I have something to confess, every year when Valentine’s day arrives, I go to the nearest drugstore and buy myself a big heart full of chocolates! Of course guilt makes me share them with my friends at the office, but I can’t help it! There’s nothing better to open the box and to try the different flavors. What is even better is to have them with a glass of sweet Port, for me the perfect match for my bonbons and one of my favorite drinks to have on cold February nights.
But what is Port? Port is a fortified sweet/ dessert wine, fortified means that it is a wine to which brandy/ alcohol was added, increasing its final alcohol percentage, to anywhere between 18º to 23º.
Ports are very similar to sherries, they are, after all, both fortified wines, but the big difference is that in Port, the alcohol/brandy is added before the fermentation ends and to stop it, leaving some residual sugar in the wine. In the case of Sherry, the base wines are usually fermented to complete dryness, and the addition of brandy/alcohol, color and sugar happens later, well after their fermentation is complete.
Port was created in 1678, in the Douro region in Portugal, and once again, the British played a very important role. History tells us that two British wine brokers were looking for wines to sell in the UK and after trying the wines from Vinho Verde (in the north of Portugal), they decided that they were too acidic for their taste and continued farther south to the Douro region. There, they met a monk at a monastery in Lamego, who poured them a wine they truly loved! and so the story of Port began. The success of Port was such that pretty soon many British merchants settled down in the Douro and started making the wine themselves. This is the reason why, when you go to your favorite local wine store, you find ports with Portuguese names: such as Fonseca, Quinta do Noval, Ramos Pinto, etc and next to them, many with English last names such as Croft, Sandeman, Warre, Graham, Churchill’s, etc.
Most ports are a blend from Portuguese indigenous varieties such as Sousao, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cao, Tinta Roriz also known as Tempranillo, Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional. The last two are very important since they provide perfume, tannins and concentration to the wine.
Most vineyards are located on both sides of the Douro river. This river originates in Spain and from there, it crosses to the west to Portugal, ending its journey on the Atlantic by the city of Porto. The Douro appellation is divided into 3 important subzones: the Lower Corgo, located closer to the Atlantic, where it’s cooler, the Upper Corgo (in the middle) and the Douro Superior, located to the west and near the border with Spain.
Map courtesy of WineTourism.com
Thanks to the work of the Marquis of Pombal, all the Douro vineyards were classified in 1757, in a scale that goes from A to F, implementing a similar system like the ones in Grand Cru Burgundy or Champagne. As imagined all fruit that comes from the A vineyards, is supposed to be the best and is only used to make the best quality ports.
Some of the many factors required to be in the “A” group are: the altitude of the vineyard, the type of soils, their orientation towards the sun, the climate, the vine age, the varieties, the density of planting and the yields. Everything of course is very much regulated by Portuguese wine law.
The climate in the Douro changes depending where you are. In the Douro Superior, located to the west, it is very hot, with temperatures well above 100º F during the growing season. Temperatures become cooler on the vineyards of lower Corgo which are closer to the Atlantic. Vineyards are usually planted on steep terraces (see pic below) around the river, that are rich in schist and granite, both soils are very friable, allowing the vine roots to go deep in search of nutrients. Tradition indicates that after the wines are vinified in the Upper Corgo and Douro Superior, they are transported later to a cooler location in the city of Vila Nova de Gaia, where the blending and aging of the different styles takes place.Beautiful Vineyard terraces overlooking the Douro River.
There are many styles of ports but most can be divided in two categories according to their aging:
1) Those with most of their aging, happening in oak casks, which can be drunk as soon as they are released. These ports usually have a brown/ amber color because the wine was exposed to oxygen in the casks and feature aromas of toffee, caramel, nuts, brown sugar and vanilla.
And 2) Those aged very briefly in cask, but aged for a long time in a bottle, Vintage and Single Quinta Vintage ports are examples of these. These wines have a deep red or ruby color and feature notes of black cherry, plum, chocolate, cloves, spices and plenty of tannins. They are usually bottled unfiltered, so they need to be decanted to remove the sediments before serving. They require cellar aging and will reach their peak usually 20 years from their vintage.
Let’s take a look now at the most well known Port styles in ascending order of quality.
Ruby is the simplest and most affordable type of Port, these are fruity wines with less than 3 years of aging (usually in stainless steel or concrete vats to preserve color and fruitiness). They are usually blends from different vintages. These wines are ready to be drunk, after fining and bottling. Now, the Ruby Reserva, is a bit better in quality, and is usually aged for longer, up to 5 years. Most of their fruit comes from the Lower Corgo subzone.
LBVs or Late Bottled Vintage is similar to the Ruby Reserva, but it is made from grapes from only 1 vintage and aged for longer between 4-6 years in cask. It will have plenty of ripe fruit but a heftier body than Ruby and Ruby Reserva.
Tawny ports are known for their brownish color, which they acquire by oxidative aging in casks, which happens for a minimum of three years. The best Tawnys are aged for longer and have an indication of age on the label: they can be 10, 20, 30 or 40 years old. The age on the label is an average of the vintages blended, and much depends on the stock that producers have. They do not need to be decanted, and are best consumed cool.
Colheita Tawnys are single vintage Tawnys. They need to be aged for a minimum of 7 years in oak, but most producers age them for longer.
Vintage and Single Quinta Vintage Ports are the best ports of all, truly the crème of the crop! For starters, Vintage ports are not produced every vintage but only in the best years. A vintage is declared by producers an average of 3 times in 10 years, something that is decided by each winery. These wines are made with grapes from the best vineyards (classified as A), they are aged for a very short time, no more than 2 years in oak, and then, they are bottled without filtration. They have high levels of tannins, and intense fruit flavors, sweetness and alcohol. They can be drunk young but it is advisable to age them for at least 20 years or more, to see their true potential. The bottle aging will soften the wine and change it thanks to the reductive aging (without oxygen). They will show notes of stewed fruit, coffee, spices and leather. Because they are unfiltered, they need decanting to remove their sediments. Best vintages were: 2000, 2003, 2007, 2011 (exceptional), 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019.
The Single Quinta wines are made following the same process of Vintage ports, but are made with grapes from one vineyard, (vintage port is a blend from grapes of different vineyards) Single Quintas are made mostly on years that a vintage is not declared. They are usually ready sooner than vintage ports and are also less expensive.
Finally, there’s also a White port category, made from white grapes, these could be dry or sweet, and are aged in wood from 2-3 years. Unfortunately, not much of it is available in the US. The Portuguese drink them as an aperitif on ice.
Store your ports in a cool and dark room, away from vibration. Open bottles of Port will last at least 2 months in the fridge. Vintage port last less so make sure you drink those right away.
Seductive and ready to drink port, showing ripe currant and black plum notes, fleshy and very rich with a spicy finish. Have this with dark chocolate filled with strawberry or raspberry cream or other fruity fillings.
Succulent port with plenty of red fruit that include maraschino cherries and strawberry preserve notes. Shows a beautiful balance of oak aging and refreshing acidity. Delish! Have this with dark chocolates filled with almond nougat, coffee filling or dark chocolate filled with toffee.
Very polished and rich tawny featuring toffee, honey and hazelnut notes. Nicely integrated acidity lifts the long finish. Refined! Have this with milk chocolate filled with pecans, walnuts or toffee. Also good with black chocolate truffles filled with white chocolate.
Exquisite and luscious tawny delivers orange peel, marzipan, vanilla cream and caramelized walnut notes. So dense, with a viscous/ velvety texture and ample balancing acidity. Outstanding! Have this with marzipan covered with dark chocolate or milk chocolate salted caramels.
Superb port for one of the best vintages, (99 points), shows dark fruit: blackberry and plum, combined with chocolate and licorice notes. Backed by solid tannins that offer structure to the smoky finish. Have this with 70 % dark chocolate bonbons or black truffles filled with ganache.
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