The proper terminology for port wine is Vinho do Porto, but commonly called Port. It is a fortified wine produced exclusively in the Douro Valley in the northern area of Portugal. Most of the time, it is a red, sweet wine served often as a dessert or after dinner wine by rather refined individuals. I knew nothing of port as a young drinker, other than Gallo had a cheap port that caused horrendous headaches. It comes as white, dry, and semi dry versions in not only Portugal, but here in the US, as well as Australia, Argentina, South Africa, Italy and Canada.
Only the product from Portugal can officially be called Port or Porto, under the European Union Protected Designation of Origin guidelines. But wines from elsewhere may be labeled port due to various complications. Port is produced solely from grapes produced in the Douro region of Portugal, north of Lisboa. The wine is fortified by the addition of a neutral grape spirit, called arguadente, to stop the fermentation process. The residual sugar in the wine allows it to ferment and boost the alcohol level. The fortified spirit is sometimes referred to as brandy, but does not resemble brandy in commercial products. Then it is aged in barrels, often in a cave, before being bottled.
The wine originally received its name from the seaport city of Porto, at the mouth of the Douro River. Most of the region’s Port is brought to this area before being shipped around the world. The Douro region is a protected appellation since 1756. It is the third oldest defined and protected wine region after Chianti and Tokaj. In fact, we had a trip planned to Porto a few years back, but cancelled due to a family illness.
The Douro River valley has a microclimate that not only supports grapes, but also almonds, and olives. The actual region is around Pinhao and Sao Joao de Pesqueira, the very center of Port production. Yet over a hundred varietals are sanctioned for Port production, although only five are widely cultivated. Touriga Nacional is commonly considered the most highly desired Port grape, but is difficult to grow and has a small yield. Touriga Francesa is the most widely planted grape. Did you know that white Ports are produced in the same way as red Ports, except they use white grapes.
It was the famous Quinto do Noval, planted back in 1925, that produces the most expensive vintage Ports. That said, Port is usually sweeter, richer and heavier than most red wines. The most common cheese served with Port is stilton. I prefer dark chocolate, even though I am not a chocoholic. Beyond this, there are two main ports, barrel aged, and bottled aged.
Among the barrel aged are the Tawny port, Colheita, and Garrefeira. The bottle aged ports are Ruby port, Reserve or vintage character port, Pink port, White port, Crust, and Late Bottled Vintage (LBV). The most prized is the Vintage Port, made entirely of grapes from a single, declared vintage year, accounting for only 2% of yearly production. Vintage ports are aged in barrels for a maximum of two and a half years before bottling. And then it sits in a bottle for another ten to thirty years before it is considered drinkable. Vintage Ports retain the dark red color and fresh fruit flavor. They become more complex with age, and taste magnificent decades after being bottled.
Mike and I both bought some Vintage Ports on our trip to Portugal. We were waiting until either one of us got a hole in one (he did), or one of us had a child graduate from college (I did). When we get a group of our friends together, we will open a real Vintage Port!
Best California ports:
1. Geyser Peak Winery, 2006 Henry’s Reserve Shiraz Vintage Port (Geyserville)
2. California Cellars, 2007 Petite Sirah Port (Isleton)
3. Bogle Vineyards, 2006 Petite Sirah Port (Clarksburg)
4. Heringer Estates, 2006 Petite Sirah Port (Clarksburg)
5. Pedroncelli Winery, Port Four Grapes Dry Creek Valley Estate 2004 (Geyserville)
6. Cinquain Cellars, 2007 Touriga and Tinto Cao (Paso Robles)
7. Rios-Lovell Estate Winery, 2006 Port (Livermore Valley)
8. Belo Wine Company, 2002 Port (Napa Valley)
9. St. Amant Winery, 2006 Vintage Port (Lodi)
10. Pessagno Winery, 2002 Hames Valley Port (Salinas)
Best World Wide Ports, Best Value:
1. Fonseca Porto 10 Year Old Tawny Port
2. Cockburn’s Twenty Year Old Tawny Port
3. Sandeman Porto Founder’s Reserve Port Blend
4. Dow’s Ten Year Old Tawny Port
5. Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Porto
Mine is a 1997 Quinto do Noval, Mike’s is a 1963!!!! Both will be superb with or without chocolate.
Each vintage of this era was truly artisanal, made with old equipment, a lot of elbow grease, and unforeseen challenges.
“In the beginning, all our winery made was port. In 1975, the idea was to make Vintage Port (the “holy grail” of port making) from old Zinfandel vines in Amador County. Today, although we make more of the other types, (blends of different years, and late bottled wood ports), we take the vintage styles very seriously.” (Quote from Andrew Quady)