Port wine is involved in adversity. When supplies to England ended in 1667, as a result of the constant struggles between the English and French, London and Bristol wine merchants had to search for their suppliers elsewhere, so they found an alternative in Portugal in the early 17th century.
Port wine, as we know it today, dates back to 1678, when two events coincided. The British government created an embargo on trade with France, thus generating the demand for a wine that would replace the loss of the French product. It was then that two Englishmen, during a visit to a monastery in Lamego, and thanks to the courtesy of the abbot, tasted a Pinhão wine that was richer and softer than most Portuguese red wines.
Douro Valley and Wine
The continuing embargo on French wines promoted the trade of Port wine in the last decades of the seventeenth century, but the true resurgence of trade occurred in the early eighteenth century. The signing of the Methuen trade treaty in 1703 promised favorable tariffs for Portuguese wines in exchange for a similar treatment of English textiles imported into Portugal.
1756 saw the beginning of the mapping of the Douro Valley and the classification of the wines, a task completed in 1761. This demarcation is often considered the first of its kind in the world of wine, preceding by 180 years the Appellation Contrôlée francesa.
Tradition and history are synonymous with the Port wine industry; The wine, the region and its inhabitants have a long common past.
Grapes and Harvest
The absence of any reference to caste of grape on port wine labels is an invigorating difference. Port wine is by its nature produced in batches. There are rules, there are about fifty permitted grape varieties, black and white grapes, about twenty of which are approved. Despite these guidelines, research has identified more than 120 breeds currently used. There are four grape castes that are considered the best in the world, to such a point that when the World Bank launched an investment scheme in the Douro, only the following castes attracted money: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Tinto-Cão.
The Touriga Nacional is almost universally considered the grape par excellence. It produces tannins and wines that are of a strong colour, with an aroma of blackcurrants and is intensely fruity. It has, of course, a downside: it is not very generous and produces only about five kilos of grapes per vine. The structure of the wine is much sought after by winemakers, as it produces full-bodied wines.
Tinta Roriz, better known as Tempranillo de Rioja, grows abundantly in Portugal and Spain. It does not produce wines of very intense colour, but these wines do have very strong tannin content and a herbaceous and specious aroma. Roriz prefers a richer soil and average temperatures.
Tinta Barroca produces strongly colored, full-bodied wines with a firm structure, a high sugar content and has an odour of cherry or blackberry. Barroca ripens early and its planting is advisable on the cooler slopes, facing north. As such, it is one of the main candidates for planting in stands.
The Tinto-Cão variety almost died out in the Douro. It is not a very generous grape (Jancis Robinson reports less than four hundred grams per strain in her book Vines, Grapes and Wines), although with a better cloning process the quantity ratio is improving. It is currently very popular with quality producers, as it is particularly good for wines intended for prolonged aging. Since the designation of the four original varieties several other vine varieties have been approved by certain producers. Tinta Amarela has acquired a lot of fans and Sousão has one or two admirers such as Quinta do Noval, although others have ostensively avoided it. Other favorite grape varieties include the Malvasia Preto, Tinta Francisca (different from Touriga Francesa), Mourisco Tinto and Tinta-da-Barca. White wines are made from Malvasia-Fino, Malvasia-Rei, Codega and Viosinho, among others.
Douro Valley Harvest
Due to its natural isolation, the Douro is, in general, a quiet region. However, at harvest time, towards the end of September, the region becomes busy when traveling workers and villagers local to the vicinity come to pick the grapes and make the wine. Wine spirits are added in the autumn, and the following spring most of the wine is transferred to the exporters’ warehouses, or cellars, in Vila Nova de Gaia. Here, on the south bank of the Douro River, standing in front of the city of Porto – almost on the Atlantic coast – the temperate climate is more suited to a prolonged, slow and uniform aging. Wine preserved in the Douro Valley can gain a special flavor, known as “Douro baking”, a consequence of the high summer temperatures that accelerates the evolution of wines. In the past, the wines were transported downstream in the rabelo boats, flat-bottomed boats that became the brand image of Porto and the Port wine industry. Like the Douro, Vila Nova de Gaia is a demarcated region, and until 1986 only the wines that were matured in this city were able to bear the official designation “Porto”. Today, private farms can export their wine directly, without going through the exporters and without having cellars in Gaia.
Porto Wine – Ruby, White and Tawnies
The vast majority of Port wine produced is Ruby, White and Tawny. The ruby variety is a young wine, medium or very incorporated, that is mixed according to the style of a certain house. Non-vintage wines are aged in wood, though not necessarily in barrels, and are sold at about three years of age. The labels that read “vintage” or sometimes “reserve” are ruby wines of better quality. They are aged in large barrels for a period ranging from four to six years. White Port wine is made from white grapes. In recent years, styles have diversified and certain producers obtain pale, harsh aperitif-like wines made as a white wine but fortified before the end of fermentation. The Ramos Pinto and Churchill Graham houses produce excellent dry white traditional Port wines. The well-chilled white Port wine is an interesting alternative aperitif; It can also be made into a refreshing drink if you add ice and sparkling or tonic water. Known as “The blond young man”, whose label generally appears with the designation of “fine tawny” is a wine style lighter than ruby. It results from the mixing of ruby and white, or the acceleration of the aging process through the preservation of wines in cellars in the Douro region. There are Port wines for every day.
For the English-speaking world, the term vintage occupies the top place in the hierarchy of Port wine. It is the product of an exceptional year and comes from the best vineyards. Vintage Port wine, one of the longest produced, is bottled at two years old; Continues to slowly mature in the bottle for decades. Deep red and fruity, with high levels of tannin when young, the best vintage Port wine does not reach its peak until after 20 years. During the maturing in the bottle, it creates a deposit, called “foot”, and therefore has to be decanted. The decision to “declare” or not to “declare” a vintage wine is the responsibility of the exporter or the owner of the farm, although it must be ratified by the Port Wine Institute. If vintage Port wines have always been considered the best, the fact is that the waiting period required for aging and decantation, without making price considerations, makes them wines for special occasions, intended to be savored and discussed. For other occasions, the Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV) is the answer. Wines of a vintage declared but produced virtually every year, LGWs are aged in hoofs for four to six years before being bottled. They are then filtered and are much more stabile than vintage Port wines. Taylors was the first to market the LBV on a large scale, creating a market that most other producers now try to share. Modern LBVs, such as Grahams and Taylors, are generally aged for six years and are intended to be consumed at the end of this period; They do not improve if they stay in the bottle.