Port (also Porto) is a type of fortified wine made in the Douro Valley in Portugal. Port is one of the longest lived wines due to high levels of residual sugar and higher than usual levels of alcohol in the finished product. Established in 1756, the Port region is the third oldest protected winegrowing area in the world, only behind Chianti in 1716 and Tokaji (in Hungary) in 1730.
Interestingly, Port as we know it is an English invention. In the later part of the 17th century, wine merchants from England needed a stable source of wine to import, as wars between England and France stopped trade in wine sporadically. England and Portugal already had a thriving trade, so merchants went to the city of Porto on the Atlantic coast, and bought the local wines. On the voyage back to England, many barrels spoiled, until brandy was added to the barrels, which preserved the young Port wine until it was safely back in England.
Originally, Port was dry red wine that was fortified with brandy. Beginning with the Treaty of Methuen in 1703, import duties on Portugese wine were lower than that of French or German wine, leading to a significant increase in consumption of Port. Starting with the great 1820 vintage, Port moved towards a style with significant residual sugar -- perhaps many fermentations stuck with superripe grapes and incredible heat (it can hit 110 degrees in the Douro Valley in the summer), and without modern winemaking knowledge and technology, the wines were bottled with a level of residual sugar that proved popular in England.
Kopke is the original Port shipper, founded in 1638. The first English house is Warre's, which began in 1670. Other common Port houses include Taylor-Fladgate, Fonseca, Dow, Niepoort, Graham's, Croft, and Ramos-Pinto. Many of these are still in family hands.
Many local varietals (over 100 are allowed) make up Port production. In ruby Port, the primary grapes are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, and Tinta Roriz (which is Tempranillo). In white Port, Donzelinho Branco, Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Rabigato, Esgana-Cão, and Viosinho are used. Nearly all Port is a blend of grapes, with one notable exception being the own-rooted Touriga Nacional vineyard that makes up Quinta do Noval's Nacional bottling, which is the most expensive bottle of Port on release, typically topping $500.
The region of the Douro Valley is divided into three parts, from west to east: Baixa Corgo, Cima Corgo, and Douro Superior. Quality production is centered around the Cima Corgo, with some quality Port coming from the Douro Superior. the Baixa Corgo has flatter vineyards with more fertile soil, and produces soft, fat Ports with high yields. The Cima Corgo has steep, rocky slopes planted to vines, and the Douro Superior has a range of gently sloping vineyards and steeper sites.
Port has a unique system called the Cadastro, which classifies vineyards into tiers of quality wine production, and determines what volume of wine a particular vineyard can produce. Factors that are graded include soil type, vine age, slope of the vineyard, what grapes are planted there and how they are trained, sun exposure, and shelter from cold winds. Vineyards are graded A through F, with A being the best quality and highest quantity of wine production allowed.
Port production starts off like any typical wine: local grapes are crushed, fermentation starts, but about halfway through fermentation, a neutral grape spirit (brandy) called aguardente is added to bring the wine up to around 20% alcohol, which effectively stops fermentation, leaving significant levels of residual sugar in the wine. What happens next determines the style and quality of the finished wine.
Ports can be broadly divided into two types: those that mainly undergo reductive aging in a bottle and those that mainly undergo oxidative aging, which is typically done in a barrel.
Under the reductive heading, the lowest quality is called Ruby Port -- these are typically stored in concrete or stainless steel tanks, blended to match a house style, and fined and filtered. They are pleasant, simple, inexpensive wines without a lot of tannins, but lack the complexity of higher quality styles. The next step up is called Late Bottled Vintage Port, or LBV. These walk a fine line between the reductive and oxidative styles, as they are aged in barrel for an extended period of time (between four and six years, usually) before being filtered and bottled. LBV Port is vintage dated.
The next step up is a style called Single Quinta Port (a Quinta is a vineyard). These are vintage dated, and aged for two years in barrel before being bottled without filtration, just like Vintage Port. Typically, these Quintas are the heart of a given Port house, and are typically made when a vintage is not declared. Some common single Quinta Ports include Taylor-Fladgate's Quinta de Vargellas, Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos, and Warre's Quinta do Cavadinha. They age a bit quicker than vintage Port, but still can last for 10 to 20 years in the bottle.
At the top of the reductive pyramid is Vintage Port. When the growing season is particularly good, a Port house will declare the vintage. They do so individually, but there is a general consensus on the following recent vintages: 2007, 2003, 2000, 1997, 1994, 1985, 1983, 1977, 1970, 1963 and 1955. These Ports are aged for two years in barrel, then bottled unfiltered. Vintage Port can age for decades easily, with many of the 1970's beginning to move into their optimal drinking window. Remember... Americans tend to drink their Ports like dessert wines -- young, full of fruit, and fairly sweet. The English like their Ports tasting more like old, dry red wine, and will typically be drinking their 1963's now.
The other major style of Port is the oxidative one. Here, freshly made Port is aged in barrels for years, until it loses its red color and turns golden brown, or Tawny. Tawny Port typically has a number on the label, which tells you how old the blend is on average. Tawny Ports are almost always a blend of different vintages. Typical designations include 10, 20, 30, and 40 year old Tawny. Tawny Port turns drier as it ages -- younger tawnys are sweeter.
So as a general rule, if you see a vintage date on a bottle of Port, you're getting a Ruby Port, and if you see a number, it's a Tawny. The exception to this rule is called Colheita Port, which is a vintage dated Tawny Port. Colheitas will always have the bottling date on the back label, so it's easy to subtract one from the other and figure out how long it was in barrel.
Two special cases of Port are White Port and Pink Port. White Port is typically a bit drier than Ruby, but is made in the same way, from approved white grapes. White Port is typically drunk with a large slice of lime and club soda on the rocks during the brutal Portugese summers. Pink Port is a relative newcomer, and is made like Ruby Port, but with less skin contact, leaving a rose colored wine that is lighter, less tannic and more fruity than Ruby Port.
Vintage and Single Quinta Ports must be decanted for sediment -- remember... they're bottled unfiltered. The easiest way to do this is to stand the bottle upright for a few days before serving. Cut the foil and white paper strip off the top, and wipe down the lip of the bottle with a damp cloth (capsules used to be made of lead, so it's always a good idea to wipe down anything in contact with the capsule when opening older bottles).
Using a good quality corkscrew with a long worm, carefully insert the corkscrew through the cork, and gently attempt to remove it. Port corks are notorious for breaking or being soft, so an Ah-So should be handy just in case (an Ah-So is a two pronged cork remover that slips between the cork and the bottle wall and grasps the cork for easy removal). Once the cork is out, carefully and slowly pour the Port into a decanter, watching the stream for sediment. A small, strong flashlight can be used to help see the sediment. Once sediment is present in the wine stream, use a fine strainer or a coffee filter to catch the sediment. Rinse the bottle out and pour the Port back into the bottle if desired. Other types of Port tend to come with liquor (T-top) corks, which do not need special treatment, and are easy to reseal.
As for pairing Port with food, White Port is typically drunk as an aperitif, but can be paired with seafood like scallops, oysters, or oily fish. Ruby Port is typically best served after dinner, and is a natural pair for chocolate, berry fruit, cigars, or blue cheeses, especially Stilton. Young Tawny Port is fantastic with flan or pecan pie, and as they get older, they're more appropriately matched with dried fruit and roasted almonds or walnuts. Starting at about 40 years, Tawny Port is best drunk by itself, as it is quite subtle and delicate. Most Port should be served at a cool room temperature, at around 68-70 degrees out of small tulip glasses which help minimize alcohol aromas. As a general rule, the longer a Port was in a barrel, the longer its life is once the bottle is opened. Ruby Ports and LBVs need to be drunk within a week. Single Quinta and Vintage Port should be drunk within two weeks. Tawnies can be opened for months without significant oxidation.