The world’s most famous fortified wine, Port Wine, is beloved all over the world for its unique sweet flavor and its rich color that ranges anywhere from blush pink to a deep burgundy shade.
The perfect pairing to dessert, or as a dessert itself, Port Wine has a rich history and an equally rich tradition, offering the world its unique taste that can only be produced from a specific region in northern Portugal.
In this guide, we will discover what Port Wine is, what makes it unique, and all the different styles, plus a list of some of the best brands available in the market today.
Let’s begin this guide with an introduction to what it is, where it comes from, and how it was made popular the world over.
What is Port Wine?
Port wine is considered to be the world’s most famous fortified wine. It is known for its sweet taste and exclusively produced in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. Other countries produce Port-style wines such as the US, Australia, and South Africa, but they can’t use the name.
The name “Port Wine” is protected by the Appellation System, which is a set of regulations that dictate how wine is classified and labeled. It’s similar to how Champagne can only be labeled as such when it comes from the Champagne region of France. So when you see Port Wine labeled on a bottle, it means it’s true Port Wine produced in the Douro Valley in Portugal.
What makes Port Wine such a prized commodity is its unique blend of Portuguese indigenous grapes. Each grape adds a distinct flavor to the blends used in the different styles of Port wine, which features 6 different variations depending on the fruits used, length of fermentation, as well as its aging process.
How is Port Wine Produced?
Once harvested, indigenous grapes are pressed to extract the juice and begin the fermentation process. Pressing the juice is traditionally done in lagars, which are tanks where people stomp on the grapes with their feet. Today, however, most wineries use automatic lagars where mechanical “feet” are in place of manual labor. A few producers today, nevertheless, still use traditional lagars in their production process.
Moving on, the juice is fermented for several days until they reach an alcohol level of about 7%. This young wine is then fortified with brandy which stops the fermentation process and captures the wine’s fruit nuances. This process yields high levels of residual sugar levels, creating its signature sweet taste.
Depending on the style of Port Wine, the aging process can be done in a barrel or in a bottle, with different durations for the different styles of wine.
The Douro Valley
The Douro Valley is the key viticultural region known for growing over 50 varieties of wine grapes used to make the wine. Portuguese grapes favor the dry climate and rocky soils of the Valley, where they are grown on terraced hillsides.
The growing season for indigenous grapes extends throughout the summer with harvest season typically occurring in mid-September. The wineries are called “Quintas,” where they’re found high up from the Douro River, east of Oporto City, and nearly reaching the Spain border.
The Alto Douro region, which is the upper region, is the world’s oldest demarcated wine region. It also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site and wine has been produced here for over 2,000 years, making the Douro Valley’s winemaking industry prehistoric.
A Brief History of Port Wine
Wine produced in the Valley in prehistoric times is not the Port Wine that is known today. It only became such after the country started to export its wine to England.
It was during the 17th and 18th centuries when Port Wine became famous in Britain. It started when Britain was at war with France. Since Britain doesn’t have suitable land to grow grapes, the country formerly imported its wine from France. But when the wars began, Britain banned all imports from the country and decided to look elsewhere. It was then that they set their sights on Portugal.
However, because Portugal was quite far from Britain, Portuguese wine at the time could not survive the long journey. Two Portuguese brothers are said to have accidentally created the very first Port Wine when they fortified the wine with grape brandy to maintain the quality. Brandy has the ability to suddenly stop fermentation and increase the levels of sugar, which creates the signature Port Wine taste, and voila, the beginnings of its popularity in Britain began.
It has been said that while Portugal created Port Wine, it was the British that perfected the formula. This explains why many vineyards in the Douro Valley are British-owned up to this day.
In 1757, Portugal’s Marques de Pombal created a decree to protect the vital import of Port Wine to Europe. This decree demarcated the Douro Valley to indicate that the specific region was the only region allowed to carry the Port Wine name. It also created very strict standards and wine production regulations to ensure the quality of all Port Wines produced. The decree became the very first designation of its kind.
What Does Port Wine Taste Like?
Port Wine has a sweet flavor that’s full-bodied but not too acidic. It features aromas of dried fruit, wood, spice, and dark fruits like plum. The most common flavors include chocolate sauce, blackberry, raspberry, caramel, and cinnamon.
There are over 50 varieties of indigenous grapes in the Douro Valley, with the most commonly used being the Touriga Franca, the Touriga Nacional, the Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, and the Tinta Cao.
Though there are 6 different styles of Port Wine, there are two major styles, which are: Red, which features more of a blend of berry and chocolate flavors, and a tawny-colored wine that’s more on caramel and nutty in flavor. The red variety is less sweet while the tawny variety is the sweeter style of the two.
How is Port Wine Unique or Distinct from Other Wines?
Port wine is distinct due to the grapes used in production. Port wine features indigenous grapes from the Douro Demarcated Region. The viticultural, and climate conditions of the region are important to classify and choose the best vineyard to produce Port Wine.
While other wine-producing regions from around the world produce fortified wine, they don’t carry the distinct Portuguese flavors of the Douro Valley’s indigenous grapes. Their flavors might include similar aromas and tastes, but not quite matching the authentic notes of indigenous grapes found in Douro.
The 6 Common Types of Port Wine
There are 6 different styles of Port Wine with each one having a distinct flavor, aroma, and color from the other.
Rosé is Port Wine that consists of red wine grapes and red berry flavors. It is sweetened with brown sugar and cranberry.
Tawny is barrel-aged wine and features caramel, dried fruit, spice, and hazelnut flavors. They are distinctly aged in 10, 20, 30, or 40 years, with each age offering different flavors.
Ruby Port Wine is the affordable style which means it is meant to be enjoyed sooner. It consists of spice, chocolate, and berry flavors.
White Port Wine is made with white wine grapes and features flavors of apple, fruit, toasted nuts, and citrus peel. They are aged for at least 7 years and have a nutty after taste.
These wines are barrel-aged for 2 to 4 years before they are bottle-aged and typically feature spicy and peppery flavors. It also features blueberry, grape, and plum.
Colheita Port Wine is a single-year vintage port that is barrel-aged for 7 years before bottling. It features a single vintage-dated Tawny, which means all ingredients or grapes are derived from one single harvest.
The Best Brands of Port Wine
While there are plenty of Port Wine brands, only a select few have become the most iconic and most revered brands. Some of these brands have been around for hundreds of years and run by generations and generations of local families in the region, while some are owned by British companies that have found their way into the Portuguese wine-producing regions since the very beginning of Port Wine imports in the 17th or 18th centuries.
Whether you want a regular Ruby or an exquisite Vintage aged 40 years and beyond, these top brands will give you the richest Port Wine experience.
Porto Valduoro Rosé
With flavors of raspberry, gooseberry, pomegranate, and cherry, this Rosé Port Wine is preserved from temperature-controlled grapes and comes from the Wiese and Krohn estate. It is considered to be the best Rosé Port Wine in the market for its sweet and light flavor.
Taylor Fladgate Ruby Port Wine
This company has been making wine since 1692 and this wine has been aged for 2 years in oak vats, which has resulted in a jammy black plum and blackberry flavor, with an oaky chocolate undertone. Among its other flavors inlude a hint of spice, and dark fruit.
Sandeman Apitiv White Port Reserve
The company behind this white Port Wine dates back to 1790 and features flavors of apricot, raisin, orange peel, and balsamic. Its unique flavor is due to the use of over-riped grapes fermented in steel tanks.
Cockburn’s 20-Year-Old Tawny Port Wine
Cockburn is known as one of the most famous Port Wine brands in the world. They are known for having high standards of quality control and having one of the largest vineyards in Portugal. Flavors of caramel, honey, raisin, walnuts, butterscotch, and candied apricot provide a smooth, light, yet bold flavor with a nutty undertone.
Dow’s Vintage Port
Dated 10-40 years, Dow’s Vintage Port Wine is the perfect epitome of how powerful Port Wine can be. Its intense flavor is credited to the strong notes of plum, blackberry, raisin, chocolate, and licorice.
Kopke Colheita Port 1996
Offering a complex set of flavors that include caramel, toffee, raisin, dried fruit, oak, almond, and walnut, it offers the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity with its dark amber hue color.
Where to Buy Port Wine?
Port Wine is commonly found in wine shops, but also liquor stores, and grocery shops. The quality greatly varies and higher quality Port Wines are usually found in specialty wine shops, purveyors, and online.
It must be noted that most Port Wines that are found in supermarkets have lower quality and must be consumed immediately after opening as they can have a tendency to go bad after a few days when opened.
Ruby Port Wine can last for 2 weeks at room temperature and one month in the fridge, while Tawny Port can last up to 1 month at room temperature, and longer if stored in the fridge.
Port Wine and Food
Port Wine is the perfect drink after dinner, to pair with dessert, or as a dessert itself. It also pairs well with rich cheese and indulgent desserts full of flavor. When it comes to Tawny Port Wine, soft cheese like brie works best, as well as milk chocolate bars, pecan pies, or cheesecakes. Ruby Port Wine pairs well with dark chocolate truffles, and fruit cake.
Generally, Port Wine is the perfect pairing to a Charcuterie Board, which consists of cured meats, olives, nuts, cheese, dried fruit, crackers, and jelly or jam. The salty and briny flavors of pickles or olives provide an ideal contrast to the sweetness and deeper fruit flavors of the wine.
Port Wine is also a great addition to cooking as they make for a great reduction sauce. They can be added to chocolate cakes, chocolate sauces or as a decadent drizzle over steak. Additionally, the wine also makes for a great alternative to maple syrup or brown sugar when it is are simmered and reduced to a thick sauce.
Port Wine is a much beloved and famous wine the world over. Its sweet taste and mix of distinct flavors only the Douro Valley can provide make it an exquisite wine that hits all the right places when it comes to a glass of fortified wine. Great as an after-dinner drink, as a pairing to dessert, or as dessert itself, the varieties provide different flavors and aromas for any wine connoisseur, or as a great introduction to the world of wine for the first time wine taster.