The History of Europe Captured in a Bottle
Opening a bottle of old wine can often have the same effect as cracking open a dusty history book. After all, any product that has consistently enjoyed so many centuries of popularity has something to say about the people who enjoyed it, where they enjoyed it, and why it was created in a certain style. One great example of this is Portugal’s flagship wine, a fortified (most often) red by the name of Porto. That’s Port wine, in English. Let’s take a quick look at exactly what this unique wine, first created in the 18th century, has to say about Europe at that time.
Because the climate in Britain was never really suitable (until recently, that is!) for growing grapes, the country traditionally imported wine from France. However, during the wars between these two countries in the 17th and 18th centuries, trading relations soured, and embargoes were put in place. In order to fill the supply gap, Britain looked to Portugal, a country with which the Treaty of Windsor had established close trading links back in 1386. A fleet of British merchants had settled around Viana do Castelo to export wines back to England, but these wines proved too light and astringent to compete with the big bold reds of Bordeaux (among them, Britain’s beloved Claret). They also often could not even survive the trip back to England without becoming oxidised and losing power. Merchants began to look at a new region, near the mouth of the Douro River, from which to source their wines. When duty fees on Portuguese wines exported to Britain fell in 1703, many producers began fortifying their wines by adding a splash of brandy to ensure they survived the journey without spoiling. It wasn’t until 1756 that the Portuguese Prime Minister Marques de Pombal created the Douro Wine Company, which aimed to re-establish Portuguese control over the Port wine industry and regulate production to a designated vineyard area. And so the world’s first regional appellation, subjected to government control and regulations, was born. The Douro Wine Company operated until 1833 but was eventually replaced by the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto, today’s official regulation body of the region.
A Blend of Portugal’s Indigenous Varietals
How Port is Made
When fermentation has converted half of the sugar in the juice to alcohol, the fortification process begins. The skins are left to float to the top and form a hardened cap, and the wine underneath is run out into a vat. As this wine flows out, it is mixed with a clear, young brandy with an alcohol content of around 77%, at a ratio of 1 litre of brandy to every 3.8 litres of wine. This ratio varies across different producers and vintages. The addition of the spirit kills the yeast remaining in the wine and fermentation stops, leaving some residual sugar in the mix (around 100 g/L). This natural, fruity sweetness is preserved in the finished wine.
After settling, the wine is carefully evaluated at the winery. While tasting these, the winemaker looks for characteristics to help answer a handful of questions about the future of the wine, including:
- “What style of Port will this wine be used for?”
- “How will this wine be aged – in oak or vat?”
- “How long will this wine be aged?”
The Many Shades of Port
Port wines can be divided into two main categories depending on whether they are aged in wood only (and designed to be consumed young) or in the bottle (and meant to be kept several years). Ruby Ports, named after their distinctive colour, tend to be fresh and fruity entry-level wines, designed to be consumed young. They contain a blend of varietals and vintages, and are stored in stainless steel or concrete tanks after fermentation to prevent oxidation and maintain a fruity character. Recognisable by their deeper amber colour, Tawny Ports are slightly sweeter blends of older vintage wines, matured in oak before being transferred to the bottle, where they continue to age and develop a rich nutty quality and flavours of prunes and figs. Tawny Ports can further be divided into three categories: the single-vintage Colheita Port (matured in barrel and aged for at least 7 years in the bottle), the unfiltered Crusted Port with a sediment to be decanted before serving, and the Indicated Age Tawny Port made from grape blends that are older in average age (matured in barrel 10, 20, 30 or over 40 years). Vintage Ports are considered some of the best in the world, as these single-vintage wines are produced exclusively in years with ideal climatic conditions. They spend around 6 months in oak before extensive ageing in bottle. It is also important to distinguish between Vintage Ports and “Late Bottled Vintage” (LBV) Ports, made with grapes from a single vintage, with the wine matured in oak for 4-6 years but meant to consume young (without ageing in bottle). This latter category is still very popular among British consumers today. Rose Port is a new style made in the same way as rose wine, and full of strawberry, violet and caramel flavours. And then there is also White Port, derived from white grape varietals and made in a dry to semi-sweet style. These wines are typically used for cocktails, most popular of which is the “Port and Tonic.”
How to Port
At this point you may be asking, “This all sounds fabulous, but how do I get into Port?” We’re here to offer some helpful advice on how to properly enjoy a Port wine. While most Ruby and Tawny Ports are ready to drink once they are released by the winery, you will want to take care to store Vintage Ports properly on their sides in a cool, dark environment so that they can age in peace. Once they are opened, Port wines can last from one day (in the case of the more sensitive Vintage Ports) to several weeks (in the case of Ruby Ports) and even months (in the case of Tawny Ports). All Port wines should be served at a temperature of around 15-18 °C in order to emphasise natural fruit aromas and flavours in the wine. In order to get the full experience, serve 3 oz. in a Port wine glass, specifically designed for the enjoyment of Port wines.
The natural sweetness of Port wines make it the ideal alternative to a dessert dish. If you’re seeking to pair it with food, think richly flavoured blue cheeses or washed-rind cheeses, like Epoisses de Bourgogne or Gruyere. The nutty, caramel flavours of Tawny Ports make them the ideal pairing to desserts with chocolate or caramel, perfectly complementing smoked nuts or even smoked meat. These wines are also often added to sauces and reduced to produce a thick syrup to drizzle over meat dishes. The more approachable, fresher Ruby Ports are also great in the summertime on the rocks with citrus peel. Try White Port mixed with tonic water, a traditional cocktail in Porto.