Much like Champagne, that can only truly be called Champagne if it comes from Champagne, France, Port only comes from one place in the world, Portugal. Portugal is a country on the western edge of Spain that is steeped in tradition in large part because of its famous wine, which in most cases is still produced using methods that are, by this point, centuries old. Port is a fortified wine that is both high in residual sugar and high in alcohol. Historically it is known as the quintessential man’s drink, brought out at the end of the meal after the women have left the room and served with obligatory cigars. As a woman who grew up drinking Port (fun fact, it is way more effective and enjoyable than cough syrup if you are sick) I am happy to report that women have decided not to leave the room anymore.
Port comes from only one place in the world, and it is a harsh and unforgiving stretch of earth that spans 70 miles around the Douro River valley. The fact that grapes manage to grow here at all is almost inconceivable. The soil is barely soil at all but mostly solid rock comprised of schist and granite. What little soil is there has been painstakingly created from the rock or transported there by hand over the years. However, this soil, though difficult for the farmers, is actually one of the reasons the vines do grow well there. Because this rock drains water extremely well, forcing the vines to extend deep into the ground to find a stable source of water. This creates not only more flavorful grapes but also more stable vines, and they will need that stability to survive in the blazing temperatures of summer. In fact, the summers in the Douro are infamous for their heat and at times the temperatures rise so high that the vines actually temporarily shut down during the hottest hours of the day and then reawaken during the night.
Port may be forever tied to Portugal, but it also owes a great deal of its lineage to Britain. All the famous Port firms were started by men with very properly British last names like Sandman, Graham, Dow and Warre. The British were not only the founders of these prestigious firms but they were also one of the biggest reasons Port came into existence. Due to rising conflicts and the Hundred Years War relations between England and France were fraught and it gravely impacted the import of French wines into Britain. Instead the English turned to wines from Spain and Portugal to satisfy their wine needs. These wines however needed to travel a greater distance to reach England than the wines from France. In order to prevent spoilage these wines were fortified for their journey with neutral grape spirits. At first the amount of spirits that were added to the wine were small but then came the vintage of 1820. The wines from this year were dark and ripe and naturally sweet, and they sold incredibly well. Port shippers desperately wanted to recreate the success of that vintage so they started adding more brandy to the wine.
Port is almost always a blend of different varietals; the top five grape varietals in Port are Touiga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cao, Touriga Francesa, and Tinta Rosa. Of all these grapes Touriga Nacional is the most prominent, it produces wines of intense color, flavor, and aroma. But even if Touriga Nacional is the preeminent varietal, blending is what gives Port its complexity. To make port these grapes are crushed and then put into a special automated tank to macerate. After the grapes have been in that tank for about 24 hours, fermentation begins and the sugars in the grape start to convert to alcohol. However, when this process is about halfway completed natural grape spirits (brandy) that are about 150 proof are added to the mixture. The alcohol from the spirits cause the yeast in the wine to die, arresting fermentation and resulting in a wine that has about 10% residual sugar and 20% alcohol. The next phase involves aging the wine, this part however can be done in a number of different ways as there are about ten different styles of Port and each style is matured and aged differently.
Today we are only going to talk about 2 different styles though, the two that you see most often in the United States. The first of these is Tawny Port, of which on its own there are two different styles (I never said Port wasn’t complicated) but we are only focuses on the more common of two, which is Aged Tawny Port. These Ports are designated on the label as either ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years old and are typically a blend of several years left in the barrel until they take on a nutty, vanilla flavor and soft texture. The grapes used in these wines are of the highest quality and from the top vineyards in the region. In fact, these are the same grapes that would go into Vintage Port, the second style we are going to talk about, if a vintage year is declared. Though Vintage Port only represents an extremely small portion of the total production of Port it is some of the most sought after and some of the most expensive. These ports are first aged for two years in barrel to round them off and then they spend a long period of time aging in bottle. During bottle aging Vintage Port slowly becomes more delicate and refined. At least a decades worth of bottle aging is standard and multiple decades are quite common.
Port is a rich, sweet, and powerful wine. It’s flavor profile changes based on the style in which its made but it typically has flavors of blackberry, black cherry, plum, prune, fig anise, violet, truffle, nutmeg and clove. And while we no longer live in a time where the women leave the room after dinner this is very much an after dinner drink, whether served all on its own or with desert. One of the basic rules of pairing food and wine is sweet needs sweet, meaning the sweetness of the food needs to match the sweetness of the wine otherwise the wine is going to come off as bitter and harsh and the dessert, saccharinely sweet. If you are pairing this wine with food, any dessert recipe that focuses on dried fruit is typically lovely with any type of fortified wine but chocolate, caramel and coffee are the ingredients that call out for Port. Both Tawny Port and Vintage Port see some time in an oak barrel and therefore pair nicely with caramel because of the flavors of vanilla, toffee, and butterscotch that come from that barrel aging. But it is chocolate and Port that are the quintessential combination as chocolate and Port are at once both bitter and sweet. All that said though lets not forget that often times a cheese course is served in lieu of a sweet dessert and Port, and other dessert wines, can also be excellent with creamy, salty, nutty cheeses.