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What is a Port?

A fortified wine refers to any wine in which brandy is added to the wine in order to create a longer lasting beverage. Examples of fortified wines include Sherry, Madeira, Marsala, Málaga, and Montilla-Moriles, but the most popular fortified wine is Port. The name port was originally used to describe the fortified wines that were made in the Duoro region in Northern Portugal. However, with the growth of port wines being made elsewhere in recent years, specifically California and Australia, the name “Porto” (the name of the port city from where it is shipped) has been adapted to inform the buyer that these ports were grown and made in the Portugal. The producers in Portugal were not afforded the same courtesy as was given to the Cognac and Champagne producers where those beverages must be referred to as Brandy or Sparkling Wine respectively if not grown specifically in those two regions of France. So unless you are buying a very old vintage port, you can easily determine if the port is from the Duoro region of Portugal if it is called a Porto rather than a Port.


History & the Region of Port

The history of Port dates back to the late 18th Century when England started developing wine growing in Portugal because of the political situation with France. In order to preserve the wine for the boat trip back to England the wine was fortified with brandy thus developing the first Port as we know it today. The mountainous region surrounding the Duoro River is where the port grapes are grown.

This region spreads out over 618,000 acres, but only approximately 82,000 acres are suitable for grape vines to be planted. Though some of the grapes are grown in the higher elevations up to 1800 feet, the best grapes are grown at the lower elevations. The region, referred to locally as "the Douro," begins at the Serra do Marão, a range of mountains 40 miles inland, and extends almost 100 miles to the Spanish border. At its widest point it measures only 16 miles. The mountains create a weather barrier, sharply cutting the rainfall that is received to the east of them. The climate of the Douro becomes one of extremes. The summers are extremely hot and dry often reaching 110°F, and the winters can be quite cold as the mercury sometimes drops below 0°F.


The Grapes of Port

There are over 90 different varieties of grape permitted to be grown in the Port wine region. Of these, about 30 different varieties can be found there, but only 5 are considered to be of exceptional quality. These are Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão, and Touriga Francesa. White Port, is made from white grapes rather than the aforementioned red grapes — Viosinho, Malvasia Fina, Gouveio, Cédega, and Rabigato. The Touriga Nacional grape is said to be without a doubt, the best grape for making Port. It is not however, the most widely planted variety. It is a vigorous and robust vine, but produces about half the yield as the other grape varieties. This grape gives Port its deep color and longevity. Ports made elsewhere often times use the common grapes grown in that region rather than the typical grapes grown in Portugal. So in California, for example, you could find ports made from the typical Californian red grapes; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Petite Syrah, or Zinfandel. Also unlike in Portugal, it is much more likely for American or Australian ports to be made of only one or two grape varieties including the grapes used to make the brandy.

Types of Port

Ports are broken up initially into two major categories, wood ports and vintage ports. Wood Port, which consist mainly of Ruby and Tawny Ports, are immediately ready to drink as soon as they are bottled and though they may age for a while, an appreciable difference usually is not detected with aging. On the other hand, vintage ports are made so that they will age and become better the longer they are shelved, which could be for over a hundred years. Ruby is the most basic and least expensive style of Port. It is a blend from the produce of several harvests, that spends two to three years in stainless steel or wood before it is bottled. You usually will not see the term Ruby on the label as most shippers prefer to use a house brand. Ruby ports tend to be dark and fruity, blended form young non-vintage wines. Tawny is aged a few years longer than ruby – at least six years – in the cask before it is bottled. Though some tawny is simply a mixture of ruby and white ports, the best tawny Ports have acquired their pale color – an amber brown or tawny hue – from longer wood ageing. The flavor becomes drier and nuttier from the oxidation. Unlike ruby ports, tawny ports are blended from vintage grapes leady to a much more silky wine. Aged Tawny are the best tawny Ports. They give the average age of the wines that have gone into making the blends. They are available in 10, 20, 30 and 40 year versions with a corresponding increase in price. A 20-year tawny may give you the most enjoyable experience for the price. Aged tawnies are made from high quality wines and are the byproduct of a master blender.

Colheita is a tawny but from a single vintage. It might be thought of as a vintage tawny. It must receive a minimum of seven years in wood, but most are aged much longer. Also the wine should indicate the year of bottling and should be drunk within a year of that date. This is the rarest of all Port. Their production, a specialty of the Portuguese Port houses, amounts to less than 0.5% of all Port made. White Ports range from very dry to very sweet. The sweetest is designated as Lagrima. These are served straight up or on the rocks, most often as an apéeritif. Crusted Port is named for the crust of sediment it forms in the bottle. It is a blend of port from several vintages that is bottled after three years in cask. Vintage Character Ports might also be referred to as Super or Premium Ruby. It is a blend that has been aged from four to six years before it is filtered and bottled. They characteristically have more body and fruit than a tawny but they lack the concentration and complexity of a true vintage Port. These are usually marketed under brand names like Sandeman's Founders Reserve, Warre's Warrior, Graham's 6 Grapes, Fonseca's Bin 27, and Taylor's First Estate. Single-Quinta Ports are made in both tawny and vintage styles but with the distinction that they come from only one vineyard. They are generally produced in years that are not declared. In declared years, their grapes often form the backbone of the Vintage Port blends. Late Bottled Vintage or LBV, unlike Vintage Character, are actually the product of a single vintage. A vintage not deemed good enough to make a Vintage Port, will go into the making of a LBV. It is left in wood for four to six years, then fined and filtered before bottling. It is ready to drink earlier than Vintage Port and they do throw little sediment in the bottle.

Finally, there are Vintage ports, which represent only two to three percent of all ports. Vintage Port comes from a single harvest of exceptional quality, as stated on the bottle, and is bottled after two to three years of cask aging, but then can be aged indefinitely in the bottle. It may take 15 to 50 years for a good Vintage Port to be ready for drinking. Each shipper must decide within two years of a harvest year if that particular year will be of enough quality to be released as a Vintage Port. This is known as "declaring the vintage". The first vintages were declared around 1734. Typically about one in every three years is declared a vintage year. Of course, Californian and Australian ports most likely will have different vintage years than in Portugal. For a listing of the Porto vintages and rating and comments about then click here.


Here is an example of some or our aged
tawny ports and colheitas

Here is an example of our vintage ports


Buying and Serving Port

When selecting a port, don’t worry about the grapes used in making the port, but rather focus on the style and blend that you find most appealing. The reality is that there are now only six companies that own all the port houses in Portugal. For example, Dow and Grahamn who are both prominent port producers found in the US are also both owned by the same company. Nonetheless, some of the names of the most prominent port producers in the US include Cockburn, Fonseca, Taylor Fladgate, Dow, Presidential, Grahamn, Quinta do Noval, and Sandeman. As for serving port, there are a few things to keep in mind. If you are having a well aged vintage port, it should be decanted to remove the sediment that will appear after many years of bottle aging. Once a bottle of port is opened it should be drank within a couple of weeks for it to be at its prime. Because port has a higher alcohol content than wine (17-21%) it will last longer opened, but it should be reiterated that if you want to enjoy the port at its best it still should be drank rather expediently. Finally, port is considered a desert or after dinner wine, but it can be enjoyed with such foods as dark chocolate deserts, walnuts, poached pears, and Stilton cheese.

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