A Primer on Port Wine and Visiting Porto
View of Porto from across the Douro River. One of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
Even regular wine drinkers may not be that familiar with Port wine. Unlike most wines (think Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon), Port is not named after the varietal of the grape, but rather after the region where the wine is produced. The same way Champagne can only be made in the Champagne region in France (otherwise it is just considered sparkling wine), unless a wine is made in the Douro Valley, it cannot be called a Port wine (it would just be considered a fortified wine).
Port is sweet, so it is considered a dessert wine. Like other dessert wines that are high in sugar and alcohol, it is typically served in smaller portions and sipped – like a liquor.
Tip #1: Although dessert wines are meant to be enjoyed during dessert, you don’t want to pair a dessert wine with a really sweet dessert. Instead, dessert wines are better paired with cheeses or a dark, bitter chocolate. Otherwise, the sweetness of the wine and the dessert together will be overwhelming.
I recently traveled to the Douro Valley, including visiting Porto, and got a chance to taste Ports made by some of the best Port producers in the world. I also had the chance to see the process of making the Port wine when visiting the cellars and wine estates themselves. In this article, I’ll cover the basics of Port wine including the different types and how the wine is made, and then what to do when visiting Porto (we’ll save the rest of the Douro Valley and other types of Portuguese wine for another day!).
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What is Port Wine?
Port is a fortified wine made from a blend of various grapes from the Douro Valley region in Portugal. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, England and France were constantly fighting. At the end of the 17th century, the English decided to boycott French wine because of the continuous battling. Still wanting to have high quality red wine, the English started procuring their wine from Portugal. However, the ocean voyage to ship the wine from Portugal to England took a while, and the wine would spoil on the ship. At some point, they discovered that if they added a little bit of brandy to the wine, it could make the voyage without going bad. Hence, Port wine was invented.
Port is made of a blend of many different types of grapes. In fact, it is very rare to find a single-varietal Portugese wine at all. Some of the most common grapes used to make Port are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, and Touriga Roriz.
Tip #2: While we were traveling in Portugal, the winemakers raved about the Touriga Nacional grape. Very similar in structure to a Cabernet Sauvignon, the Touriga Nacional is one of the few grapes that Portugese winemakers are starting to produce as a single varietal wine. In fact, the Portugese believe Touriga Nacional will be the next wine to get trendy and gain popularity. So, if you can find it in your local wine store, pick it up now while the prices are still low.
Ports are typically red, but there are also white and blush Ports produced. While some “traditional” Port drinkers/producers do not consider the white and blush Ports to be “true Ports”, they are gaining popularity with the general public. In fact, we were told that a favorite hot weather drink in Portugal is to have some blush Port with a splash of tonic water to give it some fizz.
How is Port Wine Made?
The start of the wine making process for Port is the same as it is for any varietal. The grapes are harvested in the fall. After picking the grapes, they are very carefully pressed to extract the juices. While most of the world now presses the grapes with machines, most of the wine estates in Portugal still press their grapes the old-fashioned way – with human feet! Some of the larger producers now have pressing machines that mimic the mechanics of stomping the grapes with human feet.
After harvest, grapes are put into these vats, where they are stomped with human feet.
Tip #3: If you want a unique experience, plan your visit to the Douro Valley around harvest time, and you can participate in stomping the grapes. Many wine estates offer the experience to visitors. Of course, the exact dates vary from year to year, as the dates the grapes are picked depend on a multitude of conditions. However, if you can be flexible with your travel, it’s a cool experience for any wine lover.
After the grapes are pressed, they sit for a couple of days to allow fermentation to occur. This is the point of the process where producing a Port wine differs from regular wine. Once the alcohol level has reached about 7%, brandy is added to the wine, which brings fermentation to an immediate stop. By stopping fermentation, the sugars in the wine do not convert to alcohol, which is why Port wine is so sweet and has a high sugar content.
Next, the wines are put into large oak casks to age. Typically, the wine sits in the cask for about 18 months, at which point they are blended with other batches to achieve the flavor that the winemaker is looking for. Once blended, depending on the type of Port you are making, they will either go back in the oak casks to continue aging, or go into the bottle to finish the aging process in the bottle.
Large casks where the wine is stored to age. These casks are much larger than the typical oak barrels used in the production of other types of wine.
Traditionally, many Port wine producers did not store their wines at their estates because of the high temperatures. They would ship their wines up the Douro River to Porto (technically Gaia, but more about that below) in boats called Barcos Rabelos, and then store it in their cellars there where the weather was cooler.
You can still find replicas of the traditional Barcos Rabelos boats that were used to transport the Port wine from the rest of the Douro Valley to Porto.
Tip #4: While we were visiting the Douro Valley, we were told time and again how hot it gets there in the summer. Average temperatures during the day in the summer are well above 100 deg F. Even the locals try to escape the hot weather when they can. So, plan your trip for spring or fall if possible. We were there at the beginning of April, and the weather was beautiful and very comfortable.
Types of Port Wine
There are three basic types of Port wine: Tawny, Ruby and Vintage. While each type can be made with the same grapes, the way it is made and the characteristics the wine has are totally different.
Ruby Port: This is the most common type of Port. It is easier to make than other types, so it is produced in the biggest volumes and is easier to get. It is also usually the most reasonably priced of all of the different Ports. Ruby Ports are made of a blend of various grapes and vintages. They are aged for up to 3 years before being bottled. You can recognize a Ruby Port by its ruby color.
Tip #5: Because Ruby Ports are typically made up of a blend of various grapes and vintages, they are categorized as NV, or non-vintage. In other words, you can’t buy a 2014 Ruby Port, like you would buy a 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Ruby Ports are intended to be consumed as soon as they are released. They are not intended to be stored/cellared for long periods of time. Once open, a Ruby Port will stay good for a couple of weeks, so you can take your time drinking it.
Tawny Port: Tawny Ports are made from a blend of older vintages. Typically, the labels will designate them as 10, 20 or 30 year Tawnies. The year designation indicates the average number of years between all the vintages blended into that particular bottle. The wine spends more time in the oak casks, so it picks up the flavors of the oak. Many people describe Tawnies as having a nutty or caramel taste, as opposed to the more fruity/floral taste of a Ruby Port. Tawny Port usually has a more amber color, also due to the further aging in the oak cask.
Because of the way they are made, Tawny Ports can last several months after being opened.
Vintage Port: The creme de la creme of Port is a Vintage Port. While they are made from a blend of different grapes, they can only be made from grapes from the same vintage. That particular vintage year must be declared a “Vintage Port year” by the Port Wine Institute. Typically, only three years out of every decade are declared Vintage Port years.
It doesn’t look like much, but this is the Port Wine Institute in Porto. This is where the Port wine is tasted and tested to determine if wine from that harvest will be declared a Vintage Port year.
Vintage Ports are typically aged in oak about 6 months, and then put into the bottle and stored to finish the aging process. Because Vintage Ports are so difficult to make and only a small percentage of an estate’s overall production, they are the most expensive of all of the Ports.
Once you open a Vintage Port, you should drink it right away, as it will lose its quality once the wine is exposed to the air.
Tip #6: In the 2000’s, there have been 6 years declared as vintage years – 2000, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011. The 2011 vintage, particularly, has been called one of the best. If you come across a bottle of Vintage Port from these years at a reasonable price, it’s a great investment to buy one. A Vintage Port should age in the bottle at least 15 years, so a 2000 Vintage Port could be enjoyed now. For the other years, buy a bottle and hold onto it.
Tip #7: As with all wine, it’s important to store the bottles properly. Wine is best stored on its side, so that the wine stays in contact with the cork. It should also be stored in a cool, dark place. Port wine tastes best slightly chilled – around 60 – 65 deg F.
Tip #8: The large Port Wine producers are the wines most readily available outside of Portugal. Look for Taylor’s, Sandeman’s, Croft, Graham’s and Cockburn. If you get to travel to Portugal, seek out the lesser known labels. In most cases, their production is so small that they only sell directly from their wine estate. Prices of Port wine directly from the estate are very reasonable compared to the prices you will pay in the U.S. and other countries, so if you visit Portugal and are a fan of Port, consider shipping some home.
Graham’s was one of the wine cellars we visited while we were in Porto.
Porto is the second largest city in Portugal behind Lisbon. It’s in the northern part of Portugal at the mouth of the Douro River, with the Atlantic Ocean just to the west. Porto does have an airport, although getting a direct flight into Porto from the U.S. is unlikely. When we visited, we started in Lisbon and took the train to Porto. The train was easy and fast (just under 3 hours), and it only cost about 25 euros each to buy a first class ticket. You can buy your train tickets on-line directly from the Portuguese Railway’s website at www.cp.pt. There is a button at the top that allows you to translate the site to English. I purchased our train tickets on the site, and found it to be very easy to navigate through the purchase.
As I alluded to above, the Port wine cellars are not located in the city of Porto, but across the Douro River in Gaia. If you are on a river cruise (which we were), the river cruise ship will port in Gaia. However, it’s very easy to walk across the Ponte de Dom Luis bridge to go into Porto.
The Ponte de Dom Luis bridge lit up at night. Taking a river cruise in the Porto area at night is a great way to view the city and the lights.
Porto is a very walkable city. The historic center of the city was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1996. When visiting the city center, be sure to visit the Porto Cathedral and the Sao Bento Railway Station.
Tip #9: While Porto is a very safe city, be aware of pickpockets. As with any city that attracts tourists, they look for the people that are busy staring up at the tile on the ceiling and not paying attention to their handbag or fanny pack. Keep your belongings secure. NEVER carry your passport with you. Lock it in the hotel or cruise ship safe.
Inside the cathedral in Porto.
Portugal is famous for its tile. One of the best displays of tile is inside the train station in Porto.
Tip #10: In Gaia, you can ride on the elevated cable cars from the top of the hill (entrance is near the Ponte de Dom Luis bridge) to the bottom (near where the river cruise ships dock). The cars are mostly glass for optimal views. You will get breath taking views of Porto and the Douro River.
One of the cable cars. Taking a ride is worth it for the beautiful views of Porto and the Douro River.
As mentioned, all of the wine cellars are located in Gaia. You can simply walk up and down the main street along the Douro River, and you will see signs for all of the various cellars that you can visit. The main street also has numerous restaurants and cafés. So, when you need a break from wine tasting, stop at a sidewalk café and grab something to eat.
Tip #11: I used the Rick Steves book on Portugal to help me plan a lot of this trip. It’s a great resource with really good information. If you’d like to buy Rick’s book on Portugal, click here.
In general, Portugal is an amazing country to visit. The food and wine are delicious. The prices are very reasonable. The country is absolutely beautiful. The people are friendly and always willing to help if you are lost or have questions. Most Portuguese people speak English quite well, so communicating is not an issue.
If you are planning a visit to Portugal, check out my article on Lisbon.
I will have one more article to cover the rest of the Douro Valley, all of the other types of wine Portugal produces, and a little bit about river cruising. If you have any questions about visiting Porto or Port wine, feel free to comment here or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.