Port: Not just for Christmas!

Port: Not just for Christmas!

Posted by EWWines on 1st Mar 2022

Port shouldn’t be relegated to only Christmas but celebrated for what it is: one of Europe's great classic wines. What makes Port so appealing is the diverse range of styles across and with it the endless food matching possibilities.

Regional Overview

While Port takes its name from the city of Porto, or Oporto, the second largest city in Portugal, the wine comes from the upstream, inland River Douro basin with its craggy schist soils, impossibly steep terrain and iconic hillside terraces located in North East Portugal. The region is recognized by UNESCO as a "World Heritage Site" for its beauty. The unique climate generally speaking is warm continental  with very cold winters and hot, dry summers which help shape these iconic wines. The Marão and Montemuro mountains block the humid wind and significantly reduce rainfall from the cool Atlantic Ocean to the West. This inland River Douro basin is divided into 3 distinct sub regions from West to East; Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior. The proximity to the river is another key feature of the best vineyard sites in the Douro and an important factor in terms of aiding ripeness and mitigating the spring frost risk.

The Baixo Corgo (lower Corgo) offers more of an Atlantic influenced climate with more rainfall and lower temperatures, the most fertile land of the regions and the highest vine planting density. These factors mean the lightest wines are produced in this sub region.

The Cima Corgo (upper Corgo) is known as the heart of the Douro. Many of the upper end vintage port wines are born here, centred around the famous town of Pinhão. Here the climate and soils are considered perfect for growing the highest quality grapes necessary for the finest vintage ports. The steep terraces (socalcos) are home to many iconic Quinta’s including Croft’s Quinta da Roeda and a little further East, the legendary Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas.

Douro Superior is the largest geographically speaking of the sub regions, which extends East to the Spanish border. It is sparsely planted due to accessibility and is also the hottest and driest and therefore the most challenging for viticulture. The Douro Superior is still regarded as a source for the highest quality fruit and wines.

How is Port made?

Port wines are created from many grape varieties although the preferred five for premium port production are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cao. Fermentation is traditionally stopped at between 5 and 9% ABV by the addition of a neutral spirit, aguardiente, to kill the yeast and stop the fermentation. This allows for the natural sugar from the fruit to remain in the wine giving the characteristic sweetness and boosts the finished alcoholic content to between 19 and 22% ABV. Because the fermentation is stopped the process is too short and not vigorous enough to extract the tannins and colour expected of a port wine, therefore other techniques must be utilised known as pre-fermentation extraction techniques to complete this. 

The traditional extraction method of foot treading is the benchmark against which other methods are judged, but seldom used except for the top vintage ports today due to the labour costs involved. This method requires a large team to tread the grapes in granite troughs (Lagares) for several hours before fermentation begins, followed by manual punching down of the cap during fermentation. The cap refers to the grape skins, seeds and stems which during fermentation are pushed to the surface of the vessel by the C02 produced. It is important to keep the cap in contact with the juice during the fermentation process to avoid off flavours in the wine. The foot approach was considered the most delicate option so not to extract any of the harsh bitter polyphenols from the seeds though the modern alternative of robotic Lagares and piston plungers for cap management is now common. These systems are designed to replicate the traditional foot treading as closely as possible without any feet or granite troughs!  Here crushed grapes are added to vats and sealed. The rising pressure of the CO2 (a by-product of fermentation) pushes the juice up through pipes into a holding tank, and when the valve releases the C02 this allows the juice to flood down over the cap. The valve is then reset and the process begins again. This is similar to aggressive pumping down as the cycle completes about every 20 minutes. Pre fermentation maceration is limited in this system so as a result newer autovinifiers now include mechanical paddles which work as the piston plungers described above to extract more colour and tannins too.

The Styles of Port

The vast majority of Port is red but small amounts of white and now rose ports are being produced. However, the way in which the wine is matured has a massive influence over the final style of the wine, its longevity and ageing potential. The wines are either aged in wooden vats/barrels or in bottle. In bottle there is almost no air contact so the wine matures slowly over a long time period. Most wines are produced in the sub regions of the Douro basin before being transported downstream to the port of Vila Nova de Gaia for maturation. The cooler more humid coastal location is perfect for slower maturation of the port wines.

Port wines can be broadly categorised as the following:

Ruby Port – Designed to be drunk in their youth. A basic blend of wines often aged in vat for 2-3 years creating full bodied, rich and fruity wines. Try our Croft Fine Ruby Port

Reserve Port – Can be both Ruby and Tawny. A tasting panel assesses the suitability of a wine to be in this category by the IVDP (The Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto). A Tawny Reserve must be matured in wood for a minimum of 6 years. Try our Fonseca Bin 27 Finest Reserve Port.

Tawny Port – with no indication of age there are no maturation requirements. These wines are blended and the tawny colour can be achieved by sourcing fruit from the Baixo Corgo sub region, heavy filtration or blending in an amount of white port. Niepoort Tawny Dee is a delicious example.

Tawny port with an indication of age – These wines undergo a long period of oxidative maturation in large format wood. Typically labelled as 10, 20, 30 or 40 years old the wine must be consistent showing typical characteristics of a wine of that age. This is the average age of the blend, not the age of the youngest wine. Generally, the older the wine the more amber or tawny the colour becomes whilst developing more tertiary character of dried fruits, nuts and sometimes butterscotch which makes a fantastic match with chocolate! The label must state the year of bottling which is important as these wines are released fully matured and will not benefit from further maturation. Try either Kopke 10 Year Old Tawny Port or Taylors 20 Year Old Tawny Port

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)– One of the most popular and accessible styles, these are high quality vintage wines that have been matured for 4-6 years in wood before bottling. This ageing makes LBV wines more approachable on release bursting with black fruits and jammy flavours wrapped up in velvety tannins. Some producers leave their LBV’s unfiltered to preserve richness, body and concentration therefore will need decanting. If not sure check with us when you purchase and we will happily let you know how best to serve! Try our Fonseca Unfiltered LBV 2015

Colheita Port - a Tawny Port from a single vintage – Colheita meaning “harvest” in Portuguese. Aged for a minimum of 7 years before release, but in reality, much longer is common allowing for delicious tertiary flavour development (nuts and dried fruits).

Vintage Port – reserved only for the best vintages and considered the crème-de-la-crème of Port. Usually a blend of wines from different properties adding great complexity and different flavour profiles before maturing for 2 years in vat then bottled for further maturation. Producers must register their intent to produce a vintage port with the IVDP in the second year after the harvest and have bottled the wine no later than the third year. These wines have the potential to mature for several decades. Always bottled unfiltered, decanting before serving is a must. Try our Fonseca 1985 Vintage Port.

Single Quinta Vintage Ports – vintage port but the grapes must be from a single property (often the top vineyards e.g. Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas) and less restrictive in terms of vintages that can be used. Therefore, top producers such as Taylors who own several Quintas will release Single Quinta Vintage Ports in vintages not quite able to produce the highest quality vintage ports where these Quintas will be blended together. Single Quinta wines are often more expressive earlier in their life.

White Port - typically aged for 2 to 3 years in vat and are available in sweeter or drier styles. Often served as a long chilled drink, topped with soda or tonic water to make a refreshing summer drink. Try our Taylors chip and tonic for a premixed can treat or Kopke Fine White Port.