What is Port Wine?
The Portwine drinkers
The reactions to the idea of a Portwine tasting are the most diverse, they can even be funny in some way.
Concerning Portwine, I can divide the world into three different kinds of people:
- Those who do not drink alcohol, so they are not interested in this post.
- The Portuguese who are born or live in the birthplace of Portwine.
- The rest of the world.
Naturally, I will focus my attention on the last two groups of people.
What do people think about Portwine
The Portuguese always find interesting the idea of a wine tasting … whatever the wine is.
In Portugal, generally speaking, the image of Portwine is associated with prestige, wine cellars in Gaia, luxury estates in the Douro Valley, expensive wines, etc.
Also very present is the image of fancy wine-related events, like the Rabelo wooden boat tours, the Douro River several days tours.
However, many Portuguese also associate the image of Port with a memory/experience of a too-sweet wine without making it very pleasant.
Note: Although I don’t share that feeling, however, there are plenty of reasons to explain why many people have this somewhat unpleasant feeling related to Port. Portwine is an expensive wine because it is a very labor intense product. There were always very inexpensive Port’s one could buy, but they are not good at all, they are awfully sweet and alcoholically sharp. So, the tasting experience couldn’t be a pleasant one.
Concerning the rest of the world, there are no significant differences between the various cultures, related to what they think of Portwine:
- A mixture of curiosity about Portwine but always mentioning they have tasted Portwine at a specific moment.
- “It’s that sweet red wine.”
- It is a Portuguese wine, although, in my experience, only a small percentage of people know it is a Portuguese wine.
When I think of the significant differences between the Portuguese and the rest of the world, concerning Portwine, perhaps I won’t be mistaken if I say:
- The Portuguese have tasted Portwine more often.
- The Portuguese have an idea of luxury associated with Port and all things related, the rest of the world not does spontaneously recognize this cause and effect relation.
- Foreigners seem to be more enthusiastic about drinking Portwine than the Portuguese.
As you can realize, this reflection is being done in a carefree way, with some humor, and not basing these statements on anything else than on my professional experience. I have no data to support these ideas, nor this is the place for such concerns.
Even so, it is evident a tremendous general lack of knowledge about what Portwine is and about its existing varieties.
The variety of Portwine is so great that it is often said: if you think you don’t like Portwine, it is because you have not yet tasted the Port wine you will enjoy.
Think about these questions:
- Did you know there is extra-dry Portwine, which means being almost not sweet at all?
- Did you know that there is a white Portwine and a rosé (pink) Port?
- How many types of red port do you know?
I hope to be able to contribute to the awakening of curiosity about Portwine.
What is Port Wine?
For a historical retrospective on how Portwine started to be produced, please access the article Background of the Douro Valley wine region, Portugal.
To get a more detailed idea of the region where both Port and Douro wines grow and are produced, I will invite you to access this map.
As you may have read in the first linked article linked above, right before the time of the birth of Portwine as we know it today, there was a different kind of Portwine, which was fortified table wine. I will not describe this one in this post.
Having that said, let’s learn a little more about Port wine. However, before we continue, we need to have clear that table wines, or still wines, produced in the Douro Valley, are called Douro wine.
The most important grape varieties
Please take some time to read Portwine labels in a supermarket or liqueur store.
On the label area where grapes are identified, you will notice they are the same grapes like the ones used to produce Douro wines.
Naturally, you will have to consider that you will not see exactly the same grape varieties in two different wines, of course.
However, after reading some labels, you will find the most used grapes both for making Port and Douro wine.
- On red wines: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cão, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Amarela and Sousão.
- On white wines: Códega, Malvasia Fina, Gouveio, Rabigato, Moscatel Galego Branco and Viosinho.
The grapes mentioned above are the most used grape varieties in most wines produced in the Douro Valley.
This means both Portwine and Douro wines use the same grape varieties.
If Portwine and Douro wines are made from the same grapes, what makes these wines to be so different?
The answer is simple: it is the production method.
In a very simplistic way, we can say that the production of a Douro wine has the following steps, as does the majority of still wines: harvest -> stomping -> fermentation -> maturation -> bottling.
However, for a Port, everything is very different a couple of days after the moment the fermentation starts.
While the fermentation of a Douro wine can take between six to seven days, to go through, for a Portwine is very different.
For the production of Portwine, after two or three days of fermentation, we will stop this process by adding wine-spirits. In the course of this article, I will tell you some of the criteria for knowing when to stop fermenting, and I will also tell you how much wine-spirits to add.
Why stop the fermentation?
By stopping the fermentation process and adding wine-spirits, we will have:
- a naturally sweet wine, with only the grapes sugar and without the need to add any other kind of sugar;
- a wine with an alcohol content between 19 and 22 degrees (1) resulting from the addition of a 77% high-quality wine-spirits;
Note (1): the exception should be noted for a specific typology of white Port that has 16.5% alcohol.
There are several kinds of Portwine, and each one has its own specific “formula” for obtaining the final product we drink.
Let me give you some tips about when to stop the fermentation, although some wines are sweeter and others are drier:
- The fermentation of an Extra Dry Port is stopped when the sugar concentration is less than 40g / liter.
- For a Very Sweet Port, the sugar concentration must exceed 130 g / liter.
- For most Portwine’s, we will have a sugar concentration in the fermentation between 90 and 130g / liter, being even more frequent to have between 100 to 120g / liter.
- As can be understood, the sugar concentration decreases over the time of the fermentation process. The longer the fermentation lasts, the more sugar will be transformed into alcohol, and therefore lower the sugar concentration.
Regarding the proportions of wine-spirits to be added to the fermented product:
- most barrels have a capacity of 550-liters;
- 115-liters of wine-spirits is usually added to every 435-liters of wine in fermentation to total 550-liters of final product;
- since 2012, the addition of wine-spirits ranges from 60 to 120 liters.
When adding the wine-spirits, the yeasts stop fermenting the wine.
Having done this, do we have Portwine?
We can say this is the beginning to have Portwine but, depending on the Port type we want to produce, we may have to consider other essential steps.
It is time to describe several types of Porwine, and I will take the opportunity to explain their singularities.
The types of Portwine.
If you do some internet search about the different types os Portwine, in most articles, you will find explanations dividing Portwine into Ruby, Tawny, and White.
I prefer to do something entirely different: Rose or Pink, White, and Red.
I have a reason for that.
This is not a technical article but an entertaining one, and, from my experience, I have learned that people understand it better when I start the explanation from the beginning.
So let’s do it like that.
Rosé Portwine (Pink)
It has no subcategories.
Produced from red grapes but with little contact with the skin of the grapes during a soft maceration.
These are wines to be consumed at a young age and, in my opinion, at low temperatures between 8 and 10 degrees C.
The Rosé Portwine is widely used for cocktails or just on the rocks.
As far as I know, the first Rosé Port to be produced was Croft Pink dating from the beginning of the 21st century.
Usually made from white grapes in which the subcategories are: very dry or extra dry, dry, half dry, sweet, and “lágrima” (tear), also referred to as very sweet.
Tradition demands that White Portwine shouldn’t age a lot, and after two or three years in 20,000-liter barrels, or more, the wine is ready to be consumed.
However, tradition is no longer what it used to be, and some White Portwine’s have been aging for tens of years, and they are excellent.
There is an interesting curiosity: when a White Portwine ages it turns amber color getting closer to its aged red cousins.
White Portwine is an excellent wine for appetizers.
Try drinking a White Portwine, such as Lágrima of Ramos Pinto, together with a “wedding” that is a fig with an almond inside, and you will have an excellent tasting experience.
Nowadays, it is fashionable to drink Port Tonics. It is a long drink made with ⅓ of Extra Dry White Port with ⅔ of tonic water, ice, lemon, and a peppermint leaf … top-notch. You can find different recipes for this drink, taste them, and let me know your winner.
I left the reds Portwine’s for last because they need more extended and elaborate explanations.
Red Portwine’s can be grouped into two large families: Ruby and Tawny. All the remaining denominations are derived from these two families.
Ruby’s are wines with a solid red color, hence its name ruby.
They are kept in big barrels called “balseiros,” large containers looking like half barrels standing straight on the floor on top of short skinny legs. These “balseiros” can hold 20,000-liters of wine or more. Some “balseiros” can hold up to 125,000-liters of wine.
Ruby’s ages for two to three years in those big barrels, the “balseiros,” where due to the low surface/volume ratio, it gets little air producing slow oxidation.
The slow oxidation process is the reason why it maintains its intense color. Otherwise, it will get a not desirable brownish color.
To better explain this relationship between oxidation and wine color, I ask you to think of an apple.
When we take a bite out of the apple, the area that will be exposed to the air will turn brownish. The same happens to the wine, and with time passing by, the initial red color will turn into a brownish color, or dark amber, due to the oxidation process.
In this Ruby “family,” we can find very special subcategories such as Ruby, Reserva, Late Bottled Vintage, or LBV, and Vintage. There are other subcategories, but I will not detail them now.
Without overextend myself, I will explain two of these subcategories:
It is the highest rating a Portwine can have.
This wine is produced with grapes from a single exceptional year.
When the grapes are from one single year, and one single Quinta (wine estate) and was declared a Vintage, so it can be called Vintage Single Quinta.
Vintage Portwine’s will age for two to three years in a “balseiro” and then will be bottled.
The sediments with which they are bottled will help these wines to continue to evolve for a long time, being years or even centuries. However, after bottling, it is always advisable not to consume them immediately, waiting between three to four years as a minimum until you can drink them.
The history of Vintage is somehow related to the history of its bottles.
To age a Vintage, it is necessary to lay down the bottle, but, in the 18th century, the bottles were kind of bulky and fat and did not remain in a good position when lay down. New bottles, like the ones we can see nowadays, had to be introduced.
The first Vintage mentioned by some historians dates from 1775.
If you want to buy Portwine to store and age, a Vintage is a natural choice.
It is an excellent wine by itself, but you can try Vintage with chocolate, the darker, the better, with sharp cheeses and some fruits such as melon.
LBV – Late Bottled Vintage
As the name implies, it is a wine that was declared vintage but was bottled later than a regular Vintage.
These wines generally, but not necessarily, are of a lower quality level than a Vintage.
The LBV will spend between four to six years in a vat and then be bottled. Please bear in mind what was said for a Vintage: will age for two to three years in a barrel.
In this case, because they have spent more time in the barrels than a vintage, as soon as they are bottled, they can be consumed immediately. However, you can store this wine for a more extended period.
– have a quality level very close to what you can find in Vintage,
– offering the advantage of being ready to be consumed right after being bottled and not having to wait as you should do for the Vintages.
As far as I know, Taylor was the first producer of an LBV in 1970 with wines from the 1965 harvest. Soon after, other brands followed, trying to mirror their success.
These are wines that age in oak casks for extended periods.
At the time of their production, they spend the first four years, on average, in large barrels, such as a Ruby. Still, later they are transferred to 550-liter barrels where they will have more significant contact with wood getting more air and consequently having higher oxidation.
There are cases of farms using barrels with 600 or 660 liters, larger barrels than the traditional ones.
To identify a Tawny in a store is not difficult.
Apart from you can read “Tawny” on the label, and except for the very young Tawnys, the aged wines will have the aging years written on the label.
Thus, whenever you find a port in which you see 10, 20, 30 years or more on the label, you will know you have a Tawny in front of you.
There are other subcategories for Tawny’s, but I will not detail now.
These aged wine results from mixtures of several lots that give them the characteristics of the age they advertise.
Therefore, if you have a 30-year-old inscription on the bottle, it does not mean that the wine has been waiting for 30 years to be drunk. It is the result of a blend with several wines whose average age is 30 years, or the final product is a wine with the characteristics of a 30-year-old wine.
Given their slow oxidation process, Tawny’s have a paler color than ruby, I can say it is a brownish or even amber color.
Very old Tawnies are among the most expensive Portwine’s you can find.
As soon as you buy a bottle of Tawny, you can consume it immediately. Please remember aging has already happened, and it ages very little in the bottle.
Served fresh, the younger Tawny can be an excellent aperitif, but at room temperature goes very well with dried fruits, chocolate-based desserts, and various cheeses.
If you have a Tawny aged 30 or 40, you may want to taste it without nothing else. Stop doing what you are doing, sit comfortably, preferably with a friend, and enjoy.
With this, I hope to have given you an idea about what Portwine is.
However, I know that many related matters were left out, such as:
- a little more history of each of the wines and estates;
- how does a wine become a vintage;
- the importance of the wine-spirits in the Portwine;
- the differences between brandy and wine-spirits;
- Portwine and the Portuguese culture;
- and so much more.
In future posts, I will develop some of those themes.
Also, many technical details were left out, and I hope I can have a professional to develop the theme.
Websites where you can learn more about Douro wine and Portwine:
This is only an example; there’s an endless number of sites.