Port in Porto

Posted on Friday, October 9th, 2009 at 9:02 am

Across the river from Porto, connected by a pedestrian-friendly bridge, is Vila Nova de Gaia, home to the port lodges.   While the grapes are actually grown on man-made terraces that were built into the nearby Douro Valley, Vila Nova de Gaia has ideal weather for the aging process.  Once upon a time, in order to call your drink “port” you had to have a lodge in this little town.  This historic consolidation makes learning about port exceptionally easy.

Via Nova de Gaia

Port is a fortified wine.  It was originally created to help wine survive transportation from Spain to England, the biggest producers and buyers of port.  After the grapes are crushed, the wine begins to ferment.  When about half of the sugars have turned to alcohol, usually after about three days, a fortifier is added to the wine.  While brandy was originally used, it is now typical to add a clear, flavorless, grape spirit of around 77% alcohol content.  This halts the fermentation process while much of the fruits’ natural sugars still remain.  The resulting port wine is both sweet and high in alcohol, typically around 20%.

There are several types of port:

  • White port is made from white grapes.  The first white port, Chip Dry, was made by Taylor’s in 1934.  As the story goes, it was once common to give the field workers sherry to drink during the hot harvest time.  That year, because they were running out of sherry, they decided to make a white port using the white grapes and give it to the workers.  Happy accident, all of the major producers now make a version of white port to sell.  Unlike rubies and tawnies, whites may be classified from extra dry to extra sweet.  Typically served as an aperitif, they should always be well chilled.

White Port

  • Ruby port is made from red grapes.  It is aged in huge oak casks, sometimes as large as 20,000 liters.  The large size of the vat means that there is little contact with oxygen through the wood’s pores.  Because of the slow and slight oxygenation, the ruby ports keep more of their original fruit flavors and dark red color.  Ruby ports are typically paired with soft cheeses and rich desserts.  It goes especially well with chocolate.

Casks for Ruby Port

  • Tawny ports are also made from red grapes.  However, because they are aged in much smaller barrels, there is more contact with oxygen through the pores of the oak.  As the wine ages, its color changes.  The older the tawny, the lighter the color will be.  The flavors also evolve because of this very gradual oxidation.  A typical tawny might have notes of dried fruits, nuts, cinnamon, toffee or coffee.  It is commonly matched with light desserts and hard cheeses.

Casks for Tawny Port

  • Vintage ports are made from exceptionally good harvests.  After about two years in the large oak casks, a ruby wine is tested to see if it might age well is a bottle.  Only two or three harvests per decade are pronounced vintage-worthy.  If deemed good enough, these wines are then bottled without being filtered.  The grape skins and pieces add to the complexity as the wine ages for ten, twenty, thirty, or even forty years.  A vintage bottle should always be decanted before drinking.  Once it is opened, it should be drunk quickly.  Having aged in a bottle, it has not been exposed to oxygen like the ports aged in wood.  Once opened and exposed to air, the taste will change quickly.

Vintage Ports

  • Late Bottle Vintages (LBVs) are made every year from ruby ports.  They get their name because they are aged in the large oak barrels for four to six years, instead of only two years.  They are filtered before bottling so they do not need to be decanted.  LBVs can be drunk immediately or aged for up to seven years.  Some call these wines the “vintage of the poor.”
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