The Douro Valley in northern Portugal is picturesque, in a postcard sense. Sloping terrain bounded by the Douro River provides quite stunning views at every turn.
And since the good people who live in this region are agriculturally-oriented, then grape growing is a passion, not merely a crop. Bit of a problem, however, in that the area does not produce great wine grapes. They are good to be sure, but they are a bit weaker than their neighbors can create in Spain in the Ribera del Duero (same river, different name, different country, and different language) region, or further east in the Rioja area.
The grape varietals used in the Douro are the Tinta Barroca, the Touriga Nacional, the Touriga Franca, the Tinta Roriz, and the Tinta Cão. Not exactly the “show stoppers” that find a home in Bordeaux, or Burgundy, or the Rhone, another river valley located in southeastern France.
Yet, the grape growers of the Douro Valley do some very nice work. The English knew hundreds of years ago that the wines from this area of Portugal were pretty good. And they began to ship the barrels filled with wine from northern Portugal back to England.
Disaster. The wines were not sturdy enough to hold up to the voyage. It was not that far from Lisbon to England, but the continual movement of the sea and the warm weather turned a pretty good wine into pretty bad vinegar.
What to do? What to do?
How about we strengthen the wine, thought the Portuguese. Let’s fortify the wine by adding brandy, which is wine cooked down to its essence, to the mix. We will get a bigger wine, a deeper wine, and we will stabilize the wine.
What they got was Port. Luscious, jammy, bold, interesting, fantastic Port. That all happened back in the mid-1700’s and Port has been a favorite ever since.
Traditionally, the wines of Portugal, including Port, have been made using the foot-stomping method. Some are still made that way. The modern approach is to simulate the soft, pliable, gentle effect of the foot as it breaks the skin of the grape, but with machinery. Lucille Ball would never approve.
During the winemaking process, brandy is added to the wine, which stops the fermentation before all the sugars have had the opportunity to convert to alcohol. So the wine is sweeter, and with higher alcohol due to the incompletion of the process and the addition of the brandy.
Incidentally, the name Port is taken from Porto (Oporto), which is the town at the mouth of the Douro River where the wines were sent to warehouse before their trip to overseas markets. The region where the grapes are produced in the Upper Douro Valley is the third oldest certified wine appellation area in the world, established in 1756. The two older regions are Tokaji in Hungary (1730), and Chianti in Italy (1716).
The two main types of Port are Tawny and Ruby. Tawny Ports are aged for varying lengths of time in barrels. In this way, there is a reduction of the amount of wine at the end of the process due to evaporation. Tawny’s get their coloring from the barrels.
Ruby Ports are aged in the bottle. The reduction in the amount of wine is therefore considerably less. Ruby Ports can be blended and receive their color from a variety of sources, sometimes even through the addition of caramel.
Late Bottle Vintage (LBV) designations are simply wines that were destined for a more expensive production program, but due to factors, such as an absence of demand for higher-cost products, or the lack of a vintage declaration, the wines were taken from the barrels and put into bottles and shipped to market.
Like all good things, there are many variables to understand about Port. Or you can just sit back, sip and enjoy. Personally, I think that’s a good way to go.
A word about storage: While Port is a fortified beverage, which means it does not age further in the bottle like wine, it can nevertheless deteriorate over a period of time. Not anywhere as fast as an open bottle of wine, but it will present less of the fresh flavor, with fewer nuances, after opening.
Store your Port after opening in a stoppered bottle, the one it came in with the same cork is fine. And keep it cool and dark. If you put it in the refrigerator, take it out at least an hour before you serve it to allow it to return to a warmer serving temperature. You can probably keep an open bottle of Port for about a month. The older the Port, the less time it will stay in good condition after opening.
Port is another case where the demands of the marketplace necessitated a new approach to an old product. And it has worked for over 250 years. Good thoughts have no expiration date.
A few suggestions on Port:
Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve – a wonderful and inexpensive way to “get into” Port.
Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Port, 2003 – from a single year, but not a declared vintage year. Decanting not necessary.
Dow’s 10 Years Old Tawny – Bright color, aromas of candied fruit and toffee. Serve slightly chilled.
Graham’s 20 Years Old Tawny – The complete package. When you know you like Port, head here. Savor the deep rich colors, the nutty characters, and the hints of orange peel that only age can produce.