|To truly understand the rugged history of Port wine – one of world’s most civilized beverages – it helps to take a three-hour train ride from the city of Porto on Portugal’s Atlantic Coast east to the Valeira Gorge of the Douro River just beyond the small village of Tua.
Here, you’ll see sheer rock and largely barren earth rising up from the water. A few miles further upriver are some of the best Port estates or quintas, and, beginning in the 1700s, the quintas sent their untamed wine from the previous vintage downstream each spring in large barrels or pipes by small boats called barcos rabelos.
Today, of course, things are more modern. But vineyards are still harvested primarily by hand, and the grapes that go into vintage Ports – the crème de la crème of red dessert wines – are still mostly crushed by foot.
The headquarters for the Port trade is in its namesake – Porto or Oporto, a city of a quarter-million people at the mouth of the Douro. Equally important is the smaller town that looks back at Porto from the south side of the river, Vila Nova de Gaia. Here are the famous Port lodges – the giant, tile-roofed warehouses where Port is blended, aged, and bottled – that cling to the steep hillsides much the way the vineyards do along the steep mountainsides a hundred or so miles upriver.
Many of these lodges are open to the public and give tours – Calem, Cockburn, Graham’s, Ramos Pinto, Sandeman, and Taylor to name a few. Sandeman is an easy walk across the river from downtown hotels and touts a wine museum, while Taylor is located near the top of the hill at the end of a winding street past other lodges and Port businesses. Founded in 1692, Taylor is the only traditional Port house that is still completely family-owned and operated.
The lodge itself is a huge, cavernous building with irregular floors, white walls and wooden ceilings, and row upon row of huge casks, barrels, and vats, some holding thousands of gallons of dark red wine. Here vintage Ports, late-bottled vintage Ports, and ruby Ports are held in wood for at least two years and given more age after bottling. Tawny Ports are aged in smaller barrels and are much lighter in color and flavor.
While there are many different styles and proprietary names of Port, all begin with their fermentation being arrested by the addition of brandy to keep them high in alcohol and sweetness (with the exception of dry white Port). All are aged in wood. Generally, vintage, single-quinta vintage, and crusted Ports are meant to be further matured in the bottle before drinking, while late-bottled vintage, tawny, aged tawny, olheita (vintage tawnies), and ruby Ports are all ready to be drunk when purchased.
A Unique Process, with Unique Grapes
Alistair Robertson, former chairman of Fladgate Port and still an active owner, explained that each quinta or wine estate may grow more than a dozen different varieties of grapes –seldom known or planted outside Portugal – which are blended into Port. They have names such as Touriga Nacional, Touriga Roriz (a clone of Tempranillo), and Tinta Cao.
The grapes for most vintage Ports are hand-picked and still stomped by foot – or “trod” as the Portuguese prefer to term it – in lagares (stone or concrete vats) to get maximum color extraction while avoiding bitter tannins of crushed seeds or pips. Each lagar holds enough grapes to produce about 500 cases or more of wine.
Fermentation then sets in and continues until the must or fermenting juice reaches around six percent alcohol, at which time fermentation is halted by the addition of brandy or neutral spirits, which kills the yeast. The rest of the fruit sugar remains in the wine, while the brandy elevates the level of alcohol to about 20%. The raw wine will remain at the quinta winery upstream through the winter before being shipped, mainly by truck, downstream to lodges the following spring for aging and blending. The art of blending is a primary ingredient in producing great Port. In terms of moderization, although piston- driven machines now simulate treading in making non-vintage Ports, rapid change is unlikely. Tradition dies slowly along the Douro, and few people want to tinker with three centuries of successful winemaking.