Aside from the fact that it’s from Portugal – how much do you really know about port wine? Ever wondered how exactly this distinctive wine is made and what sets it apart? Welcome to your crash course on this delicious dessert wine!
1. What is Port Wine?
Port wine is a fortified, rich and sweet red wine that has a higher alcohol content than traditional wine. Port wine usually falls under the ‘dessert wine’ category given its distinctive sweetness. It can be drunk as an aperitif, or after a meal.
2. Where and How Did Port Wine Come into Existence?
Origins of port wine date back to the 1600s when England was at war with France, and popular French red wine Claret along with many others were banned from being sold to the English, they set foot along new wine trade routes. Explorers found the Douro Valley in Portugal and were captivated by the deep-red colored wine produced there. To ensure that the wine made a swift journey back to England, they added brandy to it during the fermentation process, which gave it its characteristic sweetness. To date, port wine is mostly only made in Douro Valley in Porto, Portugal.
3. How is Port Wine Made?
The production of port wine is somewhat similar to other still wines. Grapes are harvested in the fall in the low-nutrient, dry-schist Douro Valley vineyard soil. They are then pressed to extract the juice after which the fermentation process begins. Although there has been an increase in the use of mechanical treaders over the years, the open-air foot treading culture is still embraced by port producers for pressing the grapes.
After treading, the pressed grapes and juice is left for fermentation for several days until the alcohol content reaches about seven percent. The young wine is fortified with brandy to stop the fermentation process and to capture the wine’s fruit subtleties. The fortification leaves the residual sugar concentration considerably higher than most still wines, in a 100g/L range. The wine is then pumped into large oak casks to age for about 18 months. After a year and a half, the wine is blended with other lots of port; this infusion ultimately creates a rich wine with distinctive flavors of the fruit and an overarching balance. The young port is then ready to be bottled up for further aging. It may even be left in the cask to do so. Grapes used include Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cāo and Tinta Barroca – there are at least 52 varieties of grapes used when it comes to port wine!
4. What Does Port Wine Taste Like?
All port wines usually have a few typical flavors. There are a variety of different kinds of port, but the two primary styles include a red port wine with more chocolate and berry flavors; and another tawny-colored port with nut and caramel flavors. Typically, port wine has intense flavors of berries: blackberries, raspberries and prunes. But it is also styled in flavors like chocolate, cinnamon, nuts and dried fruits. Vintage Port or 30+-year-old Tawny Port are two finely aged port wines that have a plethora of subtle flavors like hazelnut, butterscotch, almond, green peppercorn and graham crackers.
5. How Can I Drink Port Wine?
This dessert wine is best approached like a fine brandy: take small sips, just enough to experience the delicious fruity, berry flavors.
Serving: Port is usually served in small glasses, but you can also sip it in a standard wine glass to capture and enhance its aroma. It’s advised to serve port wine at just below room temperature – around 60 degrees Fahrenheit (19 degrees Celsius), this allows the flavors and the sweetness of the wine to come out and for its alcohol content not to be too overpowering. The Ruby Port is popularly served in the summer with a peel of lime. For Rosé and White Port, a cooler temperature ranging from 4 to 10-degrees Celsius is recommended as lighter ports are best enjoyed chilled.
6. What is Port Decantation?
Vintage and crusted ports need to go through a process of decantation because they have sediments in the bottle, which aren’t harmful to drink, but quite unpleasant! Ports can also be decanted if you want to release their aroma. You don’t need to have a unique decanter – jugs, milk bottles and vases are all fair game.
How to decant: No particular skill is actually required to be able to decant port wine, but it is a plus if you don’t have shaky hands! Make sure the bottle is standing up straight for about a day or two (or until the sediment settles at the bottom of the bottle). When you’re ready to decant, open the bottle and slowly and steadily pour the wine into another bottle until the sediment starts moving to the neck of the bottle. Traditionally, a candle is used to see the sediment clearly, but you can use the flashlight off your phone in a pinch.
7. How Long Does an Open Port Last?
Most wine is meant to be consumed within a few days of opening the bottle, but depending on its style, your port can live much longer. Vintage Ports have to be consumed within a few days, but you can drink Reserve and Tawny ports for a few weeks if kept in the fridge. It is best to keep your ports in a cool, dark place. You can also use a vacuum preserver to remove oxygen before you recork the bottle, and your wine will last much longer.
8. What Foods Can I Pair and Cook with Port Wine?
Port wine pairs well with strong cheeses like blue cheese and Stilton. Given its creaminess, blue cheese draws out the sweetness of the wine, while the berry flavors enhance the taste of the cheese. You can also pair your port with smoked, roasted or salted nuts. Desserts made with chocolate and caramel are also an excellent option to pair with the wine.
Cooking with port wine can add fruity flavors to your food. Use it to make sauces for sweet and savory dishes (port wine used for chocolate sauce served with cake is a popular recipe), the high sugar content in port wine easily allows for a thicker consistency than most red wines. Ruby or Reserve Port are your best buds when it comes to using port wine for cooking.
9. What are the different types of port wine?
White Port is a light port wine made with white grapes. Typical flavors are citrus peel, baked apple, apricot and roasted nuts. The wine isn’t aged for too long and isn’t very sweet.
Tawny Port has its characteristic color in its name, it’s aged for extended periods in wooden casks before bottling. Tawny is a blend of many vintage ports and can be as old as 10-40 years. The wine has soft flavors of caramel, hazelnut, prune, fig, cloves and cinnamon. Once bottled, it is ready to drink – this one doesn’t taste any different over time so don’t leave this bottle to age.
Rosé Port has rich berry flavors of raspberry, strawberry and cranberry sauce. It is sweeter than white port but not as rich as its Tawny and Ruby counterparts.
Ruby Port is the most cost-efficient port wine. It’s aged for a period of two to three years in a vat. Like the Tawny port, Ruby doesn’t improve over time.
Reserve Port is a step-up of Ruby Port. It has deeper flavors of chocolate, cinnamon, raspberries and blackberries. Aged for at least three years before it’s bottled and released, this is the kind of wine you want to savor slowly.
Vintage Port is typically the most expensive kind of port wine. It’s made from small quantities of the best grapes and is aged for over two years and can go onto age even after it’s bottled, even for decades!