The origins of the Port trade began in the 17th century, when wars
with France deprived the British and Dutch of French wines. Both
ventured up the rugged Douro River Valley for wines, but it wasn't
until the mid-18th century, when brandy was added to the traditional
wines of the region to stabilize them for their journey across the
seas, that modern Port began to take form.
Port today is a sweet fortified wine that is high in alcohol due to
the addition of a neutral spirit during fermentation. After fermenting
for two or three days, the grape must (the half-finished wine)
receives a dose of neutral spirit distilled from grapes. The
fortification stops fermentation by killing the active yeasts while
leaving some of the unfermented sugars. The level of sweetness varies
according to the shipper's house style, but the alcohol level is
generally about 20 percent.
Port is made all over the world, including America, Australia and
South Africa. However, true Port is made in northern Portugal from
grapes grown in the upper Douro Valley, about 100 miles east of the
town of Oporto. Traditionally the grapes are harvested in the Douro
and made into Port there, but the maturation is done in warehouses in
the town of Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the Douro River from Porto.
Firms such as Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Graham all have facilities
Port cannot be compared to any other wine in the world. It originates
from remote vineyards that have little in common with the
well-manicured vines of Bordeaux, and is made under conditions that
most high-tech winemakers in California or Australia would consider a
mockery of enology.
The Douro is one of the most difficult wine-producing regions in the
world. The climate is tough and uncertain. Summers are blistering hot,
while winters can be frigid. The topography is rugged and desolate.
The soil crumbles to a fine powder that can choke those working in the
vineyards. Growing vines in certain areas is like trying to establish
vineyards in parts of the Grand Canyon. But somehow vines flourish
along the steeply terraced banks of the Douro River and its
Regardless of where it is produced, Port (or Porto, as the true
Portuguese product is labeled in the United States) basically is made
in two styles: wood-aged and bottle-aged. Wood-aged Ports include such
styles as white, ruby, tawny, vintage-character and late-bottled
vintage (LBV), as well as old tawnies and colheita (vintage-dated)
tawnies. These wines are aged in cask, sometimes for many decades;
they are filtered before bottling and ready to drink when released.
White Port is made from a range of white grape varieties grown in the
Douro Valley. It is made in the same way as a red Port, and consumed
primarily as an aperitif or a mixer. White Port is popular in Europe,
but rare in the United States.
Ruby Ports are red, young, fruity wines, while a standard tawny is
lighter in color and softer in flavor. Both are usually bottled when
about three years old. The main difference between the two is that
ruby Ports are made from darker, richer wines while tawnies are made
from lighter ones.
Vintage character is similar to a standard ruby but made from even
richer, more powerful wines. Late-bottled vintage, by comparison, is a
premium ruby made from a single vintage, aged in wood for four to six
years to approximate the intensity of vintage Port. Some LBVs are
filtered before bottling and do not benefit from further aging; better
LBVs are unfiltered and will continue to mature in the bottle like a
true vintage Port.
Old tawnies and colheitas are a step up in quality. These are the
limited-quantity wood Ports upon which many shippers pride themselves.
Old tawnies, labeled as 10, 20, 30 or 40 years old, are a blend of
various fine-quality Ports matured in wooden cask. The year denotes
the average age of the blend. Colheita Port is essentially a tawny
Port produced from a single vintage and aged in wood for a minimum of
Bottle-aged Ports, on the other hand, are aged briefly in wooden casks
and then bottled, unfiltered, for the remainder of their maturation.
This includes single-quinta Ports, made from the unblended
grapes of a single estate in a single vintage, and the king of
Ports--vintage Port. These Ports are produced from the wine of a
single vintage and bottled after two or two and a half years in wood.
They may be a blend of wine from various vineyards or produced from a
single estate (a quinta). The best vintage Ports are deeply
colored, massive wines with plenty of fruit and tannin to give them
longevity. They usually need at least 10 to 15 years of bottle age to
mellow before drinking, although Americans have grown accustomed to
drinking them right on release. Vintage Ports are released only in the
best years, when shippers announce their intent to bottle and market a
particular vintage. Very few shippers declare a vintage on their own.
They will discuss the quality of their wines with other houses and try
and get an indication if others will follow. Recent great vintages
include 1992, 1991, 1985 and 1983. Superlative years prior to that
include: 1977, 1970, 1966, 1963, 1955, 1948, 1947, 1935, 1934 and
1927. A handful of names represent the best, regardless of the year:
Fonseca, Taylor Fladgate, Graham, Dow, Warre, Quinta do Noval,
Niepoort, Croft, Cockburn and Sandeman.
A top-class vintage Port can improve for decades. In fact, bottles
from the 1860s and 1870s are still lovely to drink today. All vintage
Port should be decanted before serving since the wines throw a deposit
in the bottle.
By James Suckling, Wine Spectator Senior Editor