Port Wine FAQ
- by Dave Thompson (1998)
The information contained here was obtained by taking copious notes from touring 11 different port houses in Oporto. Enjoy....
Brief description of the making process...
Grape juice is yeast fermented into wine, then midway through the process, a grape wine brandy is added boosting the alcohol content to 20% and arresting the fermentation. The sweetness of a port comes from stopping the fermentation before all of the sugars are processed. A dry port is dry because the fermentation was allowed to go a little longer.
During 17th century British traders were cut off from their supply of clarets from Bordeaux by a trade war with France. England looked to Portugal as a new source, however the wine didn’t travel well. Fortifying the wine with brandy came as a response to help the wine travel by sea better. Later, the port wines were experimented with to improve the flavor to what is sold today.
Adding brandy to fortify the wine and produce what today is considered port wine was not standard practice until around 1850.
Not-so-brief description of the making process...
There are over 48 varieties of grapes used in port production. Of these 8 are the most common, 5 of which are red and three are white. Some of these include: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cao, Malvasia Fina, Codega, Sousao, Bastardo.
The grapes come from the upper Douro river valley, starting about 100km (61 miles) up the river from Oporto, and continuing up to the Spanish border. The demarcated region is far enough inland to be protected from the cold Atlantic breezes. Near western border with Spain, the vineyards are more sporadic interspersed with olive trees and considered more variable in growing conditions.
Most port lodges ferment there wine in the upper Douro valley and between 6 months and two years ship it down to the cooler Oporto (Vila Nova do Gaia) region for storage and blending. The traditional method of shipping was in boats (called "barcos rabelos") down the Douro in the spring when the climate was cool and the river water high. The Douro has since been dammed in several places, and so has not been the means of transportation since 1956-1963. Road transportation is cheaper and safer.
The upper Douro region is hot, getting above 38 degrees Celsius (100 F), It is far enough inland and is protected by the mountains from cold Atlantic breezes. It is very hilly, and has been terraced for farming. The planting ground is dry and mostly consists of schist rock. Some of the vine roots burrow as far as 40 feet into the soil. When new vineyards are planted, American root stock is grafted with local vines so as to maintain resistance to phylloxera which is still endemic in Europe.
The rocky schist ground heats up during the day and stays warm during the night providing even warm temperature ideal for sugar production in the grapes.
Grapes are harvested typically between the middle of September up to the middle of October. The grapes are crushed as they are harvested.
Several of the port lodges promote their use of still using foot stomping as the best way for crushing the grapes as opposed to using a machine. "The gentle tread of the pickers’ feet gradually extracts the rich color and tannins from the grape skins." - Taylor. Toe jam, and other farm peasant foot funguses add to the rich complex bouquet of the finest vintages fortifying them with character ;-) Graham uses machines to press the grapes for most of their ports, however they use foot stomping for their finest vintages. Sandeman’s uses only machines, and stress sanitation as their advantage. The houses that use the traditional foot method typically have ~10 people lined up marching in place, knee deep in a rectangular cement vat of grapes with a conductor orchestrating the synchronized stomping, sometimes aided by a traditional band playing near by.
The grape juice is then yeast fermented. After approximately 36-37 hours, the wine may go through a second stomping and is transferred to a secondary fermentation tank. At this point, about halfway through the sugar fermentation, the process is halted by the addition of brandy raising the alcohol level to 19-20%. This early arrest is the reason for port wine’s sweet characteristic.
The Portuguese grape brandy used is 77% alcohol. It is supplied by the I.V.P. or Port Wine Institute and comes from several sources throughout Northern Portugal. The brandy is made specifically for port production not intended to be consumed on it’s own.
Side note: In all the touristy towns of Portugal it’s possible to buy hand made copper bulbous distilleries from 1 to ~200 liters size. Home-brew brandy making appears to be common...
In the spring, the young port is shipped down to Vila Nova de Gaia, along the left bank Douro river across from Oporto. Here the port lodges store, blend and bottle the port wine.
The 550 liter (145 gallon) oak barrels, called pipes, are used typically for 40 years to store and age the wine. Afterward, some lodges sell them off to Scotland for the use in making Scotches since the port flavored barrels add a nice flavor to certain Scotches. The giant (25k-141k liter) oak vats are typically used for 70 years, and then the wood is discarded. The oak often comes from US or France, however according to one cooper the best oak may come from Russia, however this is not commonly used. The traditional construction method of glue made from water and flour is still used to bond the wood panels together. The barrels and vats are bound with iron bands which hold them together. The inside of the barrel is much rougher than the smooth outside. This increases the surface area inside the barrel.
Port lodges are filled with storage barrels, and stacked vintage bottles. Some of the larger wineries store their young wines in stainless steal or fiberglass resin vats. The 20k to 141k liter oak vats are still the most commonly used for young ports. They are supported on concrete bases suspended several feet off the ground. The underside is painted white so that leaks can be more easily detected, and as a deterrent for flies.
Typically, the finer wines are stored in the smaller barrels, not because there is less of it but rather so the ratio of oak surface area to wine is greater. The wine must breathe through the wood pores for the wine to age. Also, contact with the oak will impart a nice oak flavor to the wine. Over time, the pores of these barrels clog from sediment and crystal formation. Each year, the oak barrels are drained and the insides of the barrels are washed with water. Keeping the inside barrel walls clean accelerates the speed at which the wine will mature.
A young Port wine stored in oak barrels will, over time, lose it’s grapefruit flavor, and gain a caramel and vanilla flavor. The color will change from red or purple to a lighter tawny or maroon. The contents of the barrel will evaporate through the oak pores, Over a forty year period, only 66% percent of the original content will be left due to evaporation. Of course, having one’s wine stock evaporate into thin air only adds to the cost of aging, and as a result, only a few port houses will produce a 40 year aged tawny, or colheita.
The bottle vintages are stored horizontally in a dark locked shelf where they are not touched until they are retailed. Usually the cork in the bottle vintages are longer, and laying them horizontally keeps the cork moist and expanded sealing the contents. Untouched, sediment forms along one side. Before removal, splash marks are often added indicating which side should be up during consumer storage. The bottles are not labeled until retail since this would likely not hold up well in the damp climate they are stored in.
Many of the floors of the port lodges are often of a moist sand gravel.
These floors are sprayed with water to help keep the storage area cool. Sometimes wood cobblestone is laid down. These floors are preferred over concrete so as to help save the barrels from damage as they are rolled around the lodge.
A mild winter, followed by a hot summer characterizes a good year.
The hot climate aides in the production of the sugars in the grapes.
However, it’s not truly known until long after when the wine matures.
1994 is considered one of the best vintages of the century among many of the port lodges. However since vintage ports age 2 years in the cask, and 10 years minimum in the bottle, this won’t be ready until the year 2006. Wine Spectator gave the ‘94 Taylor and Fonseca vintage ports a 100 driving their price from $55 to over several hundred if one can find it. Many wineries are already out of their ‘94. Other special vintages according to Wine Spectator: ‘77 Fonseca, ‘63 Quinta do Noval National, ‘48 Taylor Fladgate. I stopped in Noval and asked about the above Noval. They have it for sale for around US$698 per bottle. I asked about their ‘94, they said they sell it for around $51, however the ‘94 Quinta National Noval sells for $456. Apparently the Quinta do National is produced from the only vines they have that were not killed off by phyloxora leaving only 8% of their vineyard.
Only very good years are designated to be a year when a bottle vintage will be made. Each port lodge makes it’s own designation of when this will be. Typically this happens three times a decade. Even so, a port lodge will only use their finest grapes for the bottle vintage. In some wineries, this may only account for 2% of their total harvest.
Some commonly designated vintage years include:
'95, '94, '91, '87, '85, '83, '77, '75, '70, '66, '64, '63, '62, '60, '57, '50, '37, '35 '00
Generally speaking, many bottled vintages start to pass their prime after 60 years.
Regulation on wine production and where the grapes come from began in 1757 when the Marques du Pombal laid down the rules due to corruption in the market of port wines. In 1933 the I.V.P. (Instituto do Vinho do Porto) or Port Wine Institute was formed to regulate many aspects of port production including farming, production, bottling, maturation, standard naming and classification. The I.V.P. guarantee is displayed on the neck of the bottle by a numbered paper seal. This seal is proof of bottling at origin and that the port wine has undergone I.V.P. approval, following all of regulations and naming conventions of I.V.P. Frequently they visit the lodges inspecting wine stored in vats. I.V.P. supplies the brandy that is used in the fortification of the port. All of the naming rules below apply to I.V.P ports. Australian and or South African ports do not necessarily follow these naming conventions and rules.
Late bottled vintage (LBV) and Coheitas ports are filtered and will not throw sediment. Vintage and crusted ports are not filtered, and will throw sediment. They should be decanted before drinking. Filtered ports may be drunk for up to 1-6 months after opening. Vintage and crusted ports have a much shorter drink time after opening.
Single year vintages include (i.e. bottles with dates on them):
Port stored in oak barrels tends to accelerate aging process not to mention give the port a nice oak flavor. As a result, a bottled vintage port will need more time to mature. A bottled vintage will likely taste younger and more tannic than the same vintage in a L.B.V. or a Dated Tawny (Colheita). The later two will have more oak flavor.
Bottled Vintage Port always means the wine was aged 2 years in wood cask, and the rest in the bottle. and is the only port besides crusted that will age in the bottle. Minimum age before drinking is generally considered 10 years after bottling, which means 12 years after vintage. Initial tannin concentration being strong enough to age a long time (typically 60 years). Some carry a white paint mark, called a "splash mark"... no doubt a euphemism made by a sloppy painter. The splash mark denotes the orientation the bottle should be stored such that the sediment continues to collect on the same side. The splash mark should point up. The Taylor splash marks look like an accident as if someone forgot to move the bottle from the shelf as they were painting the room. Grahams are a little neater. The vintage ports especially the older ones should be allowed to stand vertically 24 hours before they are opened. Vintage port should be decanted since deposits or crust is formed. The younger the vintage, the longer the time is needed to breath. An old vintage will oxidize much faster than a young vintage. The general rule is 2-3 hours if in doubt. Should be completely consumed within 24-48 hours. Grahams suggest 48 hours, or 96 if a vacuum vin cork is used. They are very sensitive to light, and so are sold in the darkest bottles (black glass). They are sensitive to air, so should be stoppered after their breathing time. Typically port houses only put their finest grapes into bottled vintage. Further, only the best years are declared by a particular port lodge to be suitable to have a bottled vintage. Usually this happens about three times a decade, and account for a tiny fraction of the entire harvest, sometimes as low as 2%. Bottled Vintage Ports are the only ports intended to be aged in a the bottle.
Single Quinta vintages are the same as bottle vintages, however they come from grapes from a single Quinta or vineyard.
Late Bottle Vintage (L.B.V.) is aged 4-6 years in cask. It’s a single year vintage. It’s not intended to be aged in the bottle, and as such is bottled ready to drink. This bottle carries the vintage and bottling date on the label. It should not need to be decanted unless the bottle has been kept for two to three years. Taylor was the first port house to produce these. They were invented in response to hotels and restaurants who’s guest may want only one glass of a vintage port. A true bottled vintage port will oxidize within 24-48 hours making this expensive to open. An L.B.V can be recorked and drunk later up to 1 month.
Dated Tawnies (Colheitas) are a single vintage aged at least 7 years in a cask. They are bottled and ready to drink, not being intended to age in the bottle. This bottle carries the vintage and bottling date on the label and can sometimes be confused with a bottled vintage port. The bottling date of a bottled vintage will be two years after the harvest vintage where as a dated Tawny will be bottled 7 or more years after the harvest.
Aged Tawnies these are the bottles that are labeled, 8, 10, 20, 30, 40 year old. They are a weighted average of the vintages in the bottle that have been aged in oak. If you can believe a winery tour guide, Calem said their 20 year aged tawny is a 50:50 combination of 18 and 22 years old tawny. The current Grahams 20 year tawny is said to be 50% ‘64, 40% ‘74, ~10% ‘87, 3% ‘94 for a total of 103%, and putting the weighted average around 27 years, older than 20, but younger than 30. They are ready to drink and will not improve in the bottle. The label shows the bottling year on the label. Unopened, Graham recommends that they be drunk within 3-6 years after bottling. These are the port lodges pride brew. They are the creation of the port lodge taster blending to make the characteristic style of the house. They shouldn’t need to be decanted, and should be consumed within a month of opening.
Vintage Character or Reserves, 3-6 years in cask depending on winery. These are blended wines. They are ready to drink immediately, and won’t age in the bottle. The word ‘Reserve’ has a confusing different meaning depending on winery and style. This class name is not well regulated by I.V.P.
Crusted: ages at least 3 years in cask. It is blended, and then further matures in the bottle; Some lodges say two years, other 6-8 years in the bottle. Like the vintage, this one can throw a deposit, and should be decanted.
Ruby ports - All red ports are at one time ruby ports. ‘Ruby’ is a euphemism for young. As rubies, which are a dark purple in color oxidize aging in oak barrels, they change their color to a tawny (maroon) color and are called tawnies. Red ports become lighter in color with age. When they are sold, they have aged 2-3 years. Ruby ports are typically the least expensive. They are bottled ready to drink, and will not mature with age. They can be stored up to 6 months after opening. Sometimes they are served chilled.
White ports are aged at least 2-3 years in a cask. They are made from either red or white grapes. If red grapes are used, the skins are separated from the juice. White ports get darker taking on a golden yellow with age. It’s uncommon to see them sold more than 15 years old. 6 years is a more typical maximum. In England it was traditional to mix a white port with lemon juice or lemonade. Often white ports are served chilled. Dry ports are generally considered a before dinner aperitif. The dryness of the wine is determined by how long the original fermentation was allowed to complete before the brandy was added.
White ports often come in four styles:
Port Protocol - How to drink a port:
If you’re sitting around a camp fire, it’s acceptable to let out a belch and then say "pass da vino, por favor", take a one handed swig, and pass the bottle clockwise. Wipe off any excess dribble off your chin or else you may stain your clothes and/or be mocked.
In short, drink it anyway you like. But for guidance on maximum formal occasions, Here’s the scoop:
Generally, dry white ports are served as a before dinner aperitif, while the sweet white ports (like Lagrime), and all of the red ports are served as an after dinner drink. Of course personal preference and tailoring to the occasion over rules.
Bottle vintage ports should be decanted. In this case, the bottle should be allowed to sit upright for 24 hours. After this time, the cork is gently removed. In the case of old vintages where the cork is so old and moist as to potentially disintegrate and possibly contaminate the port, iron tongs and ice may be used to crack the stem. Ice is used to cool the neck of the bottle while the fire heated iron tongs are placed around the neck of the bottle causing the bottle neck to snap and fracture separating the bottle neck with cork intact from the bottle.
The wine is then poured slowly and carefully into a decanter. This can best be done with a light source such as a candle behind the neck of the bottle. Decanting should stop when cloudy wine enters the neck. Contraptions for decanting include screw bottle tilts which make it easier to steadily control the pitch and pouring speed of the bottle. Decanting funnels placed in the decanter not only make it easier to target the decanter but also provide a further filter for accidental cork residue.
A vintage bottled port may need to breath for 2-3 hours depending on the age. Afterwards it should be stoppered in the decanter as these wines are very susceptible to oxidation, and should be drunk within 24-48 hours of opening. W.J. Graham’s lodge says with a vacuum vin cork that 96 hours is the maximum. They were pouring ‘81 vintages. The older the vintage of the wine, the quicker it will oxidize.
Traditionally the decanter is passed around the table clockwise allowing each person to fill their own glass. A large tulip-shaped wine glass is often considered ideal for appreciating the nose and flavor... i.e. one that captures the aroma and you can stick your nose in. Commonly people use small tulip glasses. 50ml is the typical pour.
What to eat with the port depends on the characteristics of the port itself. Ideas include: English walnuts, almonds, dried fruit, golden raisins, strong cheeses like Stilton, full soft creamy cheeses, fresh peaches, raspberries, cantaloupe, fine chocolates, chocolate mouse, chocolate tortes, egg cakes, fruit cake, coffee flavored deserts.
Main dishes may include:
A nice tawny might go with foie gras, Indian curry dishes. blue cheese dishes.
A dry white might go with a quiche.
desert or appetizer: cantaloupe with port. In a chilled deseeded cantaloupe, pour a generous helping of a reserve tawny. The melon juices will help bring out the caramel syrup flavor characteristic of an older tawny. The cantaloupe may be halved or just an opening in the top made. A small cantaloupe works best for this.
There are approximately 70 port lodges in the Oporto area (Vila Nova de Gaia). Here is a subset. The date in parenthesis is the year of establishment.
Barros Almeida (1913)
J.W. Burmester (1750)
Delaforce Sons (1868)
Fonseca Guimaraens (1822)
W.J. Graham’s (1820)
Quinta do Noval
Ramos Pinto, Adriano
Taylor Fladgate & Yeatman (1692)
Despite projecting family run images, most have been gobbled by larger wineries forming conglomerations.
Seagram’s owns Sandemans, However George Sandeman is the general manager
Taylor Fladgate & Yeatman owns Fonseca
Grahams is owned by the Symington group who also own 60% of all the
Madiera that is produced in Madiera.
Barros owns Kopke
The French are the largest consumers of port wine consuming more than three times that of the English. However, the English closely followed by the Americans are the largest consumers of vintage ports.
The port lodges seem consistent on pricing of aged tawnies in Oporto. In general, the cost is $16-$20 per decade of age. Only a small few houses have 40 year tawnies.
Borges has an 1870 vintage.
Quinta do Noval distributor in the US:
William Grant and Sons, LTD
Mr. Michael Cittarela
130 FieldCrest Ave
P.O. Box 4023
Edison, New Jersey 08818-4023
Tel 908 225-9000
Fax 908 225-0950
© 1998 by Dave Thompson (email@example.com)