With Christmas not too far away, now is the time that many start to plan for the various meals that will take place over the holiday period. One drink that is often on the list of festive treats is a bottle or two of Port; so let's have a quick look at Port, where is it from, how is it made and the different styles available.
Port is a “fortified” wine from the Douro Valley of northern Portugal. A fortified wine is one that has a proportion of its alcohol derived not from a natural fermentation but by the addition (fortification) of a strong, neutral spirit (think of it as a basic brandy).
Several different varieties of red grapes are used – Touriga Francesa, Touriga Nacional, & Tinta Roriz, are some of the main varieties but a total of some 30 or so are permitted. After picking, the grapes are taken to the winery and put in large, metre deep stone troughs called lagares. Traditionally the grapes are “trodden” by foot by teams of treaders that link arms and slowly move up and down the lagare gently crushing the grapes to release the juice (must) and colour from the grapes. Today, in many instances, the process has been mechanised but with the same end result, a highly pigmented must (unfermented grape juice) that is then allowed to ferment for a short while until about half the natural level of alcohol has been achieved. At this point the wine is drawn off from the lagare into barrels and at the same time a strong (75% vol), neutral spirit added in a ratio of about one part spirit to 4 parts wine. This fortification takes the alcohol level to a point beyond which the natural yeast can no longer survive and so no further fermentation takes place. The resultant wine is high in alcohol (20% vol) but also sweet as it is still very high in natural grape sugars.
The young wine is left for several months during which time it is constantly assessed. Depending on the quality of the wine it will end up as one of several different port styles. There are two main port categories, Bottle Aged and Wood Aged.
Bottle Aged Port spends only a couple of years in barrel before being bottled and is usually considered to be the finest Port. Within this category Vintage Port represents the ultimate in Port. Made only in the finest of years these are immensely rich and powerful with a delicious chocolate flavour. With the ability (and often need) to age for several decades this style of Port has long been a favourite to “lay down” for future drinking. Because the development takes place predominantly in the bottle they need to be decanted prior to serving to remove the sediments that are part of the ageing process.
Wood Aged Port as the name suggests, spend most of their time in barrel. Usually filtered before bottling these styles generally do not require decanting, they include:
Rich, full-bodied red Ports that are aged in wooden barrels for two or three years before bottling. Ripe and juicy they are designed for early drinking.
Late Bottled Vintage
More serious than ruby and aged for 4 to 6 years to give the character of a vintage Port without having to wait so long.
Extended ageing in barrel results in a Port that is lighter in colour (hence the name) and in style with lovely toffee flavours. They can be 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years old. Delicious, elegant wines.
A tawny from a single year.
A Port from white grapes that is aged for 2 3 years and can be dry as well as sweet.