The Essential Guide to Port, a Global Powerhouse Born of a Happy Accident

Historical Port Wine ship at river Douro with Oporto city in the evening, Oporto, Portugal
The traditional ship for transporting Port down the Douro River/Getty

What is Port, anyway? Likely, you’ve encountered this potent wine often served at the end of a meal, but where does it comes from?

Port is a Portuguese wine that is made by adding distilled grape spirit, usually brandy, to a wine base. The addition of the high-alcohol spirit stops fermentation and “fortifies” the wine. Made in Portugal’s Douro Valley, only wines that are produced in this region can be labeled Port or Oporto in Europe. All grapes must be grown and processed in this specific region.

The soils of the Douro River Valley consist predominately of schist and granite. The region is divided into three zones that sit west to east hugging the river: Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior. The western part of the valley possesses a Mediterranean climate that produces warm summers and a fair amount of rain, however as you move more inland toward the Douro Superior, the climate becomes more dry and arid.

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The Subregions of Port

The Douro River Valley runs from the village of Barqueiros to near the Spanish border. The westernmost of the three subregions, Baixo Corgo, gets the most rainfall and has the coolest temperatures. Grapes grown in the Baixo Corgo are used largely for tawny and ruby Ports.

In Cima Corgo, which is east of Baixo Corgo, the average temperature is higher and rainfall not as prevalent. Grapes grown in Cima Corgo are considered better quality than those grown downstream.

Douro Superior, the easternmost subregion, has the smallest volume of grape production, in part because of its river rapids and challenging geography. The area is the warmest and driest of the three subregions, yet produces some of the best grapes.

Three types of Port wine in glasses; red, tawny, and white.
Ruby, tawny and white Port/Getty

The Grape Varieties of Port

More than 80 grapes varieties can be used to produce Port. The major varieties used in Ports with a red wine base are Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Cão, Tinta Barroca and Touriga Franca.

Touriga Franca is the easiest to cultivate and, therefore, the most widely planted variety. Touriga Nacional, though the most difficult to manage in the vineyard, is seen as the most desirable.

There are more than 30 grapes that can be used in the production of white Port, which includes varieties like Donzelinho Branco, Sercial, Malvasia Fina, Viosinho, Rabigato, Gouveio and Folgasão.

How Is Port Made?

The base for Port is made like any other wine. Grapes are grown, pressed and fermented with yeast, which converts the wine’s natural sugars into alcohol. In the production of fortified wine, however, there’s an additional step. Before all the sugar has been converted to alcohol, a neutral grape spirit is introduced to the wine. This process is known as fortification.

For Port, the neutral spirit is commonly called aguardente, derived from água argente, which translates to fiery water. The aguardente kills the remaining yeast and stops fermentation. The resulting wine retains some of its residual sugar, resulting in off-dry to sweet final profiles, and possesses a higher alcohol content, typically around 20% alcohol by volume (abv). Wines are stored and aged in barrels before bottling.

Tinta Roriz grapes, Vineyards in Duoro Valley and River, Portugal World Heritage Site
A vineyard of Tinta Roriz/Getty

How Port Came to Be

Port is named after Portugal’s seaport city of Porto in the Douro region, which became an official appellation in 1756, making it the third-oldest wine appellation in Europe. But grape growing and wine production in Portugal, and specifically in the Douro, began thousands of years ago.

The 1386 Treaty of Windsor laid the groundwork for a reciprocal relationship between Portugal and England. By the 15th century, Portuguese wine was exported regularly to England, sometimes in exchange for salt cod. By the 1670s, people began to refer to this wine shipping from the seaside city of Porto as Port.

Since the Douro’s vineyards are far from Portugal’s ports, the wines often suffered. Sea travel also took its toll, as the heat and movement inside the barrels deteriorated the wines. To offset this, winemakers began to add brandy to the wines, which extended their shelf life.

Peter Bearsley, whose father founded the Port house Taylor’s, was one of the first Englishmen to travel to the upper Douro. In the mid-1700s, his family was the first to buy vineyards in the region for wine production.

Around that same time, Portugal’s prime minister, Marquis de Pombal, began to distinguish vineyards based on quality. A century later, most Port was being made in the manner that it is today: fortified and sweet.

"Overview of Barqueiros and Douro River, Portugal"
Barqueiros, Portugal, on a hillside above the Douro River/Getty

What Are the Styles of Port?

There are six major styles when it comes to Port. The first, ruby, is the least expensive and most produced style of Port. It’s stored in stainless steel or concrete tanks, which minimizes contact with oxygen when compared to wood vessels and preserves its ruby-red color. These wines, best enjoyed in their youth, are fined, cold-filtered and bottled.

Two subcategories of ruby Port are reserve and rosé. Reserve ruby Port is considered better quality. Rosé Port, which only entered the market just over a decade ago, is made in a way similar to traditional rosé wine. It has minimal exposure to grape skin, which gives it a pink hue.

Tawny Port is made from wine aged in wooden barrels. The wood contact allows both evaporation and oxidation, which changes the color of the wines. They appear rusty or tawny, rather than bright red. Oxygen also introduces secondary, nutty flavors to these wines.

The highest quality tawny Ports are aged in wood and labeled 10, 20, 30 or over 40 years. The age distinction does not equal how much time the Port has aged. Instead, it denotes the characteristics of the final blend. Single-vintage tawny Ports are known as colheitas.

Garrafeira Port, which is extremely rare and always vintage-designated, is matured in wood, but also spends a minimum of eight years in glass demijohns. The glass aging process creates a distinct aroma and flavor.

White Port is made solely from white grapes and can be found in dry, off-dry and sweet styles. It’s often used in Portugal in a signature cocktail, the Port Tonic. It’s made with white Port, tonic water and a twist of citrus.

Late-bottled vintage Port (LBV) is wine from a single year, always bottled four to six years after harvest. Unfiltered LBVs labeled Envelhecido em Garrafa have also matured in the bottle for a minimum of three years.

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Vintage Ports are the most expensive and sought-after style. The wines must be aged in barrel and bottled two to three years after harvest. These wines can age up to 40 to 50 years before they are ready to be fully enjoyed.

With less time in barrel or tank, these wines are not oxidative like tawny Ports. Wines must be produced entirely from the grapes of a declared vintage, but not every year receives that designation. Each individual Port house decides about vintage declaration. Single-quinta vintage Ports come from a single quinta, or estate.

In years when no vintage is declared, many large Port houses produce a single-quinta bottling, with a vintage designation attached to it.

Port’s Notable Houses

The most reliable and famous houses of Port include Broadbent, Cockburn, Quinta do Noval, Ferreira, Graham’s, Taylor’s and Warre’s.

Published on December 10, 2019
Topics: Wine Basics