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How Port Wine Is Made

Vintage Port wine takes its name from the city of Porto located at the head of the river Douro in Portugal, facing west out into the Atlantic. Although Port is famously associated with the wine lodges in Vila Nova da Gaia in Porto, the local vineyards cannot actually supply the grapes, as they mainly grow the lighter, drier grapes for vinho verde.

Port wine history

The success of Port wine came about when England and France were at war in the 17th century. With Bordeaux wine unobtainable the British wine merchants had to look elsewhere for their supplies and Portugal was the answer.

However, the local product was a little thin and acidic compared with what the British were used to – heavier, richer Bordeaux. So two adventurous English traders headed further inland in the Douro where they came across the local red wine that was smoother and richer than most red Portuguese wines of the day. The difference was that it had been fortified with brandy, a practice still used today in all vintage port production.

Port WineThe Douro Valley

Port wine grapes are grown in the upper reaches of the Douro valley, almost to the Spanish frontier, where the vineyards seem to cling precariously to the steep hills in terraces of thin soil over slate and granite. The Douro undergoes extremes of weather; snow is not out of the question in winter whilst in summer the vineyards bake in almost constant sun and temperatures in the high thirties Celsius.

The Douro region is divided into three districts and was the first demarcated wine region in the world; the Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior – unlike French wines these districts will rarely appear on the label of a bottle of Port. However, the Baixo Corgo tends to be the wettest region and hence the grapes are less ripe resulting in less concentrated wines. The Cima Corgo produces the ripest grapes thanks to its balance of heat and rainfall, whilst the Douro Superior produces equally high quality grapes but is more isolated with fewer vineyards.

Port Wine GrapesPort wine grapes

Port wine is inherently a blend of varieties; however, the Touriga Nacional has now received almost universal consent to be the Port grape.

It produces very deeply coloured and tannic wines with blackcurrant notes and intense fruit character.

Other grapes used are Tinta Roriz, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cao.

Making Port

Making Port WineSince the Douro area is so rugged the harvest is still mainly done by hand and in some of the older quintas or estates the treading to produce grape must is still done primarily by the human foot. The skin of the grapes provide the colour and tannin of the wine and these days modern fermentation vats circulate the fermenting “must” – when it is half-fermented and still sweet, the grape skins are discarded and the wine is fortified by the addition of neutral grape spirit, killing the yeasts and halting further fermentation.

This young Port is rough and tannic and will need two or three years as a minimum to mature to something drinkable (basic ruby Port) and at least a decade to mature into the premium ports, Vintage and Tawny, that are characteristically smooth and rich. Maturation can be either in wooden casks or in the bottle in the case of Vintage Port.

The following spring most of the wine will be transported to Oporto where the more even, temperate climate guarantees a long, slow maturation process.

The lodges hold thousands of elongated old oak casks, known as “pipes” which hold approximately 712 bottles.

Storing Port & laying down

Vintage, traditional Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) and Crusted Ports can be kept for sometime and may benefit if cellared for the medium to long term. The bottles should be stored on their side with the label or white paint splash uppermost – this keeps the cork moist and, if the label was to the top, the sediment or crust will be on the other side, simplifying the later decanting. Vintage port years do not happen every year by any means.

Aged tawnies and Colheitas will stay in good condition for a few years if stored in a cool, dark place – don’t keep any port near a radiator or central heating boiler!

Other ports like rubies and modern LBV can be stored upright and should keep for a year or two before opening but they will not improve anymore in the bottle.


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