As I put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard as the case may be in this modern world, to jot down ideas of why a Port wine is a Christmas day wine, I ponder. The wind is howling so loudly at the door, the rain is smashing at the windows and the threat of a power cut lingers through the air like an unwanted ghost. All I want to do is curl up beside the roaring fire and pour myself a wee port to warm the bones and while away this dark December evening. But I’m intrigued. Why is it only in winter we reach for a Port? Is it the high alcohol, or is it the syrupy warming nature of Port, or is it plain old-fashioned marketing and advertising. Have we been led down the tale of ‘certain drinks for certain occasions’, and are adhering to these terms? I reckon I should start at the beginning. A mini deep dive if you will. Let’s have a little look at the origins of this globally famous winter warmer.
Much of the history and origins of Port lie in the non-wine producing country of England. As far back as the 12th century, Portugal has been producing wine. These wines were exported via sea trade, and England was a direct land that was in prime position for this trading. The English were producing salted cod and wool in return for these seductive Portuguese wines. By the 13th century a treaty had been signed to further compound trade relations between the pair. As time moved on, the English sought finer wines, and so the journey up the Douro valley began. They found on the upper Douro, amid rocky hills and hot climate, more full bodied and robust wines. There was only one issue. These vineyards were located hundreds of miles away from the Portuguese coastal port, which at this stage was the commercial hub of the English merchants (Taylors, Cockburn, Grahams). So to protect these wines from spoiling on long river and sea journeys, a brandy spirit was added. This preserved the fruit in the wine, maintained the structure of the wine, but of course it almost doubled the alcohol content of the wine. A solution was found.
Naturally, in today’s world, wines are shipped far quicker, and in a more luxurious setting than a ratty, old wooden ship swaying dangerously from side to side. Port wine is now produced in a less aggressive format therefore, and the local soils and the local grapes are very much part of this mystical recipe to produce one of the world’s finest sweet wines. More than 80 grapes varieties can be used to produce Port. The major varieties used in Ports with a red wine base are Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) and Touriga Franca. In terms of a white Port there are more than 30 grapes that can be used in production, which includes varieties like Donzelinho Branco, Sercial and Malvasia Fina. These are the primary grapes that are considered of superior quality that will add to the layers of complexity to these wines. Similar to every other wine in the world, a base wine is produced by fermentation. This is the process where the natural sugars in the pressed grapes are converted to alcohol by adding yeasts. With Port this process goes one step further. The fermentation is arrested early, by adding a neutral grape spirit distillate. This not alone fortifies the alcohol levels, but also leaves a greater amount of residual sugars in the wine. The neutral spirit is commonly called ‘aguardente’, derived from água argente, which translates to fiery water. These wines are then stored and aged in barrels before bottling. The ageing vessel, and period of time for ageing vary on the style of the Port they are producing.
The major styles of Port that are available in today’s market are varied, and truly have the ability to suit most palates. These range from an entry level Ruby Port right up to a Vintage long aged Port, with a white, rose and tawny Port thrown into the mix. Both colour and sugar levels vary greatly in these wines. Ruby Port is the entry offering of the Port ladder. This wine has been aged in stainless steel to prevent oxidation, and preserves its charming ruby colour. These wines are cold filtered and then bottled, and consumed in their youth. Moving up the scale a half a degree are Reserve Ruby Ports which are considered marginally better quality than the standard Ruby. You would imagine better grapes are used, or indeed a better site selection for the vineyard with a more favourable aspect to the sun, therefore elevating the end quality of these Reserve Ruby Ports.
Venturing further up the Port is a Tawny Port. These wines have spent time in an oak barrel. So not alone is the colour slightly golden, but the flavours are less fresh fruit oriented, and more dried fruit oriented with a heady mix of roasted nuts and caramel notes. A fine contrast indeed to a fruity Ruby Port.
Late-bottled vintage Port (LBV) are wines that are bottled four to six years after the harvest. Wines that have spent this long ageing, naturally have a greater degree of intensity of flavours and a longer length to the finish. However, they also display a huge variety of aromas and secondary flavours. Dark fruits like blackberries and black cherries are partnered with prunes, raisins, mocha, crushed Brazil nuts, Christmas spices and cocoa chocolate. Absolute flavour bombs.
Furthering on from LBV, are Colheita’s. These are single vintage Tawny Ports that are generally aged for 10 years before being released. It is not uncommon to find longer aged Colheitas in your local independent wine store, and when paired with the right cheeses or chocolate desert, they’re just like liquid gold.
White Port is made from white wine grapes and comes in various styles, from dry to sweet. White Port Colheita is produced from a single grape harvest, aged in huge tanks, to obtain a straw colour. Reserve White Port requires at least seven years of aging to gain a nutty flavour. This is a style of Port that is often served over with ice, with a splash of tonic waiter. Finally a summery style of Port!
Possibly the most robust and intense of all Ports is your Vintage Port. This is produced from grapes of a ‘declared’ single vintage year, sourced from different ‘quintas’ (wine producing houses). After ageing in barrels or stainless steel for up to two and a half years, they are then before bottled and left to age for many more. Often spending 10-40 years in the bottle, continuing to gain complexity as grape solids slowly decompose. You could be forgiven to think these are the Rolls Royce of the Port world. Made from the finest grapes, in the best vintages in the hands of the top producers, Vintage Ports are supreme. They are multi layered in terms of flavours, a luscious rich palate that finishes on a balanced sweetness. And the length of flavour that remains in your mouth long after the wine is gone is just astonishing. They’re a craft of complete skill from serious Port producers.
Barao de Vilar White Port, Duoro Valley, Portugal, N/V, 19.5%, €19.95 (Mitchel & Son, Wineonline):
Made from white grapes including Malvasia Fina, this style of Port is refreshing and slightly zesty. Most are bottled young. Lighter in style with flvaours of citrus fruits, orange peel, stone fruits and just a hint of nuts on the finish. A very popular cocktail is mixing this with a quinine tonic water to create a long and refreshing drink. Equally as good just served neat and chilled from the fridge.
Niepoort Ruby Port, Douro Valley, Portugal, NV, 19.3%, €25.95 (The Corkscrew Wine Merchants, 64 Wines) :
This Port is produced from 30 year old Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz vines. The grapes are handpicked and are pressed by foot in large wooden vats. It is dark red in colour, with dark fruits, with minerality and freshness, and an extremely long balanced finish. A fruit driven Port that is worthy of any blue cheese or simply by itself.
Noval 10 year old Tawny Port, Douro Valley, Portugal, NV, 19.5% €35.00 (Celtic Whiskey Shop)
A new generation of Port drinkers, that contrast to the indulgent, robust, cigar swilling Port drinkers of yesteryear, now prefer to chill their Tawny Ports and enjoy them with an autumnal style desert. The nuttiness of these sweet wines highlights the carnalized nature of golden apples when baked in a pie. The touch of spice from the oak ageing helps to freshen the palate on the fish. Wonderful gold colour and a heady mix of dried fruits and nuts are very characteristic of a Tawny Port.
Barão de Vilar 2000 Vintage Port, Douro Valley, Portugal, NV, 20% €55.00 (Mitchell & Sons):
This is a rich, and sumptuous Port. It has a seamless mix of youthful berry fruits, combined with aged dried fruits like dates, prunes, figs and raisins. Christmas spices are married beautifully with flavours of marzipan, Madagascar vanilla, dark cocoa chocolate and latte coffee. A wine of this calibre is a meditative wine that is to be sipped, savoured and talked about long after its gone. The syrupy palate is surprisingly fresh with just a touch of minerality on the finish.