Ep 346: Port Wine
Port is an historical, complex, and sometimes confusing wine, but it is more than worth your time to learn about. M.C. Ice go over everything from the vineyards of the Douro, to the history of this wine (with geopolitical implications), to how it's made, and the array of styles. There's something for everyone in the world of Port and after this show, you should be able to figure out which is for you!
Here is the written primer to go along with the show...
The Basics: What is Port?
Port is a Portuguese fortified wine, meaning you add distilled grape spirit, or brandy, to the wine at some point during production. A wine is technically only Port if grapes are from the Douro Valley in northeast Portugal and winemaking takes place there or in the area surround the city of Porto on the Atlantic Coast. There are tons of styles and flavors of this wine – there’s something for everyone.
Douro Valley: The Vineyards
The Douro Valley wine region follows the path of the Douro River as it comes out of Spain into Portugal. The region goes west through rugged, remote, steep and terraced granite mountains of northern Portugal, past the city of Porto into Atlantic Ocean. There are three official zones of the Douro Valley: the Baixo (lower) Corgo, the Cima (higher) Corgo and the Douro Superior
- Baixo Corgo is the westernmost zone and is cool, rainy and the sub region with the most vineyards.Often these grapes are for cheap ruby and tawny Port
- Cima Corgo is upstream from the Baixo Corgo and is where the best vineyards for Port are located. Hotter and drier than Baixo, these excellent grapes are used for Vintage, Reserve, aged Tawny, and Late Bottled Vintage Ports
- Douro Superior is the easternmost zone, going right up to the Spanish border. It has a lot of land but is least developed. It is the hottest, driest area, and a bit flatter
Land and Climate
The Douro has hot, dry summers and steep rocky hillsides bordering the Douro River and its tributaries. The thin, poor schist and granite soils force the grapes to dig deep into schist to look for water and force humans to build terraces to do viticulture: 2/3 of vineyard are on slopes with 30%+ grade.
- Reds: Producers are permitted to use more than 80 red varieties but 5 are widely used: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Cão. The best wines are blended from low yielding vines with grapes that are small with thick skins and good acidity levels. The grapes here, with the exception of Tempranillo, are indigenous and suited to the hot, dry conditions of the Douro. There is nothing else that tastes like these blends
- Whites (30 allowed): Gouveio, Malvasia Fino, Moscatel, Vinosinho, Rabigato, Esgana-Cão (Sercial of Madeira, dog strangler), others
History of Port: Most of the information on Port was on Taylor Fladgate’s excellent site.
Winemaking: The Steps
- Grow grapes in Douro. The IVDP (Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto– Port and Douro Wines Institute)uses the beneficio system (similar to the Échelle des Crus in Champagne) to classify vineyards with a grade that will determine the quantity of Port Wine that can be made from each parcel.
- Put the grapes in a vat (different varieties are usually co-fermented). Stomp them by foot or press them and then start fermentation. When you get to the sugar level you want in the finished wine, run the wine out of the lagar into a vat. To that runoff of juice, add aguardente to kill the yeast and stop fermentation, leaving some sweetness. The resulting wine is usually 19% to 20% alcohol
- Let the wine chill out in Douro until spring, evaluate it for what style of Port it will make and then take the wine to lodges at Vila Nova de Gaia near the city of Porto to be blended, aged, bottled and then sold.
- The real magic is in the ageing…
Ageing & Port Styles
Ports differ because of the quality of the vineyards/grapes, the makeup of the blend, and the ageing regimens they go through. Age softens the bitter, astringent tannins and with time older Ports become brownish in color, soft in tannin, and full of interesting aromas and flavors.
Port is classified by how long and WHAT it’s aged in: Wood or bottle
- Wood Aged Port is matured in wooden barrels. They’re permeable to air so this is called oxidative aging. These wines lose color faster than bottle aged Ports.
- Bottle Aged Port is aged in barrel for 2 or fewer years. It then goes into a bottle and the buyer ages it in their own cellar. Vintage Port, the finest of all Ports, is made this way.
Styles of Port
Fruity, dark colored Ports: Ruby, LBV
- Ruby Port is, not surprisingly, ruby red in color. Looking to maintain color and its full cherry and black fruit notes, this wine goes through very little oxidation before release. It can age up to 3 years in wood or another vessel that allows small amounts of air in. It is generally sweet, cheap, and is the most widely produced style (because from a cost perspective – it’s as turn-and-burn as it gets in Port – not inventory holding costs). Special Ruby Ports are:
- Reserve: This is where the term reserve actually matters! These wines are better quality, age for slightly longer, and more rounded, full-bodied and complex
- Rosé: Like any rosé, this type of Ruby Port is in contact with the skins for a shor period of time to obtain the pink color. This is a new type of Port and best chilled with ice
- Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port is always from a single vintage year, always bottled after spending 4 to 6 years in a wood vat of some sort, and is a dark purple-ish color, full-bodied, and is a little like drinking a young Vintage Port but without bottle ageing and from less good vineyards. This is the Port I usually drink – it’s predictable, tasty, and a great value for what it is. There are two subcategories here:
- Bottle Matured Port: Is generally a higher quality LBV that ages in bottle for at least 3 years before release
- These can come filtered and fined, unfiltered and unfined or in a few other variations. Unfiltered and unfined may throw more sediment.
Food Pairings with these fruity Ports: Brie with Ruby, cheddar with Reserve, tangy cheese with LBV (goat). Chocolate desserts for all that have sweetness.
Nutty, dried-fruit, woodsy flavored Port:
- Tawny Port in theory is made from red grapes, for a long amount of time that will cause gradual oxidation and evaporation, changing the color of the wine to a brownish TAWNY color, rather than purple or ruby. These wines are known for more secondary notes of nuts, dried fruit, smoke, and sometimes oak. With lots of age they can be like honey or even maple syrup. Often lots of different wines have aged for different lengths of time in casks or in vats are blended to reach the house style. They can be sweet or medium dry or dry. These wines are ready to drink when they are bottled.
TYPES of Tawny
- Tawny (No age): Basic blend of wood-aged wine that has usually spent 3+ years in a seasoned cask so they don’t taste oak aged. The reality is that cheap versions of these contain unripe grapes that lack color, the addition of White Port to lighten color, or commonly, carmelized grape must that can add desired color and flavor.
- Reserve: From a blend of wines aged 5-7 years. From better vineyards than regular Tawny, these have more nuttiness, vanilla notes, and complex fruit flavor.
- Tawnies with an indication of age – These are blends of several vintages to get target color, flavor, and aroma. The best versions include very old wines but many large brands just aim for a “target age profile.” This is a flavor they aim to get (that yummy old wine flavor, I guess?) and the “target” is stated on the label -- 10, 20, 30 or 40 years. It’s not even an average of the ages of the wines used.
- Colheita is a single-vintage Tawny, aged for at least 7 years and it has the vintage year on the bottle. Although it’s not a Vintage Port, if the idea of uncertainty around “20 year Tawny” bugs you, this is a more regulated wine. Also a more expensive one in many cases.
Food pairing with Tawnies: Cheese wins the day -- hard, aged cheeses like Pecorino or Parmesan and nut or cream-based desserts (Pecan pie, caramel or fruit based desserts,). Older Tawny pairs well with all that stuff, plus crème brulee, and honey- and nut-based desserts. Like most really old wines, really old Tawny should be consumed solo, chilled.
- Garrafeira is a rare vintage-dated Port that first goes through oxidative ageing for 3-6 years in wood and then is moved into huge glass demijohns for reductive aging for 8+ years.
- White Port is made solely from white grapes in very sweet, sweet, dry or extra dry styles (called Extra Seco, Seco, Doce and Lágrima). Reserve is aged slightly longer and is slightly better quality. These wines are great as cocktail mixers!
Bottle Aged Port:
- Vintage Port is one of the greatest wines in the world. Harvested during a single year and bottled two to three years after the vintage, it develops gradually for 10 to 50 years in the bottle. Each Port house decides whether to make a vintage declaration and the IVDP approves the declaration, which only happens 3 in 10 years. These wines are only a small percentage of the total production of Port. They are bottled relatively quickly and sold, for the buyer to hold and wait for the flavors to change in the bottle.
- Great Vintages in the last 20 years: 2018, 2016, 2011, 2007, 2003, 2000, 1997, 1994
- Single-Quinta Vintage Ports come from a single quinta, or estate. It is a very dark, full bodied red wine that becomes softer after ageing in bottle. It is the most terroir-expressive Port.
- Crusted Port is high quality Port that’s a blend of wines from different harvests. Crusted Port is bottled after 2-3 years of ageing in wood. The wine throws a thick sediment deposit (crust) in the bottle so you need skill in decanting to get the wine out without the chunks! Some consider it bottle-aged, some consider it wood-aged but I think since it spends most of its time developing in the bottle, we’ll leave it here.
Food Pairing with Vintage and Crusted Ports: Blue cheese – Stilton or Roquefort are the traditional pairings for Vintage Port, as are nuts and dried fruit. A fine, old Vintage Port should be enjoyed alone.
- 59–68 °F /15˚ and 20 °C is the ideal serving range Tawny port may also be served slightly cooler
- Vintage Ports and Unfiltered Ports need to be decanted
- Tawny, ruby, and LBV Ports may keep for several months once opened
- Old Vintage ports are best consumed within several days of opening
Famed shippers (AKA Producers)
- British influence remains: Broadbent, Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Gould Campbell, Graham, Osborne, Offley, Sandeman, Taylor-Fladgate, and Warre
- Dutch: Niepoort
- Portuguese origins: Ferreira and Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Noval
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