Updated: Feb 12
When you hear about Porto, probably the first thing it’ll pop on your mind is Port wine but what exactly is this type of wine and why it became so famous worldwide? We’ve made this guide to help you to discover the secrets of Port Wine and understand a bit more about this fantastic drink.
What’s Port Wine?
Port wine qualifies as a fortified wine. They are made by adding a proportion of grape spirit, aguardente (firewater) at some point during the production process. In the case of Port, the addition of aguardente takes place before the wine has finished fermenting. This means that the wine keeps some of the natural sweetness of the grape, making it rich, round and smooth on the palate.
Port Wine has a variety of different types, each with its own characteristic flavors. Traditionally it is served towards the end of the meal with cheese, as a dessert wine.
Where Port wine is produced?
Port wine is produced in the mountainous eastern reaches of the Douro Valley in northern Portugal, one of the world’s oldest and most beautiful vineyard areas where wine has been made for at least two thousand years. In 1756, the Port wine vineyards of the Douro became the first vineyard area in the world to be legally demarcated, by the famous Marques do Pombal, a Portuguese prime-minister.
Like other great classic wines, Port owes its distinctive character to a unique association of climate, soil, grape variety and winemaking tradition. The unique land of the Douro Valley and its remarkable wines cannot be replicated elsewhere.
The grapes are grown on the steep rocky hillsides bordering the Douro River and its tributaries. Many of the oldest vineyards, now classified as World Heritage by UNESCO, are planted on narrow terraces supported by hundreds of hand built dry stonewalls.
Why is it called Port Wine?
The first shipments of wine under the name Port were recorded in 1678. Although the wine is produced inland in the vineyards of the upper Douro Valley, it takes its name from the coastal city of Porto from which it is traditionally exported.
Until well into the XX century, the wine was carried down the river Douro from the vineyards in special boats known as rabelos boats. The wine was then unloaded into the “lodges” of the Port houses which line in the narrow lanes of Vila Nova de Gaia, opposite the old city center of Porto, to be aged, blended, bottled and finally shipped.
Many of the oldest and most famous producers are of English or Scottish origin as, for most of the history of Port wine, Britain was the first to turn the market into a lucrative business and by far its largest market. However is now enjoyed all over the world.
Types of Port Wine
The different types of Port derive essentially from the various ways in which it can be aged. 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.
Ports can be broken down into two broad “families”: Wood age Ports, which age in cask or vat, normally made of oak, and bottle aged Ports, which, as the name indicates, spend most of their lives maturing in bottle.
Tawny ports are wood aged ports and turn a tawny color as they get older.
They can be found as Fine Tawny, aged between 2-5 years, under this classification there is no minimum age requirement and they tend to be a blend of various ports.
10-year-Old Tawny Ports.
20-30 year old Tawny Ports.
Ruby port is the cheapest and most extensively produced type of Port. After fermentation, it is stored in concrete or stainless steel tanks to prevent oxidation and preserve its rich claret color.
White Port is made from white grapes and in a wide variety of types.
Rose Port is a very recent variation on the market, first released in 2008. It is technically a ruby Port, but fermented in a similar manner to a rose wine with a limited exposure to the grape skins, thus creating the rose color.
Crusted Port is usually a blend of Port wine from several vintages, although single vintage crusted ports have sometimes been made in the past.
Colheitas are dated tawny port from a single vintage. The actual year is shown on the bottle along with the year it was bottled. A colheita is matured in wooden casks prior to being bottled and many have spent 20 years or more in wood before being bottled and will not improve once bottled.
Single Quinta Vintage Port
These are port wines that originate from a single estate, unlike the standard bottling of the Port wine houses, which can be sourced from a number of quintas.
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)
Those are originally a wine that had been destined for bottling as vintage port, but because of lack of demand was left in the barrel for longer that had been planned. Over time it has become two distinct styles of wine LBVs, kept in wood and bottled between four and six years after the vintage. LBVs can either be filtered or fined prior to bottling or not.
Filtered ports don’t need to be decanted and unfiltered ones need to be decanted.
Vintage Port is made entirely from the best grapes of a single year. They are not declared each year but depend on the quality of wines available. Only 2% of the port produced ends up being Vintage quality and declared it.
The last year declared vintage port was 2017, before that 2011, 2007 and 2003.
You cannot miss the opportunity to try Port wine once you are in Porto and there are dozens of wine cellars where you can do a tour to discover the secrets of Port Wine and learn a bit more about the fabrication process and taste the different types of wine. Check our list with the best Port Wine cellars in Porto.