The history of wine growing in Portugal is thousands-of-years old. Among the great products of this traditional wine land, the world-renowned Port Wine (Vinho de Porto) takes an exceptional position. Only wines originating from the Douro Region are entitled to use this protected designation of origin. The roots of viniculture in the Douro valley date back to the Bronze Age. The name “Port” or “Port Wine” is derived from the name of the city of Porto at the estuary of the river Douro, where the wine is stored, matured, bottled and shipped.
For more information about Port please have a look at the official website of the Port and Douro Wines Institute (IVDP, Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto). Its mission is to promote the control of the quality and quantity of Port wines, regulating the production process, and the defence and protection of the Douro and Port denominations of origin and the geographical indication of the Douro Region.
Wine region Douro and Porto
The wine region on the lower course of the River Douro where port wine is grown and processed is one of the oldest in the world, established as a protected region already in 1756.
This wild and beautiful part of northern Portugal offers extraordinarily good conditions for wine grapes. The steeply shelved slopes of the River Douro, hill after hill stretching of to the horizon with narrow roads winding around their contours. Here, the vine terraces bask in the sun that provides the deal climatic conditions, heating the pure schist and granite soil that is typical within this region.
The Douro region is divided into three geographical sections (from west to east):
- Baixo Corgo
- Cima Corgo
- Douro Superior
Baixo Corgo is the coolest of the three due to the cooling influence of the Atlantic Ocean and subsequently, its wines are lighter in style. The Cima Corgo, centred on the little town of Pinhão, is the heartland of the Douro, cut-off by mountains from the maritime influence; it accounts for two-thirds of the Douro’s vines. To the east, towards the Spanish border, the Douro Superior is wild and isolated and subject to extremes of climate; very cold winters and roasting hot summers. Vine-growing here has historically been limited and sparse.
However, there has been considerable planting in recent years as producers have begun to comprehend the potential of this region. A measure of how dicult it is to colonise the rocky terrain of the Douro with vines is that a mere 17 per cent of legally potential vineyard land is planted with vines.
The region is host to two separate DOCs (Denominação de Origem Controlada), DOC Douro for unfortified wine and DOC Porto for Port, both with the same geographic footprint.
Port wine production
The process of making port wine consists of two steps made in different locations
With a few exceptions, Port is always made by blending different grape varieties of different years. More than hundred varieties are sanctioned for port production, although only five (Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Nacional) are widely cultivated for red ports and only seven for white ports (Donzelinho Branco, Esgana-Cão, Folgasão, Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Rabigato and Viosinho).
The grapes are harvested in September, primarily by hand due to the difficult terrain. The process of fermentation is stopped at a certain point by adding a neutral grape spirit (aguardente) of 77 % alcohol. This results in a fortified, sweet wine of a high alcohol content (usually between 19 and 22% vol.), stored in the vineyards until the next spring. In a second step the fortified wine is transported down the river to Vila Nova de Gaia opposite the city of Porto near the estuary of the Douro, where it is stored for the aging process.
Aging of port
Port is aged in two different styles, Ruby (Estilo Ruby) and Tawny (Estilo Tawny).
Ruby ports are wines in which the winemaker looks to restrain the evolution of their deep red colour and maintain the fruit and strength of a young wine Ruby is stored in large casks (balseiro) only for a shorter period of time and then bottled, where the process of maturation continues. Ruby is sold in these categories:
- Ruby: Made from grapes of average quality, bottled and sold as a young wine.
- Ruby Reserve: Full-bodied, rich and deep ruby red, these wines are frequently the product of a selection of the best Port Wine made each year, blended together to create a young, powerful, fruity and intense wine that is also rounded and versatile.
- Late Bottle Vintage (LBV): This is a Ruby Port from a single year, chosen for its extremely high quality and bottled after ageing for four to six years in wood (pipa).
- Vintage: Considered by many as the jewel in the Port Wine crown, this is the only Port that ages in bottle. Produced from the grapes harvested during a single year and bottled two to three years after the vintage, it develops gradually for 10 to 50 years before it is drunk
- Single Quinta Vintage: These Vintages are unique in that they are not only the product of a single harvest but also of a single quinta, or wine estate, which makes them truly exceptional
Tawny ports are aged in wooden barrels exposing them to gradual oxidation and evaporation. As a result of this process they gradually mellow to a golden-brown colour (“tawny”) and develop a taste of dry fruits and nuts. Tawny ports are sold in these categories:
- Tawny Port: These wines have to stay in small oak casks (pipa) for a minimum of two years before they are bottled and sold.
- Tawny Reserve Port: Aged in oak, this wine boasts extremely elegant flavours, the perfect combination of the fruitiness of youth and the maturity of age, also apparent in their attractive medium golden brown colour.
- Old Tawny Port: They are ports with an indication of age (10, 20, 30 and 40 years, stated on the label) representing a blend of several vintages. These exceptional wines are full of fruit and their flavours are more developed and concentrated due to the fact that the wine was aged in small oak casks (pipa) for several decades. The intense aromas and flavours are reminiscent of toasted vanilla and dried fruits, with delicate hints of oak.
- Very Old Tawny: This classification is given to the oldest Tawny Ports of above 40 years, wines that are marvellously concentrated and complex. Intense, they all but explode in the mouth, filling your palate with aromatic flavours that will astound your senses.
- Colheita Port: These single vintage Tawnies are aged in cask for a minimum seven years and present a wide range of colours from golden red to tawny, depending on their age. Their bouquet and flavour also develop over time to create different style Tawnies.
White Port, made of white graves, varies in style according to whether it has aged for a shorter or longer period of time, and different degrees of sweetness according to the manner by which it is made. In addition to the traditional White Ports, there now are other wines with a floral and complex aroma and a minimum alcohol content of 16.5% (Light Dry White Port) capable of meeting the demand for less alcoholic Ports.
Rosé Port is a pink-coloured wine obtained by light maceration of red grapes, with no oxidation during preservation. These are wines to be drunk young and are highly aromatic with notes of cherry, raspberry and strawberry. They are soft and pleasant on the palate. They are best drunk chilled or with ice, and can also be served in several cocktails.