What is Port Wine?
I remember the first time someone asked me if I wanted some Port Wine. I had no clue what a Port was. I politely declined and when he asked me if I knew what a Port was, I replied: Of course! Of course I lied, I didn’t want to look ignorant. I was at a liquor store and he was asking me if I wanted to try some brands that he was representing. I wanted to get home as soon as possible to enjoy the bottle that I was buying, so I didn’t care about anything else. I usually get suckered into buying more than I planned to and I wanted to avoid that.
A Port. Let’s start with Google:
noun: Port wine
- a strong, sweet, typically dark red fortified wine, originally from Portugal, typically drunk as a dessert wine.
Okay, so what does fortified mean?
Fortified wine is a wine to which a distilled spirit, is added.
Thank you Wikipedia. And according to Taylor Fladgate, which makes a very delicious Port, grape spirit is added to the wine while it is being produced. Which is part of fortifying the wine. And adding spirits to the wine helps to stabilize it for long term ageing.
Since Port is so sweet, many people enjoy it as a dessert wine. Styles of Port include rosé, red, white and an aged one called Tawny Port. Tawny Ports can be aged from 10 years all the way up to 40 years or even further.
Some people, however, don’t like Port, probably in part to the strong taste that the spirit imparts to the flavor. But once you get used to the extra strength (or learn to look past it), it is a great wine at the end of a delicious dinner. I personally find that the older the Port, the more smoother it is. And sadly the more expensive it is.
Fortified wines that are in the same style as Port are produced outside Portugal. But under the European Union Protected Designation of Origin guidelines, only these wines from Portugal may be labeled as Port or Porto. While in the United States, wines labelled “Port” could be from anywhere in the world.
Types of Port Wine
As I sit here contemplating this piece on varieties of port, I’m swigging a wine which is definitely not port. Port has a much longer history than the glass of plonk I’m enjoying.
Portugal has been exporting wine since the twelfth century, although wine making equipment has been found dating back several centuries further than that. By the seventeenth century, England had developed a tradeoff – English cod fish for Portuguese port. The best port comes from the Oporto region. Real port can only be made in Portugal, hence the name. Originally full-bodied red wine fortified with brandy after aging; these days, the wine is fortified during fermentation instead.
Port has now developed into four distinct varieties, white, rosé, tawny and ruby. All are considered dessert wines as they are generally sweet in flavour. Some can be used in cocktails, while others lend themselves to leisurely summer sipping over a barbecue.
A dry white fortified wine; the grapes are grown in the traditional Douro port-producing area of Portugal and the wine is aged for at least three years before being blended. As with all ports, it has a fruity, nutty flavour. This means it can be drunk as an aperitif, with tonic or in cocktails. If used in cocktails it serves as an alternative to gin. Fortified wines can frequently be used in cocktails instead of spirits or liqueurs if a lighter taste is preferred.
A recent 21st century addition to the port range, the rosé version is dry, but rich in berry tastes. It can be served over ice, or as part of a cocktail. As it is cold decanted and fermented, it preserves the trademark fruity port taste for perfect summer drinking.
A port for those who have a sweet tooth rather than a preference for fruity wines. Caramel and nut dominate this complex taste. Tawny port also comes in an LBV aged variety which is spicier, but still has a nutty and sweet undertone. This wine has been aged longer than the ruby varieties, accounting for its rich and sweet taste. Some varieties have spent up to 20 years in a cask before being bottled.
The original fortified port, this robust red has elements of fruit and spice, in that order. It is not as sweet as its lighter relations. Therefore it pairs well with blue cheese, nuts or sweet smoked meats. This makes it a very good summer wine to serve with a barbecue. Equally, it complements caramel and chocolate desserts, just to keep everyone happy.
How does one store port wine after enjoying a glass or two?
Well how long can you store a bottle of port for?
And the answer is, it depends. It depends on the type of Port that you are trying to store.
For Tawny Ports, which are the ones that are aged anywhere from 10 to 30 or “over 40” years, they can last anywhere from 1-4 months after opening depending on how it is stored. Since Tawny Ports are aged in wooden barrels and oxidation is a key part in the process of creating this wine, exposing it to oxygen has less of an effect than with the other kinds of Port wine. Also, most Tawny Ports (aside from Colheitas) use a T-stopper which makes it a lot easier to reseal.
Vintage Ports are aged in barrels for only 2 years before transferring to bottles, where they are aged for 10-20 years. Upon opening, these ports can probably only last around a couple days. But be sure to use a vacuum sealer to increase your range.
Late bottled vintage Ports (LBV) are stored in barrels for 4-6 years. These types of Ports should last longer than the vintage Ports, but less time than the Tawny Ports. They should be able to provide enjoyment for you for around 1-2 weeks.
With that said, many people recommend storing wine in cool and dark places (around 13-18°C or 55-64°F). This is to slow down the oxidation process. Placing the wine in your refrigerator would work just fine. When taking it back out to drink, I would wait for it to return closer to room temperature so that the full range of flavours are more apparent.
You may have noticed a seal thing on the neck of the bottle of Port that you are opening or have opened with the words Vinho Do Porto Garantia on it. Of course in the moment it didn’t matter too much since it just got in the way of enjoying that bottle of wine. But perhaps a few days later, you are wondering what it is for. Well have we got a treat for you if that’s the case.
Well the Selo de Garantia (or Seal of Guarantee) tells you that you are holding an authentic bottle of Port wine. It is issued by the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto (IVDP), a Port wine institute.
This seal became mandatory in 1941, but the first seal actually appeared in 1934. And while the seal doesn’t guarantee the quality of what is in the bottle, it does guarantee that the origin of the wine is from the Douro region of Northeast Portugal. The code that you see on there is also a closely guarded secret, so there is no easy way of deciphering it.
There are over a hundred different grapes sanctioned for Port production. Out of those, only five are widely used:
- Touriga Francesa
- Tinta Barroca
- Tinta Cão
- Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo)
- Touriga Nacional
Touriga Nacional is the most desirable Port grape, but it is hard to grow and the yields are quite small. This has caused Touriga Nacional to become a very widely planted grape.
Tawny Ports are made from red grapes and most of them are native to the Douro Valley. These grapes are hand picked around the middle of September. After they are picked, they are either trodden by foot or crushed by mechanical means in a shallow open vat called a lagar. This whole process takes a couple hours. And yes, some places still use feet to crush the grapes! After this is done, the grapes are left in the lagar to ferment. The fermentation starts in a few hours and the grapes are left in the tank for about 1-4 hours. During the fermentation process, the natural sugars in the groups are being converted into alcohol.
After about half of the sugars have been turned into alcohol, the fortification process begins. A neutral grape spirit is added. Enough of it is added enough to kill the yeasts responsible for the fermentation. And so during the fortification process the fermentation stops. In fact, the fermentation stops before all the sugars can be turned into alcohol, which is the reason why Port is sweeter than your normal wine.
At this point depending on what type of Port the wine is destined to be, it could go in many directions. All Port wines start the same, but the manner of aging them differ.
The fermented and fortified grapes are now placed into wood casks or barrels. These casks are porous, so they are exposed to more oxidation than say a steel tank. That is why additional oxidation won’t hurt as much when you open a Tawny versus say a Vintage Port which matures in a bottle. Tawny Ports also last longer after opening them. Since the grapes are aged in wood barrels, this gives them a gold-brown colour. The oxygen also imparts “nutty” flavours, which later is blended to match the house style. Tawny Ports do start out similar to a Ruby Port, but Tawnys end up spending more time in the cask.
Aging of Tawny Ports
Legally, all Port wines have to be aged a minimum of 2 years. Tawny Ports are usually aged from 10 to 40+ years. But a confusing thing is, the age written on the bottle does not necessarily mean how long it is aged for. For some Tawnys, it is an indication of the average age of the blend of wines in the Port.
A Versatile Wine
Port these days is a versatile wine, with varieties to suit all tastes. In some cases it can be used instead of a spirit, in others, it is just as enjoyable as an unfortified wine. It is widely available at all prices in any number of outlets, although the best brands are naturally to be found in Portugal itself.