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Port Wine Revealed

By Les Kincaid from

Port was introduced in Britain as early as the 14th century and sales somewhat increased in the 16th century when British ships began making regular runs to Portugal to trade for New World products.

Port wine takes its name from the city of Oporto , Portugal , which is the center of most of the world's port production.

The city lies at the mouth of the Douro River , which twists its way through rugged, wind-swept mountains where vineyards are planted in terraces to prevent erosion on the steep slopes. Port has been made in this starkly beautiful place since the time of Roman occupation, but a connection with England thousands of years later elevated its character to its present level.

Port was introduced in Britain as early as the 14th century and sales somewhat increased in the 16th century when British ships began making regular runs to Portugal to trade for New World products. Yet it wasn't until 1703 when England 's Queen Anne went to war with France that port, and the market for it, changed forever. In an attempt to stymie French wine profits, English Ambassador John Methuen negotiated a significant tax advantage for Portuguese wines over all others coming into England . At first, the typical Englishman who found the flavor too harsh and sharp did not embrace the flood of port. But the scarcity of other wines and a desire to make it more appealing to the English palate led to experimentation with the port-making process. It was discovered that when brandy was added during fermentation, it not only boosted the alcohol content, but also killed the fermenting yeast. This allowed more of the natural grape sugar to remain, and port was transformed into the sweet, rich libation that made "an Englishman and his Port" inseparable.

Because of the Methuen Treaty and the subsequent English appetite for port, enterprising British businessmen bought controlling interests in the port trade. They began operating foreign trading stations in Oporto called factories and the famous building at the center of all the trading became known as the Factory House. Constructed in 1790, the elegant structure still stands and its wood-paneled meeting rooms recall the history of British participation in the port business. Waterford chandeliers and walls plastered in Wedgwood patterns grace the luxurious ballroom where English nobility and heads of state were entertained. Massive iron stoves shipped from England was used to prepare formal banquets, and the mahogany dining tables are still used for the regular Wednesday luncheon meetings of the port shippers. To this day, most of the names on port wine labels are English, and the factories in Portugal are almost all run by Englishmen.

The elegant history of the business operation contrasts with the robust tradition of the wine production. If I had been given a choice between attending a function in the ballroom or participating in the winemaking festivities, the latter would have won out. The method behind creating the wine is a legacy passed down for centuries, and only in the last few decades has modern equipment entered the picture.

The making of port begins each year with a three-week autumn festival during which villagers from miles around gather to take part in the grape harvest. Led by musicians playing an accordion or flute, men and women arrive with their possessions stowed in baskets borne on their heads. Traditionally women picked the grapes, which they hauled to the pressing vaults. There the men would link arms and rhythmically tread the fruit, moving in a circle to a whistled tune. The work would continue into the night and, like the port itself, the men would fortify themselves with shots of brandy. Meanwhile the women would return from the vineyards and dance as they cheered the men on. Much of the same spirit and camaraderie still exists today, although most port is now machine pressed.

After fermentation, the fresh wine is taken to the port lodges in Oporto and its neighboring city, Vila Nova de Gaia . In years past, the barrels of wine were ferried there on quaint barges called rabelos, but today's port is shipped by truck for expedience and safety. Once stored, it is labeled and, depending upon the quality of the port, aged either in wooden casks or bottles. The finest port is called vintage, meaning wine pressed in an exceptional year. Most shippers manage to get only about three vintages per decade.

All ports should rest a long time before they are consumed, but vintage port requires the longest wait to be enjoyed. In order to mature, it must stay in the bottle a minimum of ten years and will improve steadily every year thereafter.

It is a custom in England to buy a bottle of vintage port upon the birth of a child, which will be saved and used to celebrate the child's wedding. The other varieties of port, such as tawny, ruby and white, all have their merits and are usually more available. But vintage port is in a class all it's own, and those who consume it can almost taste its rich history in every sip. Make it one of your New Year's resolutions to re-aquaint yourself with the world of port. On a cold winter's evening by the fire, you'll understand what the English saw in this gift from the Portuguese sun and why the Portuguese are justifiably proud.

Port Wine


Portuguese wines have been exported since Roman times. The Romans associated Portugal with Bacchus , their god of Winery and Feast. Today the country is known by wine lovers, and its wines have won several international prizes. Many famous Portuguese wines are known as some of the world's best: Vinho Verde , Vinho Alvarinho , Vinho do Douro , Vinho do Alentejo , Vinho do Dao , Vinho da Bairrada and the sweet: Port Wine , Madeira wine and the Moscatels of Setubal and Favaios (Douro). Porto Wine is widely exported, followed by Vinho Verde. Exports of Vinho Verde are increasing rapidly, in response to the growing international demand.

A glass of tawny port.

Port wine (also known as Vinho do Porto , Porto , or simply Port) is a sweet, fortified wine from the Douro Valley in the northern part of Portugal . It takes it's name from the city of Oporto ( Porto in Portuguese), the centre of port export and trading.

Similar wines, often also called "Port", are produced in several other countries, notably Australia , South Africa , India and the United States . It has been produced in and around St. Augustine , Florida since the mid 16th Century. In some nations, including Canada , after a phase-in period, and the countries of the European Union, only the product from Portugal may be labeled as "port." In the United States , the Portuguese product, by Federal law pursuant to a treaty with Portugal , must be labeled " Porto " or "Vinho do Porto " for differentiation.

The Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP or Port and Douro Wine Institute) regulates the Port industry in Portugal . Of all the wine regions in the world, none has a stricter regulatory regime.

Port wine is typically richer, sweeter, heavier, and possesses higher alcohol content than most other wines. This is caused by the addition of distilled grape spirits (such as brandy) to fortify the wine and halt fermentation before all the sugar is converted to alcohol.

It is commonly served after meals as a dessert wine, often with cheese. White and tawny ports are often served as an aperitif. It has an alcohol content of roughly 20%.

Wine with less than 16% ethanol cannot protect itself against spoilage if exposed to air; with an alcohol content of 18% or higher, port wine can safely be stored in wooden casks that 'breathe', thereby permitting the fine aging of port wine.


Port from Portugal comes in several styles, which can be divided into two broad categories:

1) Wines that have matured in sealed tanks or bottles, with no exposure to air, and experience what is know as reductive aging. The wines very slowly take on a tawny colour, and become smoother on the palate and less tannic.

2) Wines that have matured in wooden barrels, whose permeability allows a small amount of exposure to oxygen, and experience what is known as oxidative aging. They too lose colour, but at a faster pace. They also lose volume to evaporation, leaving behind a wine that is slightly more viscous and intense.

When white ports are matured for long periods, the colour darkens, eventually reaching a point where it can be hard to discern (from appearance alone) whether the original wine was red or white.

Wines matured in barrels are sometimes known as 'wood ports'.

Vintage Port

Although it accounts for only about two percent of production, vintage port is the flagship wine of all Portugal .

Vintage port is made entirely from the grapes of a declared vintage year. Not every year is declared a vintage in the Douro , only those when conditions are favourable to the production of a fine and lasting wine. The decision on whether or not to declare a vintage is made in the spring of the second year following the harvest.

The decision to declare a vintage is made by each individual port house, often referred to as a 'shipper'. The port industry is one where reputations are hard won and easily lost, so the decision is never taken lightly. During periods of recession and war, potential 'declarations' have sometimes been missed for economic reasons.

In recent years, some shippers have adopted the 'chateau' principle for declarations, declaring all but the worst years. More conventional shippers will declare, on average, about three times a decade.

While it is by far the most renowned type of port, from a volume and revenue standpoint, vintage port actually makes up only a small percentage of the production of most shippers. Vintage ports are aged in barrels for a maximum of two and a half years before bottling, and generally require another ten to thirty years of aging in the bottle before reaching what is considered a proper drinking age.

Since they are aged in barrels for only a short time, they retain their dark ruby colour and fresh fruit flavours. Particularly fine vintage ports can continue to gain complexity and drink wonderfully for many decades after they were bottled, and therefore can be particularly sought after and expensive wines.

Single Quinta Vintage Port is vintage port produced from a particular vineyard and sometimes from a lesser "undeclared" year. However, some of the most renowned Vintage Ports are Single Quintas.

Vintage port should not be confused with 'Late Bottled Vintage', which is a lesser wine see below.

Tawny Port

The cheapest forms of Tawny Port are young wines made from a blend of red and white grapes. Unlike Tawny Reserve and Tawnies with an indication of age, they may have spent little or no time maturing in wood.

Other Tawny ports are wines made from red grapes that are aged in wooden barrels, exposing them to gradual oxidation and evaporation. As a result, they gradually mellow to a golden-brown colour. The exposure to wood imparts "nutty" flavours to the wine, which is blended to match the house style.

Tawny Reserve port (without an indication of age) is a basic blend of wood aged port that has spent at least seven years in barrels.

Tawny with an indication of age is a blend of several vintages, with the average years "in wood" stated on the label, the official categories being 10, 20, 30 and over 40 years.

Tawny ports from a single vintage are called Colheitas (pronounced col-YATE-ah, meaning harvest).


Garrafeira is an intermediate style of Port that combines both the oxidative maturation of years in wood, with further reductive maturation in large glass demijohns.

It is required by the IVDP that wines spend at least seven years in wood followed by at least a further eight years in glass, before bottling. In practice the times are much longer.

At present, only one company, Niepoort, markets Garrafeiras. Their black demijohns, affectionately known as bon-bons, hold approximately 11 litres each.

Confusingly, the word Garrafeira may be found on some very old Tawny labels, where the contents of the bottle are of exceptional age.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)

Late Bottled Vintage (often referred to simply as LBV) was originally wine that had been destined for bottling as Vintage Port, but due to lack of demand was left in the barrel for rather longer than had been planned.

Over time it has become two distinct styles of wine, both of them bottled between four and six years after the vintage, but one style is fined and filtered prior to bottling while the other is not.

The filtered wine has the advantage of being ready to drink without decanting, and is bottled in a stoppered bottle that can be easily resealed. However this convenience comes at a price, as the filtration process strips out much of the character of the wine.

Unfiltered wines are bottled with conventional corks and need to be decanted. Recent bottlings are identified by the label wording 'Unfiltered' or 'Bottle matured' (or both). Prior to the 2002 regulations, this style was often marketed as 'Traditional', a description that is no longer permitted.

Rather surprisingly, some shippers of unfiltered wine make no mention of the fact on the label.

If in doubt, check the cork examine the top of the bottle to see if there is a stopper underneath the capsule; the serrated edge of a stopper is usually visible, or can be detected with your thumbnail.

LBV is intended to provide some of the experience of drinking a Vintage Port but without the decade-long wait of bottle aging. To a limited extent it succeeds, as the extra years of oxidative aging in barrel does mature the wine more quickly.

Typically ready to drink when released, LBV ports are the product of a single year's harvest and tend to be lighter bodied than a vintage port.

Filtered LBV's do not improve significantly with age, whereas the unfiltered wines will usually be improved by a few extra years in the bottle. Since 2002, bottles that carry the words 'Bottle matured' must have enjoyed at least three years of bottle maturation prior to release.


Crusted Port may be considered a 'poor man's vintage port'. It is a blend of port wine from several vintages, which, like Vintage Port , is bottled unfiltered, and sealed with a driven cork. Like Vintage Port it needs to be decanted before drinking.

Although Crusted ports will improve with age, the blending process is intended to make these wines approachable at a much younger age.

The date on a Crusted Port bottle refers to the bottling date, not the year the grapes were grown.

Ruby Port

Ruby port is the cheapest and most extensively produced type of port. After fermentation it is stored in tanks made of concrete or stainless steel to prevent oxidative aging, and preserve it's rich claret colour. The wine is usually blended to match the style of the brand it is to be sold as.

The wine is fined and cold filtered prior to bottling, and does not generally improve with age.

White Port

White port is made from white grapes, and should always be served cool or cold. It can be used as the basis for a cocktail, or served on its own. It is particularly agreeable on a hot summer's evening.

Although some brands of white port are described as 'dry', they are, like all ports, relatively sweet.

Madeira wine

It is a fortified wine made in the Madeira Islands of Portugal, which is prized equally for drinking and cooking; the latter use including the dessert plum in Madeira .


The method of vinification is similar to that employed in other parts of Portugal , but the method employed for hastening the maturation of the wine is peculiar and characteristic.

This consists in subjecting the wine, in buildings called estufas specially designed for this purpose, to a high temperature for a period of some months. This process is meant to duplicate the effect of a long sea voyage of the aging barrels through tropical climates. Madeira was originally unfortified, but the addition of grape spirits increased its ability to survive long voyages.

The temperature varies from 35 to 60C (100 to 140 F), according to the quality of the wine, the lower temperature being used for the better wines. The buildings in which this process is carried out are built of stone and are divided into compartments heated by means of hot air derived from a system of stoves and flues.

Much of the characteristic flavor of Madeira is due to this practice, which hastens the mellowing of the wine and also tends to check secondary fermentation inasmuch as it is, in effect, a mild kind of pasteurization. Furthermore, the wine is deliberately exposed to air, causing it to oxidize. The resulting wine has a color not unlike a tawny port. Colourings such as caramel have been used in the past as a colouring to give some consistency, although this practice is decreasing. Wine tasters sometimes describe an oxidized wine as being maderized .


Exposure to extreme temperature and oxygen accounts for its stability; an opened bottle of Madeira will survive unharmed for a considerable time, up to a year. Properly sealed in bottles, Madeira is one of the longest lasting wines; Madeiras have been known to survive over 150 years in excellent condition. It is not uncommon to see Madeiras pushing the century mark for sale at stores that specialize in rare wine.

Before the advent of artificial refrigeration, Madeira wine was particularly prized in areas where it was impractical to construct wine cellars (such as parts of the southern United States ) because unlike many other fine wines it could survive being stored over hot summers without significant damage.


There are four major types of Madeira : Malvasia (also known as Malmsey or Malvazia), Bual (or Boal), Verdelho , and Sercial , the latter two being drier. Occasionally one sees Terrantez , Bastardo and Moscatel varieties, although these are now increasingly rare on the island due to disease oidium and pests phylloxera. After the phylloxera epidemic many wines were mislabeled as containing one of these noble grape varieties. Since the epidemic Tinta Negra Mole is the workhorse variety on the island and is found in various concentrations in many blends and vintage wines. Of these, Bastardo and Tinta Negra Mole are red grape varieties, the rest are all white.

Regulations enacted recently by the European Union have applied the rule that 85% of the grapes in the wine must be of the variety on the label. Thus, wines from before the late 19th century and after the late 20th century conform to this rule. Other madeiras do not.

Many vineyards have in the past been ripped up for commercial tourist developments or replanted with such products as bananas for commercial concerns. There is some replanting taking place on the island; however, the tourist trade is generally seen as a more lucrative business than winemaking.

Madeira may be sold as a vintage wine with a specific year when aged in casks for more than 15 years, or a blended wine with a minimum age, such as 3, 5, 10 or 15 years. Also there are solera wines, having been started in a specific year.

The new types of wine include "Harvest" and "Garrafeira" both wines from a specific year, but with a much shorter aging period than the vintage wines.



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