Ask most people what Portugal’s biggest export is and they’ll say, “Cristiano Ronaldo.” Ask them to guess again and they might say, “Port.” Both are wrong. It’s actually cars. Shock. Who knew? But we don’t sell cars, or Cristiano Ronaldo, so we’ll stick with Port for this post.
Port is a fortified wine, most commonly red and sweet. However, white Port is a thing, ranging from dry to sweet, like Sherry. Maybe you’re shocked or maybe you knew that already? And, for completion, we should also mention that there is (another shock alert) Rosé Port. Though that’s really just a version of a Ruby Port, which we’ll discuss further on, but made with limited contact with the skins of the grapes used.
While we’re shocking you, we’ll mention something else. Port isn’t exclusively made in Portugal. It’s also made in Australia, France, South Africa and the US, to name but a few. And also India. Shock, yet again. However, it originated in Portugal and the Portuguese still, in our opinion, make the best Port, so for the rest of this article, we will only talk about Portuguese Port.
By the way, inside the EU, only Portuguese Port can be labelled as Port. But if you’re reading this outside the EU, beware.
Right, that’s it. No more shocks from here on in. Other than that it was the British and the Irish rather than the Portuguese who put Port on the international map. And really it was all because of the French.
What did the French do?
Port was popularised outside Portugal by the British in the early 1700s, when they got into yet another fight with the French and the French said the British couldn’t have any more wine. That wasn’t the cause of the fight, just one of the consequences. So the British signed a treaty with Portugal in 1703 that secured wine imports into Britain while the French were being mean.
That said, Port was already known in Britain before this. In 1678, two representatives of a Liverpool-based wine merchant came across Port while visiting the Douro valley. The story goes that the Abbot of Lamego let them taste some of his stock and the two visitors bought the whole lot and shipped it back to England.
By the time of the 1703 treaty, a string of British companies, many involved in the export of Port, had set up in Porto, a coastal city on the mouth of the Douro river in northern Portugal. You can still see echoes of the significant influence British- and Irish-run companies had on the Port trade in the names of many of the biggest brands today: Offley, Warre, Croft, Cockburn, Sandeman, Taylor, Dow, Graham… Despite this Anglo-Irish dominance, the oldest shipper of Port is said to be Kopke, a company founded in Portugal by Nicolau Köpke, a German diplomat, in the late 1630s.
The 1703 treaty really accelerated things, however, and Port exports grew significantly. This had a major impact on Vila Nova de Gaia, on the southern bank of the Douro river, opposite Porto. It’s from here that every single drop of Port had to leave Portugal. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the rule about Port only being exported from Vila Nova de Gaia was changed.
As a result of the law, all the major exporters built warehouses, known as lodges, in the same part of town. This is where the Port would mature before export, having been transported roughly 100 km from the Douro valley, where the grapes were grown and the wine was born. This warehouse district still exists today.
Over time, the shippers in Vila Nova de Gaia became involved in the making of the wine as well, creating internationally trading companies that controlled the entire production and distribution chain.
Birthed in the third oldest protected wine region
Port is made from grapes grown in the Douro valley wine region, which was designated as an official appellation in 1756. This made it the third oldest recognised wine in the world, after Tokaj in 1730 and Chianti in 1716.
The Douro region is a beautiful, yet harshly rugged and hilly part of Portugal, with growing conditions to match. Vines grow on the slopes of steep hills that surround the central valley that was cut deep into the landscape over thousands of years by the Douro river. The ‘soil’ is sparse and the ground is mostly flaky slate and granite. To prevent rainwater simply running off and to help with the formation of some topsoil, people built thousands of walls across the slopes of the valley.
The resulting vineyards are difficult to work with machines, and much of the work is still done by hand.
While over 110 grape varieties are permitted in the production of Port, really only a handful are used. White Port is mostly made from Rabigato, Verdelho, Malvasia Fina and Viosinho. Red Port usually from Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão and Tinta Amarela.
Port is made by interrupting the fermentation of the grape juice fairly early on by combining it with a neutral grape spirit. The spirit is often called ‘Brandy’, but it’s a far cry from any Brandy you’ll find bottled on the shelves at your local off licence.
From here, the mixture can go a number of different routes, resulting in different types of Port. Here, we’ll limit ourselves to red Ports.
Ruby Port is a young, sweet, reddish wine that’s usually aged for three years in stainless steel vats to prevent oxygen getting to it and diminishing its colour. It’s bottled to be sold ready to drink. If the producer is feeling fancy, and also lets the wine age in a wooden cask for a while, they’ll stick ‘Reserve’ or ‘Special Reserve’ on the label.
Tawny Port matures in wooden barrels exclusively before bottling. It has a brownish red colour, which is the result of the interaction of the wine with the oxygen that seeps into the cask through the wood. The best Tawnies are blends of wines that have been aged in wood for an average of ten, 20, 30 or even 40 years. This is the number you’ll see on the label.
Colheita is a Tawny Port from a single vintage and has the year of the vintage on the bottle. Colheita is aged for a minimum of seven years and for as long as 20, sometimes even longer.
Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV) is Port that was left in the barrel longer than Vintage Port before being bottled and therefore exposed to more oxygen. As a result, while bottled later, it is ready for consumption much earlier than Vintage Port, which only spends a couple of years in barrels before being bottled.
LBV is an accidental invention claimed by several Port houses. It comes in two styles: filtered (recognisable by the bottle being sealed with a stopper) and unfiltered (a traditional cork). Filtered LBV is ready to drink right out of the bottle and won’t really benefit from cellaring. Unfiltered LBV can benefit from a few years in storage and needs to be decanted.
Garrafeira is a rare style of Port made by storing the wine in wooden vats for between three and six years, followed by at least eight in special bottles called demijohns. In effect, this style combines the oxidative maturation process you get from storing wine in barrels with the reductive maturation you get by storing it in a vessel that oxygen can’t penetrate.
Vintage Port is the flagship Port. It’s only made in exceptional years, though in most years one Port house or another declares a vintage. 2016 was the last time nearly all the houses declared a vintage. The year of the vintage is put on the bottle label.
Vintage Port is allowed to mature for wooden or steel barrels for no longer than two and a half years before being bottled. As a result, it is less mature when it goes into bottles than other types of Port and, starved of oxygen, needs much, much longer to reach its full potential, sometimes as long as 40 years. This results in a luscious, smooth wine. Really good Vintage Ports will remain drinkable for decades after release.
A couple more you might come across:
Single Quinta Vintage Port is Vintage Port that is sourced from a single estate. A Port house can declare a vintage year for a single estate and produce a ‘Vintage Port’ in years when the quality of the wine from its other estates or vineyards isn’t up to Vintage standard.
And, finally, Crusted Port, which is a blend of wines from multiple years that have been matured in barrels for at least four years. It gets its name from the thick layer of sediment that forms on the inside of the bottle. Decanting is vital.
Port for the curious
Maybe now you’re thinking you’d like to buy some Port? You won’t be shocked to learn that we have a pretty fine selection, ranging from white Port right through to Vintage Port. Have a peek at the selection below.