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The Port Report

port in glassesThe fortified wine with a long and storied history is enjoying a much-deserved revival.

Real Port from Portugal has become the after-dinner drink of choice for many wine lovers. Vintage Port is increasingly popular. And other Port styles are also enjoying increased awareness. Aged tawnies, for example, found a fresh group of admirers looking for a distinctive sip after a hearty meal.

So What Exactly is Port?

The simplest definition is that Port is a fortified (i.e., high-alcohol) wine from the upper Douro River Valley of Portugal. Similar wines are made elsewhere in the world, but the real thing is unique to Portugal's Douro area. While these other wines often say "Port" on the label, Port from Portugal may say "Oporto" or "Porto" to distinguish itself.

England Scores

vintage port bottlesEngland gets much credit for developing Port. During the 100 Years War, England was cut off from its source of cheap red wine in Bordeaux, so British merchants looked to the Iberian Peninsula for a daily red to serve the lower classes. Acceptable wines were found in Portugal's upper Douro River Valley. It was easy to bring the wines downriver to the coastal cities of Oporto and Vila Nova de Gaia, then ship them to England.

The only problem was that the wine often soured during the rough voyage. Someone came up with the idea of adding brandy to the wine prior to shipping to "fortify" it for the voyage. These higher-alcohol wines survived the voyage better but were too strong and dry for British taste. The solution was to add the brandy before fermentation was complete in order to leave some sugar in the wine. These sweeter wines found a ready market in England's pubs.

The Many Styles of Port

Port takes its name from the coastal city of Oporto, where the wines are made and stored. Oporto sits near the mouth of the Douro River—"the river of gold"—that winds its way through the countryside to the Atlantic past thousands of acres of vineyards that produce some 80 varieties of grapes.

Here's a very basic rundown, from simple to complex:

  • White Port: Not as sweet as other Ports. Served chilled and often used as a mixer in cocktails.
  • Ruby Port: Inexpensive, with little bottle aging. Simple, red fruit flavors.
  • Young Tawny Port: Uncomplicated, onionskin-colored wine, less than three years old.
  • Aged Tawny Port: Blend of Ports from several years and barrel aged for many years, causing a tawny rather than a red color.
  • Late-bottled Vintage Port (LBV): Wine from a single vintage that is aged in wood, usually four to six years, then bottled.
  • Traditional LBV: Similar to LBV, but with extended bottle aging.
  • Vintage Port: Made only in declared "great" years, aged in oak for two years, then in bottle for many years to mature slowly. Usually has a good deal of sediment when decanted.