Become a Port Expert in 90 Seconds or Less (Portugal Will Thank You)
Sometimes when I’m standing in the grocery store admiring the shelves of wine I envision opening a box of 64 Crayons. I stare at all the colors and wonder when you would ever use Fuzzy Wuzzy, Jazzberry Jam, or Magic Mint. But when you were a kid, you made opportunities to try each color in the box; it didn’t matter if your sky was Mango Tango and your grass was Pink Flamingo. Like Crayons, wine comes in more varieties and styles than I can keep track of, so I decided I would create opportunities to try variations I had not previously considered. In the spirit of this decision I bought a bottle of Porto and instantly fell in love.
Commonly referred to as “Port”, this grape beverage iteration is wine fortified with a nonspecific grape-derived spirit. This fortified wine originated in Portugal, specifically in the Douro Valley. Port is a fascinating beverage but among its many intriguing details is one piece of information to remember, the term “Port” implies that the bottle before you could have been produced anywhere in the world. However, if you see a bottle labeled “Porto”, you can be sure it was authentically produced in Portugal. Interestingly, the Douro Valley is the oldest regulated and protected wine region in the world; even older than some of the renowned wine regions in France.
Porto is created by adding a neutral grape alcohol to the wine at the end of the fermentation period. This addition has a threefold purpose. First, it slows the activity of the yeast to reduce fermentation even further. Second, it adds sugar to the mixture resulting in a sweeter wine. Lastly, it increases the alcohol content of the fermented wine. The result is a sweet alcohol-rich wine that perfectly follows an exquisite meal.
Typically, Porto can be found in two styles; Tawny and Ruby. Tawny port is so named because of the tawny or reddish brown color of the port. This color is due to slow and deliberate oxidation of the wine in wooden barrels. Tawny port is aged for at least two years but has the potential for a much longer aging period. True tawny Porto will usually have an indication of the aging potential in years on the bottle. A label indicating 30 or 40 years should not mislead you into thinking the wine has already been aged for this amount of time; the years are simply an indication of the aging potential of the port.
Contrastingly, ruby port does not age well and retains its beautiful garnet color. Ruby port is transferred to airtight stainless steel or concrete barrels after fermentation, and is thus not allowed oxygen exposure. Ruby port is the most inexpensive of port styles and is generally readily available on the market. Additionally, ruby port is usually filtered and refined before bottling.
Many Portos are not pure-bred grape vintages but often mixed to impart the personality of the wine maker or manufacturer. A single vintage tawny Porto is called a Colheita and the label will usually tell you how long the Porto has been aged prior to shipping. Colheitas can be aged for decades before they are bottled and distributed. Other styles of port utilize bottle aging such as Rose and White port as well as Vintage ports. Even though aging methods may vary, nearly all ports share similar characteristics including sweetness, greater viscosity than traditional wine, and an alcohol content around 20%. I am happy that I chose to stray from the primary vintages like Merlot, Pinot Noir, or Cabernet and selected a slightly more obscure wine variation. Consider allowing a rich Porto to vibrantly color your world!