Thoughts on Port.

Port. In my mind, known for two things; Christmas and cheese. Or maybe remembered as that dusty, never-missed bottle you scrounged from the dark of the cupboard for that naïve teenage party, delighting at first in its approachable sweetness before realising just how smashed you really were. It is a drink that is eminently British, and yet this very Britishness often belies quite how exotic its origins and making actually are. In a market that increasingly values the merits of dry table wines and minimal-intervention winemaking, Port wine is noticeably unfashionable, and yet its intricate production process, esteemed heritage, long age-ability and synergy with both the fireside armchair and a variety of foods has resulted in its continued presence in the British drinks market.

Port country lies in northern Portugal, centred historically along the banks and hillsides overlooking the Douro river. At the mouth of the river are the twin cities of Oporto (from which the wine derives its name) and Vila Nova de Gaia, the two major centres of Port production and shipping, and where many of the famous ‘houses’ have their offices and warehouses – think Taylor’s, Dow’s and Sandeman. The grapes however, are grown in vineyards situated about 70km further inland, cut in terraces into the hillsides.

Unlike on the coast, where the wines are stored and aged, it is hot here, and the growing season is long and dry and the grapes (primarily native Portuguese varietals Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinat Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cao) attain high levels of ripeness. The vineyards are so steep that it is almost impossible for machinery to navigate the slopes safely, and most of the picking at harvest time is still done by hand. Once picked the grapes are fermented to an alcohol level of between 5-9%.

Historically, crushing was done by teams of workers trampling the grapes in shallow pits known as lagares. Fermentation would start naturally, the treading would stop, and the cap (the crust of pulp and grape skins formed at the surface of the fermenting juice) would be punched back down into the liquid to extract as much flavour as possible.

Modern Port producers seldom conduct manual foot treading anymore, but many wineries have introduced robotic lagares with piston plungers that mimic the action of human feet. Once at the desired alcohol, the wine is fortified with a spirit (known as aguardente) at a strength of 77% alcohol, killing the yeast and stopping the fermentation to create a sweet wine between 19% - 22% ABV. This is where the stage of production inland stops, and the integral Port maturation process begins.

The wine is shipped downriver in barrels to the warehouses in Oporto or Vila Nova de Gaia. The climate is cooler here, and the high levels of humidity make for long and slow maturation conditions. This maturation is carried out in old oak barrels that allow for gentle oxidation without imparting the bold oak flavours common in dry table wines. This is where the paths diverge for the two main styles of Port: ruby and tawny.

Ruby Ports generally have a much greater fruit character than tawnies. Oxidation during the maturation process is therefore minimised to preserve these primary fruit flavours, and ageing is conducted in large oak vessels called balseiros. A bigger barrel essentially results in a greater wine-to-oak ratio, and the oxidation of the wine is lower than it would be if the barrel were smaller. Ruby wines are, naturally, deep ruby in colour, and generally designed to be drunk within a few years of release.

Tawny Ports are matured in smaller barrels, known as pipes, and the resultant oxidation lends them a light brown, almost orange hue. They are aged significantly longer than ruby Ports, and the primary fruit flavours of the other develop instead into nutty, coffee and chocolate-like notes. Like ruby, tawny Ports are rarely suitable for extended ageing.

The famous Ports that can be laid down for decades tend to be Vintage Ports. These are produced in the same method as basic ruby, but unlike lesser Ports which are comprised of blends from different years, Vintage Ports must be made from grapes all grown in the same vintage. These wines are made only in years when the quality of the harvest is considered to be particularly good, and are aged only as long as ruby Ports to ensure they retain the fruit character determined by these good years. Vintage Ports tend to be highly tannic on release, and benefit from long periods of bottle ageing in the cellar. These are the wines benevolent uncles by their nieces and nephews for their 21st birthdays. Well-made examples from exceptional years can mature for extremely long periods of time. Indeed, it is not uncommon for Ports from the 19th century to still be suitable for drinking now.

As noted, Port is from Portugal, and yet it is a distinctly British drink. This is because of Britain’s historic trade alliances with the country. In the early 1700s, when Britain was at war with France, wine merchants restricted by wartime enmities turned instead to Portugal for their wares. These fortified wines had the benefit of both pleasing consumer palates back home and for surviving the sea voyage in the first place, and over the next century British firms (and a few Dutch and German, i.e. Niepoort) became increasingly invested in the Port trade.

Port wine has thus become a staple of the British celebration, from the marking of a prestigious birthday to tipple of choice at Christmas time. It is the perfect after-dinner drink, and an excellent accompaniment to the rich, yet salty tang of a variety of cheeses; think Manchego with a nutty tawny, or Rochefort and Stilton with a sweet, fruity ruby. Port is used in high-end sauces and in cocktails too, and white port – rarer than its red counterparts, and derived from white grapes grown in Port country – can work as an excellent accompany to smoked fish, shellfish, and a plate of olives and charcuterie.

Port production is something of a closed shop – rarely are there any new producers in the field, and this lack of change can seem staid and boring when compared to the dynamism of the modern winemaking industry. Yet Port is a unique product that still has its time and place in contemporary drinking culture. It has few imitators with the finesse, ceremony or venerable history, and it seems like it won’t be going anywhere for a while yet.

Christian Lowe