The waves crash violently against the wood, making it squeak. We sway from side to side. Constant jolts knock us over as we traverse the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean in a 17th-century galleon. A suffocating heat and Anglo-Saxon screams fill the ship’s hold. It’s here that we find its most precious cargo: port wine.
This is Portugal’s most famous fortified wine and one which is increasingly recognised internationally. A delicacy designed to accompany those never-ending conversations before and after dinner. It was born as an experiment by English merchants, who added brandy to the wine to make it withstand the terrible conditions of the ships.
This is its great peculiarity. Winemakers interrupt the fermentation process by adding brandy, which gives the wine its particular natural sweetness and strong character. A national symbol of this level deserves a tribute. That’s why the on 27th of January we celebrate International Port Wine Day.
A short history of port wine
Tinto de Portugal, as it was formerly called, was made in the area now known as Vinho Verde until 1678. As time went by, the British lost interest in it, so the producers decided to move their production area to Serra do Marão.
From then on, the famous rabelos (typical Portuguese boats) started transporting the barrels along the river Douro until they reached its mouth in Vila Nova de Gaia. In the cellars, the wines would age for as long as necessary, while they awaited export to England. This was the beginning of Port Wine fever, with more and more ships making the trip between both countries.
Later, the Marquis of Pombal decided to establish the geographical limits and regulations for the making of this type of wine. The same rules prevail to this day.
Types of port wine
White port is made from white grapes from the Douro, such as Rabigato or Viosinho, and aged in wooden vats for between one and three years. The result is a very fresh wine, ideal to drink in cocktails but also by itself. If you try it with your favourite apéritifs, you’re sure to love it. Pair it with almonds, smoked salmon, fresh fruit, matured cheeses and olives. You’ll see.
Ruby port is made from the region’s red grapes, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca or Tinta Roriz, among many others, and is aged in vats for two or three years. Ruby port is a wine with an intense garnet colour and hints of wild berries. It’s an ideal starting point if you’re new to the world of port. A saltier cheese, such as gorgonzola or parmesan is the perfect accompaniment. But if you prefer something sweet, try it with chocolate and red fruits like strawberries.
Late Bottled Vintage is a ruby port made from the grapes of a single harvest. Normally, port wines are made with grapes from different harvests, which is why they never have a year on the label. But this type of wine is made from the most exceptional ones. In this case, it ages longer in oak vats, for around three or four years.
Perhaps the best known internationally. Tawny wines are produced in the same way as ruby port, but after ageing in oak barrels, they are transferred to oak casks. The combination of wood and oxygen provides the characteristic amber colour and hints of dried fruit. Try it with chestnut-based desserts and matured cheeses. You won’t regret it.
Envelhecido or Aged
These reddish wines are aged between ten and forty years. They’re old wines that increase in value as they spend more time in barrels. As a result, they tend to be sweeter and more fortified than their predecessors.
As with LBVs, only grapes from an exceptional harvest are used and they remain in barrels for at least seven years. The result is a light brown and much smoother wine.
Vintage ports are true collectors’ jewels and extremely rare. They’re created with the best grapes from excellent harvests. After two years in vats, the wine is bottled and aged for several more years. La crème de la crème!
Translated by Chelsea Cummings from Mariana Moura’s original Portuguese article: O Vinho do Porto contado como deve ser.