady hand to pour.
Move the bottle of port wine and place it upright in the room you will be decanting in 24 hours before you need the wine – this will allow the sediment to settle at the bottom of the port bottle. Uncork your bottle a few hours before you plan to drink it. The port wine can then be poured gently from your bottle to the port decanter in one slow, continuous movement. Do not stop half way through!
Stop pouring as soon as the sediment reaches the neck of the bottle – this can be made easier to see if you have a candle or a light behind the bottle to view the sediment through the glass, or if you use a port decanting funnel with a piece of muslin in it to catch the sediment as it appears.
Vintage Port Serving Temperatures
Ruby and LBV Port will benefit from being served at a cool room temperature, the effect can be achieved by keeping the bottle in the fridge and taking it out an hour or so before you need it to let it come up to 16 to 18C.
Tawny and Colheita ports are better cooler – take them from the fridge half an hour to an hour beforehand to achieve a 14C to 16C temperature. This makes the wine very smooth and refreshing. White Port can be served chilled straight from the fridge.
Vintage Port Glasses
The official port glass to serve Port wine in is an ISO tasting glass, but any small wine glass that allows you to swirl the port and savour the aromas before drinking would be suitable. If anyone offers you it in a schooner (and apologies if this is what you use) then this is the wrong glass for Port altogether as the outward sloping sides lose the aromas of the wine.
Do not get hung up about etiquette – think of this as a bit of fun and enjoy the port. If you are having a dinner party and wish to pass the port around then pass the decanter to the left, clockwise around the table until the bottle ends up back in front of the host.
There is an old saying – “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” – which you are supposed to drop into the conversation if someone is holding onto the port decanter a tad too long. The origin being that a previous bishop of Norwich was notoriously stingy with his wine.
One way round that is to use a Hoggett decanter as pictured – the round bottom ensures no guest can put the decanter anywhere but back with the host and the wooden base. However, we like to ignore the etiquette and just enjoy Port for what it is – a great wine that makes any dinner or occasion special. Enjoy!