A PORT PRIMER
Port is one of the most imitated styles of wine with copies being made in Australia, California, Texas, Argentina, South Africa, and even France (Banyuls). The imitation has become so intense that Port has changed its official name from Port to Porto – which can only be used for Port made from grapes grown in the the Douro River Valley in Portugal. So real Port – now Porto- is a fortified wine from the Douro River Valley of Portugal.
Port is grown on rugged, mountainside vineyards. The older-style, stair-stepped, wide-terraced vineyards were built in a time of cheap labor. A newer method of terracing involves using dynamite and bulldozers to make narrower spiral terraces. The newest, most experimental vineyards are planted in up and down rows that use no terracing. The soil is mostly rock so the thought is (and so far practice indicates) that there will be very little erosion.
The five top quality grape varieties
– Touriga Nacional: small yields and disease problems but produces the best wine for Port.
– Touriga Francesca (or simply “Francesca”): Workhorse grape that handles hot areas well and produces very good wine for Port.
– Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo): another workhorse with good yields that produces big, fleshy wines; needs southern exposures to thrive.
– Tinta Baracoa: good for areas with poor exposure.
– Tinta Cao: the vine best suited for cooler areas; produces a lighter bodied wine than the other four.
Year-old, bench-grafted vines are planted and watered for one year. There is no irrigation after the first year. Trellising is simple on a double wire system. Grapes are harvested at full ripeness. Harvest is still a school holiday so everyone can turn out and work. Grapes are picked into wicker baskets that are collected onto trucks to be taken back to the winery. There is no mechanical harvesting.
Traditionally, the grapes are dumped into stone troughs called lagars. Winery workers get into the lagars and tread the grapes to extract as much color and flavor as possible in as little time as possible. Fermentation starts during the treading and continues into the night.. When the wines reach 5-6% alcohol, the juice is drained into 500 liter casks already containing 100 liters of 100 proof neutral white grape brandy. The wines are then aged in cask until they are shipped down river to Villa Nova de Gaia where all the major port houses have they’re aging lodges. The casks are monitored and each cask is graded on its overall quality and whether it is more suited to wood- aged Port styles or bottle-aged Port styles.
STYLES OF PORT
Wood Ports are those Ports that are aged in cask for more than two years before bottling. They can be divided into two main subgroups: Ruby Port and Tawny Port.True Ruby is a young, simple port with a lot of purple color and youthful fire and fruit intact; usually about three years in wood and fined, filtered, and stabilized before bottling.
Vintage Character Port or Reserve Port is a ruby port produced from grapes from further up the river than the inexpensive, simple true rubies. Vintage Character indicates a blend that attempts the impression of mature vintage port at a much lower price. They average about five years in wood and generally are fined, filtered, and stabilized before bottling.
Late Bottled Vintage Ports are Vintage Character Ports that are produced from only one vintage. Some LBVs, such as Fonseca and Warres, are not fined, filtered, or stabilized before bottling and are suitable for additional bottle aging.
Ports labeled simply “Tawny” are usually blends of Ruby and White ports. These blends are inexpensive and are the lowest quality port available. The primary market for these wines is as a cheap aperitif in France. Usually, they are line-priced with the same house’s Ruby.
Aged Tawny Portos are the best Tawnies and are what the port shippers drink in Portugal. These are wood aged Tawny ports that show an average age of their contents on the label. Aged Tawny is a blend that is base on one year but is topped up each year with both younger and older wine to keep the flavors fresh and reduce oxidation while retaining the same average age as the base wine. They may be sold as ten, twenty, thirty, and over forty year old Tawnies.
Colheita Porto is a type of aged tawny from only one vintage. The wine is held in sealed barrels in bonded warehouses until it is ready to be bottled. These wines should have both a vintage and a bottling date on the label. They are more developed and focused tasting than the blended tawnies with much of the same dried fruit and nutty characteristics but more “purity” of flavor.
White Port is a dry white fortified wine produced primarily from Malvasia grapes grown in the Porto zone. It is not aged and is best served as an aperitif or mixed with soda and/or tonic on the rocks. It is often blended with ruby port to produce a cheap Tawny.
Vintage Porto is the top quality wine from a single vintage that is bottled after two years in barrel. It is bottled without any filtration or fining and usually only one light racking. When declaring a vintage the port producer is guarantying that his wine will last at least twenty years from the vintage date. Port producers typically declare only about three vintages per decade.
Crusted Porto is a non-vintage blended port that ages and develops in the bottle like vintage port. The name comes from the crust or sediment that long bottle aging produces.
Classical Vintages are those vintages that the Port houses declare and guarantee for twenty years. These are the most expensive, biggest, and best wines from Porto. The declared vintages back to 1960 are 2011, 2009, 2007, 2003, 2000, 1994, 1992 or 1991, 1985, 1983 or 1982, 1980, 1977, 1975, 1970, 1967 or 1966, 1963, and 1960. In the paired vintages, most houses declared one or the other, not both.
Non-classical Vintage Porto is a wine that is produced in a year that is not quite good enough to declare as a vintage. Certain lots of wine, often from a single quinta or farm, are set aside and bottled and treated as Vintage Porto. These non-classical Vintage Portos were traditionally held by the producers at their lodges in Villa Nova de Gaia or in England until they are ready to drink. The wines from top houses such as Taylor, Fonseca, Dow, and Graham, and Churchill can be better than classical vintage Port from some of the lesser houses. These wines can be excellent values.