The history of Port can be traced back to a story similar to that of Dom Perignon. Records dating back to 1678 tell the tale of a monastic Douro resident, Abbott of Lamego, who shared brandy-fortified red wine with a group of British merchants. His intentions were not to spike the substance with the taste of brandy, but rather to stop the grape juice from fermenting from beyond that point. The finished product was a sweet wine high in alcohol. Today, the fortifying process is still done in this unique fashion, though it’s not always easy.
The Douro region begins 40 miles east of the second largest city in Portugal – Porto. The Douro River flows through the hillsides until it reaches an area that’s hot and humid in the summer and freezing in the winter. If it weren’t for the quintas (estates) and 85,000 vineyards terraced on the mountainous slopes, you’d wonder how anything other than olive trees could possibly survive in such conditions. This is a Pre-Cambrian area primarily composed of granite schist. The soil’s shallow and stony, meaning the vines must work to find nutrients.
Although 80 different grape varietals are grown in the Douro, the primary grapes used to make Port are touriga nacional, tinta barroca, touriga francesa, tinta roriz (tempranillo), tinto cao, sousao and tinto amarela. White Port’s also made in the Douro, but on a much smaller scale than the red. The low-lying zone, Baixo Corgo, is the best area for growing grapes used in Ruby and Tawny Ports. The higher zone, Cima Corgo, is the prime terrain for growing premium grapes used for higher priced Tawnys, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) and Vintage Ports — the latter of which accounts for only the top one percent of grapes grown in the entire region. The Douro Superior zone, which is further inland, has become a hot commodity for new plantings and still wines.
Port starts as a warm, quickly fermenting mass of grapes that’s vigorously and continuously agitated by either hand or machine. When the wine reaches about six or seven percent alcohol, 154 proof (77 percent alcohol) neutral grape spirits is added. The sudden shock of high alcohol concentration essentially kills the yeast and completely arrests fermentation. What’s left is a sweet or off-dry fortified wine that weighs in at about 18 to 20 percent alcohol by volume. The syrupy liquid is then put into oak casks to age before being blended, bottled and shipped to consumers.
Of all the styles, Vintage Port is the most challenging to consumers. Patience is a virtue — but patience is hard when you have the opportunity to taste a fine wine before its time! Basically, Vintage Ports aren’t filtered, and sediment needs time to settle to the bottom of the bottle. The 1994 and 1997 vintages are true gems of the past decade, with rich and lovely aromas. Unfortunately they’re still not ready. LBVs are usually ready four to six years after bottling, Tawnys are released when they’re ready to drink, and Rubys (and inexpensive Tawnys) are definitely ready to drink upon release.
So no matter what route you choose to take when experiencing the sensations of Port wines, just remember the stories of toil and stress that go in to each and every bottle. Cheers!