What do you think of when you hear the words "port wine?" British gentlemen's clubs? Cigars? Mikhail Gorbachev? I think of the delicious, sweet, fortified wine of the Douro River Valley of Portugal. Few wines are as rich in history and culture as Port, or Oporto, or Vinho do Porto, just a few of the many monikers attached to what we call simply Port. One could spend an entire career studying Port, its history, its geography, its production process, the indigenous grapes in it. Volumes have been written about it, so Port is definitely worth geeking out on once in a while.
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I'll start with a brief history. Starting in the 1500s, Great Britain and Portugal had an agreement to allow each other's merchants to live and do business on one another's soil. Each nation also granted favorable tariff rates on each other's goods, effectively a "free-trade" agreement. So in the early 1700s, when the British Crown completely outlawed the importation of French goods, the British merchants already trading in Portuguese wine saw a huge opportunity. Now that the thirsty Brits back home could not get French wine, these guys stepped into the void and made a killing. Ever since then, Port has been an integral part of the wine universe. The influence of the English in Port is still very much in evidence today. When you look at a list of the major Port producers you see names like Warre's, Taylor, Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Graham, the list goes on and on.
Portugal is one of the most rustic places in Europe, if not on the planet. The Douro River Valley in northern Portugal is an isolated, difficult, hardscrabble place where only really determined people would consider growing much of anything especially grapes. But that's where the grapes in Port come from. Situated on inclines of up to 60 percent, these vineyards are built on terraces dug out of the hillside and have to be harvested by hand because no machine could ever do it.
Harvest time in the Douro is party time, the long, severely hot summer is over, the grapes are picked and now it's time to make wine. The nature of Port requires maximum extraction of color and tannin which comes from the skins, there are machines that can do it, but many Port winemakers still tread the grapes by foot, talk about rustic! The grapes are tossed into thigh-high concrete vats called lagares, and five or six guys lock elbows and trod back and forth across them, while drinking and listening to loud music, my kind of party.
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Once the grapes are crushed, they are fermented like any other wine. Except halfway through fermentation, when the yeast has consumed only half the sugar, a clear brandy is added that kills all the yeast and leaves the rest of the sugar, hence Port's sweetness. Then the final product is aged in barrels. Some Port is continuously aged in barrels and blended to other vintages from other barrels, that's called Tawny Port. Other Port is aged only a short time in barrels and then bottled to finish aging, Ruby Port. The best Port comes when there is an exceptional growing season and the powers that be decide to designate that year as a Vintage Port year. Vintage Ports are expensive, but completely amazing.
I realize that all this info is nerdy, but knowing the story of what's in the glass is what makes wine so beguilingly fascinating, and Port's story is pretty cool. Plus I can't think of a better nightcap than a nice glass of it.
When I'm not writing this column or reading vintage charts to my daughter, you can find me pouring wine at FnB