The ultimate Port wine guide
On the 10th of September 1756, Marquês de Pombal faced a severe crisis related to Port Wine as frauds and overproduction increasingly compromised the wine quality and reputation. In this regard, the Marquis decided to demarcate the region, resulting in one of the oldest designated and regulated regions in the world, the Alto Douro Vinhateiro. The visionary measure marked the creation of the concept appellation (literally translated as Designation of Origin from the portuguese Denominação de Origem Controlada). Since then, only wine produced in the Douro Demarcated Region respecting rigorously controlled production and ageing standards can use the term “Port Wine”.
Port wine holds a great kind of varieties, a very peculiar richness and intense fragrance, and high persistence of aroma and flavour. Its alcohol content is commonly high (generally between 19% and 22%), with a wide range of sweetness and a broad variety of colours.
The traditional manufacturing process includes interrupting the fermentation of the must by adding wine spirit, wine stocking and ageing. Amid its maturing process, wine is submitted to quality control tests, both analytical and sensorial, carried out by the Laboratories and Board of Tutors of the Port Wine Institute, one of the oldest and most renowned public entities in Portugal. This entity’s main mission is to officially control and safeguard Port Wine’s prestige, as well as promoting it worldwide. Only wines that meet the established quality standards are privileged to use the seal of guarantee issued by the Port Wine Institute.
The Douro has been demarcated for more than 200 years. However, the same cannot be said of wine, which production in the region dates back before the Roman occupation, therefore being ancestral. Nonetheless, several styles of Port Wine have been developed over the years, which we will discuss in the course of this post.
Red Port Wines
The word tawny means golden. Tawny wine is obtained from grapes that are aged in oak casks or barrels. This maturing process is faster than Ruby and the more alcoholic the higher the age. Due to the oxidation, its colour evolves as it gradually acquires orange hues, close to the gold. With an average age of 3 years, Tawny wines are exquisite and delicate, and the aromas resemble nuts and wood; the older the wine, the more these attributes are emphasized. This type of wine is undoubtedly an excellent complement to strong cheddar cheeses, apple pie, dried fruits, chocolates, cheesecake and tiramisu, and should be served fresh, either in summer or winter in temperatures close to 15°C. This temperature allows appreciating the wine, without the strong presence of alcohol. The existing categories are:
- Tawny – Tawny wines normally are a blend of wines from various harvests batches, which quality does not allow them to mature much more. It is easy to find these wines on the market for an affordable price. It is a young wine, aged in barrels for only three years, and presents a pale garnet colour, with young notes of nuts and wood;
- Tawny Reserve – Tawny Reserve wines are an old blend of wines from various harvests batches aged in oak wood and can exhibit a great polish of flavours, in a perfect combination between the fruit of the youth and the maturity of the age, also uncovered by its attractive amber hues;
- Age Designation Tawny Wines (10, 20, 30 and 40 years) – this Tawny wine is obtained from a blend of wines whose tasting characteristics are of a wine of that age; usually the average age of the blend is greater than its designation age;
- Colheita – this Tawny Port is a single-vintage wine ready to be consumed after bottling. Its age corresponds to the aging period. Generally, these single-harvest Tawnies are aged in wood for a minimum of seven years, yielding wines whose colour ranges range from golden red to tawny, depending on their age. The aromas and flavours explode in the mouth in a mixture of elegant and rich sensations with extraordinary notes of nuts and wood, all in a set of different results depending on the product, given that the aromas and flavours evolve over time giving rise to several styles of Tawnies.
A blender wine whose red colour reminds the precious Ruby stones. It is a young, red Port wine, full-bodied and fruity, obtained from the blend of wines from various harvests. Produced from single-year grapes and bottled two to three years after harvesting, it gradually evolves for ten to fifty years in the bottle. This type of wine comprises, in ascending order of quality, the categories Ruby, Ruby Reserve, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), Crusted and Vintage. The best quality wines, mainly the Vintage Port, have a great the potential of preservation, as they age well in the bottle. In fact, the charm of Vintage Port lies in its attractiveness in practically every phase of its bottle life. These wines are best drunk at an average temperature and are a good accompaniment to cheeses, such as Sierra cheese, Azeitão cheese, Cheddar and even unpasteurized cheeses, in the case of the LGW. They are also a good pair for bitter chocolate and pastries with coffee.
- Ruby – It is a young wine rich in fruity aromas and flavours, which ages for 3 years in wooden barrels. After bottling, it does not generally improve with age;
- Ruby Reserve – A full-bodied, rich and deep ruby red wine, frequently the product of blending the best Porto wines made each year, blended together to create a young, powerful, fruity and intense, yet versatile and round wine.
- LBV (Late Bottled Vintage) – this high-quality wine is from the single year stated on the bottle. Prior to bottling, LBV wine ages for a period of 4 to 6 years, which grants a greater colour evolution when compared to Vintage wine. This young wine exhibits an intense colour and young personality and is rich in tannins, denoting slightly oxidative elements, resulting from the initial ageing process in wooden barrels;
- Crusted – this wine is obtained from a blend of good Vintage wines bottled after 3 years of ageing in wooden barrels. Fruity and elegant aromas and flavours. It is an excellent alternative to Vintage wine and it creates a deposit (or crust) in the bottle, requiring its decantation;
- Vintage – Vintage wine is a jewel. After ageing for two years in wooden barrels, it is bottled and develops gradually shielded from the air and light. Slowly, the attributes develop significantly, developing its “bouquet”. The label states the harvest date, as well as the bottling year. This category of wines included the “Vintage de Quinta'” wines, which are the product of a single Quinta. While they may be enjoyed in the following years after bottling, these wines should maintain the ageing process in the bottle. Over time, the wines create a deposit. For that reason, it should be decanted before serving. In the initial maturing period in the bottle, the red colour is intense, and the aromas are complex, very fruity and floral. The flavour merges tannin and astringent features, with an unusual structure and persistence. The wine colour changes with time, enhancing its harmony and complexity as it ages.
White Port Wines
Unsurprisingly, White Porto wines are obtained exclusively from white wine grapes, mainly the grape varieties Malvasia Fina, Donzelinho, Gouveio, Codega and Rabigato. Because it is a blended wine, its uniqueness depends on the subtlety of its blend. These are no simple wines; White Porto is a masterpiece, whose preparation might require up to fifteen different types of wines and harvests. Its “bouquet” and harmony are acquired through a controlled oxidation process in the ageing process in contact with the wood. In the first years, wines are subject to racking and the intensity and number vary according to the company’s techniques and oenological styles, which shape its future development. Once bottled, undated Port Wine is ready to be enjoyed, as its features do not change in the bottle.
White Ports exhibit different sweetness levels, from the very sweet Lágrima to Doces, Meios Secos, Secos to Extra Secos. Its alcoholic content is between 19% and 22% vol. There is a special category entitled Leve Seco, which holds an alcoholic content of 16,5% and is very dry.
- Dry White, White and Lágrima – these are the only Ports categorized by the sweetness: Dry, Medium Sweet and Sweet. However, the wines never fully lose the sugar and, thus, it’s common to find dry wines that show some sweetness. These are young and fruity wines, spending an average of 4 years in wooden tanks. They develop fruity aromas and flavours, with oak wood notes. The Dry White is the driest Port wine, with a maximum of de 65 g/ litre of wine. The common White Port may go up to 130 g/litre and Lágrima may reach above 130 g/litre.
- White Port with an indication of age – an elegant, full-bodied and rich Port, obtained from the blend of different wines with the same average age.
- White Colheita – a White Port obtained from a single harvest. It ages in huge tanks acquiring a straw colour, with mature and elegant aromas and flavours, featuring fruity and wooden notes.
Rose Port Wines
Rose is the most recent innovation in the Port Wine Industry. Its release was controversial, with many people defending Rose Port is not a normal Port. But the difference quickly earned popularity. This wine is obtained from red grapes from the traditional Port Wine harvests. However, it’s rose tone was achieved through a gentle process of colour extraction. In others, the colour is obtained through a light maceration. After its production, the wine matures in stainless steel tanks, to hold its original freshness and avoid an intense oxidation. It features a beautiful rose colour with ruby nuances. A fruity, silky and soft taste, with a delicate texture. It’s versatile, fresh and gentle. It doesn’t age in the bottle and should be enjoyed fresh, between 6 and 7 degrees Celsius, in a tall glass with ice. An excellent appetizer or soft drink.