Port is a fortified wine made – at least superficially – in a way similar to Vin Doux. The grape must is partially fermented – to about half its potential alcohol (and thus about 7% abv) – and then run off into large vats together with clear young brandy. The brandy is 77% abv and comprises about 21% of the full vat – typically 550 litres. So the resultant wine is sweet and about 20% abv.

What makes Port distinctive is that the crushing and partial fermentation takes place in Lagares. Lagares are wide, open-top wine fermenting tanks made from stone, neutral concrete or, usually in the Douro, granite. Traditionally the process of crushing the grapes in lagares is by foot. Increasingly computer-modelled mechanical crushing is used but foot-treading is still common in better wines. This continuous crushing right through to the start of fermentation is to extract colour and density during a relatively short maceration.

Dozens of grapes are permitted but red port mostly uses: Touriga Francesa, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Amarela and Tinto Cão. White port is made in the same way using Arinto, Gouveio, Malvasia and Viosinho. Grapes are typically hand-picked, sorted and de-stemmed. White Port is made in a few styles, from crisp dry to rich and strong. Most are released two or three years after making though there is a barrel-aged style which becomes decidedly tawny. There are also a few Rosé ports – made with red grapes but with short skin contact. All these styles are best served well chilled and together only make up a small amount of port, maybe <10%.

Accordingly the vast majority of Port is red. There are quite a number of styles of port, mostly distinguished by the way they are aged, a decision based partly on the quality of the original vintage. Its remarkable ageing potential and the fact that it is fortified mean that Port will continue to improve in cask, vat or bottle for much longer than most other wines. The choice of ageing period and ageing vessel will determine what the Port tastes like.

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Map of the Port Production area. [Image from Casa del Vino]

 

There are two general classifications: those that are aged in wood, and those that are aged – mostly – in bottle. The most important wood-aged style is Tawny Port. Here the wine is aged in oak casks for a period of 5 to 40 years. As it matures, the firm tannins and intense fruity flavours of youth gradually give way to a velvety smoothness and mellow, nuanced character. At the same time there is a change in the wine’s appearance, its initial deep red colour slowly becoming paler and evolving into the subtle amber hue known as ‘tawny’. 10- and 20- year old Tawny is common while one sees 30- and 40- year old too. In my experience 20-year old is the most reliably high quality.

There is a single vintage Tawny style called “Colheitas” where the year rather than the age is shown on the bottle. In addition several full bodied, fruity red Ports are aged for a relatively short time in large oak vats. These include Ruby Ports, usually aged (like Whites) in vat for two or three years, Reserve Ports which are generally of higher quality and age for slightly longer and Late Bottled Vintage Ports which remain in vat for between four and six years. The last is an attempt to give a little of the character of a mature Vintage Port without having to wait years and then deal with sediment.

All the wood aged styles are ready to drink once bottled, while bottle-aged wines require judgement about readiness, and will have sediment.

The most important bottled aged port is Vintage Port. Vintage Port is the apex of the Port family – representing only about 1% of the production. Not all years are good enough to make a vintage wine (there are 11 or 12 in the last 30 years), and each of the Port houses can “declare” a vintage if they consider the crop good enough – it is not always unanimous. Then the wine is aged like a traditional red wine: in vat for only about two years and then in bottle. Vintage Ports will improve for many decades in the cellar and are among the most long-lasting of all wines, often only approaching their best after 20 years. Vintage Ports are the most structured and powerful of all Ports.

Vintage port is made to a house style (a bit like Grande Marque Champagne) by blending grapes from a variety of vineyards. In most non-vintage years each House will have a top vineyard where the fruit is good enough for a Vintage and then they will make a single-Quinta vintage wine. Perhaps counter-intuitively these are lesser wines than the general House vintage.

There is also an old style – less seen since single-quinta wines have proliferated – called “Crusted” Ports. These are not made from wines of a single year but, like Vintage Ports, are capable of maturing in bottle, throwing a sediment as they do.

We will try: white; rosé; Tawny; LBV; a 14 year old single quinta; and a 30 year old vintage. Tasting notes will be posted in 4 or 5 days time – in the meantime Happy Easter and remember chocolate and Port go quite well….

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