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Everything You Need To Know About Port Wine (including where to taste it)

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If you expect to find any Port wine vineyards or wineries in Porto you are very mistaken. The grapes for Port wine aren’t grown here, the wine isn’t produced here, but the wine in fact comes from here 🙂

Already confused?

Let’s clarify the mysterious past of world’s oldest (or almost oldest, the Hungarian Tokaj claims this title as well) appellation and then see where you can actually surround yourself by this fortified wine in the city of Oporto.

Taylors port wine ship

History of Port Wine Appellation

Portugal as a winemaking country made its’ fame thanks to its’ famous port – Oporto.

During the Hundred Years war the British obviously couldn’t import French wine. They looked a bit southern, still along the Atlantic, and chose Porto (or as they called it – Oporto) as the new source of wine.

All of a sudden all the farmers became businessmen producing and selling wine. This was in 14-15 centuries. Yields were increased to the limits, quality wasn’t a concern – the demand was definitely high enough.

By the 18th century the wine production degraded so much that there was an urgency to have a controlling body over the producers.

Portugal’s much beloved Marquise de Pombal was the one who in 1757 set roots to one of the oldest appellation in the world. He restricted the production of port wine to a single region and created a hierarchy among the producers based on quality.

That one and only region was Douro.

First of all, vines were grown there before Roman times, around 1000 years BC by Phoenicians. While Romans were the ones constructing breathtaking stone terraces on the hills above the Douro river.

Needless to say, that the climate thanks to the hills and powerful river was moderate, with mild winters and not too hot summers.

Porto in Portugal

Why a Wine from Douro is named after Porto?

The Upper Douro Valley is great for growing vines, but not for exporting them in large quantities. Barrels with wine were shipped down to Oporto town, which had an access to the Atlantic.

When received in English ports, marked as per their departure point – O Porto. That’s how the Port wine got its’ name.

Port wine barrels on board at Douro river
Port wine barrels on board at Douro river

Port Wine Production in Simple Terms

So how comes port wine tastes so different than ‘normal’ wines? Is it a wine at all?

As the journey from Porto to the north was taking a while, wine merchants needed to find a way of preserving it.

Originally, the wine was fortified with brandy before the ‘journey’. Fortified actually means ‘strengthened’ (by brandy).

Today the process is a bit different, as the wine gets fortified before ageing, right after fermentation.

Let’s see below:

  • The most noticeable for a consumer speciality about port wine is that it has a high sugar concentration (around 130 g per liter) and high level of alcohol (19-20% abv).
  • Nowadays, the wine is fortified to stop fermentation in order to leave a significant amount of residual sugar and increase the level of alcohol.

So, to understand the winemaking process behind this famous Portuguese wine let’s first clarify the fermentation process of any other dry wine:

  • Sugar of the grape juice is ‘eaten’ by yeasts (these are also found within the grape berry).
  • The result is alcohol and dry wine, as yeasts normally don’t stop until there is no sugar left to consume.

 In case of port wine the process gets interrupted half-way:

  • Yeasts are killed by adding brandy (or eau de vie with 77% alcohol).
  • This allows the Portuguese to preserve quite a lot of sugar, and meanwhile increase the level of alcohol up to 20%.

Be Selective When Buying a Bottle of Port Wine

In order to enjoy the wine after all these sophisticated ‘tortures’, to feel the bouquet not just the alcohol:

  • it must be produced of high quality grape and eau de vie;
  • it must be matured and aged in oak barrels, to coat all the scents and flavours;
  • it must be served at a right temperature – 8° C for white, 11-14° C for tawny, the younger the cooler, and 15° C for ruby.

Fast Facts to Taste Port Wine as a Conoisseur

For those who want to sound like port wine connoisseurs:

  • Port can be White, Ruby and Tawny.
  • ABV (alcohol by volume) is usually around 20%, regardless of its colour (white port looks as light as a Sauvignon Blanc, but be careful it’s still 20% abv despite its’ colour).
  • White Port goes really well with a lot of ice cubes, lime, orange slices, as an aperitif or within a cocktail. For example, when you order a gin tonic in Portugal, they’ll usually use white port instead of gin.
  • Ruby Port prefers the company of chocolate or soft cheese. I was tasting Late Bottled Vintage 2013 from Sandeman in Vila Nova de Gaia.
  • Tawny – in our case, Sandeman Tawny 10 Years, will be best matched with caramel and cottage cheese based pastries and desserts. Our sommelier highly recommended trying it with an apple pie.
Port Wine Tasting at Sandeman
Port Wine Tasting at Sandeman

Where to try port wine in Porto?

Actually, there is another confusion here 🙂

It’s Vila Nova de Gaia where all the old port wine cellars are based, and where the wine barrels took off to north, towards the English consumers.

This ‘hub’ is just a bridge or river taxi away from Porto.

I prepared a selection of best port wine cellars in Vila Nova for my own trip, but happy to share them with you:

Caves Calem

This winery is special because it was found by a Portuguese man (many many port wine cellars are owned by English), and because he was ‘crazy’ (as those times people thought) and targeted Brazil as his prime customer, not England.

So as he founded Porto Calem in 1859 he set the sails to explore Brazil. The adventurer was right, his first transactions were in exotic woods.

At Caves Calem in Vila Nova you can opt for a wine tasting with food pairing, or a wine tasting and fado show (and combine the two most special things about the city of Oporto).

Caves Ferreira

How about women in port wine?

The founder, Dona Antonia Ferreira is one of the most charismatic personalities of the appellation.

Ferreira cellars are famous for their Vintage Port collections (the only type of port wine that one can age in bottle), Dona Antonia left a heritage of bottles dating back to 1815.

I recommend tasting at least 3 wines during your experience at the cellars – white, ruby and tawny port. Even better, if you select a tasting with Vintage Port experience, as that was what made Dona Ferreira famous for.

Caves Sandeman

George Sandeman a wine merchant who decided to start his own port wine and sherry business.

Sandeman is known for its’ ‘Don’ – one of the world’s first logos and brand images. A mysterious silhouette of a man in hat immerses you into Portugal of 17th century as you enter the cellar.

At Sandeman’s you can choose between a tasting of Old Tawnies (10, 20, 30 and 40 y.o.) and white-ruby-tawny port wine tastings.

Port Wine Tasting at Sandeman
Port Wine Tasting at Sandeman

NB: ‘Caves’ – means cellars, not caves, as people sometimes think. I’ve seen visitors in the cellars asking where is the cave 🙂

What is your favourite type of port wine? Is it white, ruby or tawny?

What do you usually pair it with?

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Wine Author Henrietta Sztraton
Wine Author Henrietta Sztraton

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