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18 August 2018

Port wine

Tag(s): Languages & Culture, Business, History
My wife and I recently took a river cruise on the Douro River in Portugal and for a short stretch in Spain. This gave us an opportunity to collect four more World Heritage sites: the old City of Porto; the nearby city of Guimarães, the first capital of Portugal; the ancient university city of Salamanca in Spain and the valley of the Douro itself. Wine has been produced by traditional landowners in the Alto Douro region for some 2.000 years. Since the 18th century, its main product, Port wine, has been world famous for its quality. This long tradition of viticulture has produced a cultural landscape of outstanding beauty that reflects its technological, social and economic evolution.

The justification for UNESCO’s inscription of the Alto Douro Region was threefold:
  • The Alto Douro Region has been producing wine for 2,000 years and its landscape has been moulded by human activities.
  • The components of the Alto Douro landscape are representative of the full range of activities associated with winemaking – terraces, quintas (wine producing farm complexes), villages, chapels, and roads.
  • The cultural landscape of the Alto Douro is an outstanding example of a traditional European wine-producing region, reflecting the evolution of this human activity over time.
The river basin is shielded by the Marão mountains from the cooling winds blowing off the Atlantic. It has a climate of hot dry summers and severe winters. All this combines to give very particular soil and climatic conditions. It spreads over a total area of approximately 250,000 hectares (about the size of Suffolk) and is divided into three sub-regions (Lower Corgo, Upper Corgo and Douro Superior) that differ greatly from each other not only regarding the weather but also in socio-economic factors.

The vines cover about 15% of all the land in the region and at times seem to cling on to impossibly steep slopes. Sometimes they are planted horizontally, sometimes vertically and sometimes diagonally as wine growers seek to get the best of the sun while still able to access by tractor, mule or even just on foot. Small farmers are very representative in the production of Port wine, often selling their grapes to the larger, better known houses.

In 1756, the Port wine vineyards of the Douro became the first area in the world to be legally demarcated, about a century before Bordeaux followed suit. Like other great classic wines, Port owes its distinctive character to a unique association of climate, soil, grape varieties and wine making tradition. The unique terroir of the Douro valley and its remarkable wines cannot be replicated elsewhere.

The first shipments under the name of Port were recorded in 1678. Although it is produced inland in the vineyards of the Upper Douro Valley, Port takes its name from the coastal city of Oporto (now generally known as Porto), where it is traditionally matured and exported.

Port wine, though clearly associated with Portugal, owes at least part of its invention to England as a direct (and delicious) by-product of the British battling France through much of the 17th and 18 centuries. This led to a boycott of French wine in the late 17th century and wine importers looked further afield and bought their red wine from Portugal instead of Bordeaux, the esteemed producer of England’s first love, Claret.

They started adding a bit of brandy to the still wine to help sustain it during the voyage back to England. This gave the delicate still wine the strength to make the long trip without spoiling. This also had the effect of stopping the fermentation and so leaving residual sugar levels, thus making the wine both stronger in alcohol and sweeter in taste. Today’s Port wine is about 20% alcohol by volume compared with say 12.5% to 14.5% for regular red wine. It has more body and so is a fitting pair with rich cheese or delicate desserts, or to finish off the meal with appropriate ceremony.

Instead of brandy today’s Port is fortified by adding a proportion of clear, neutral grape spirit to the fermenting grape juice. Only the finest spirits, distilled from white wine, are used.

Though most commonly enjoyed as a dessert wine there are several styles of Port wine, including red, white and rosé and an aged style called Tawny Port. In fact Port ages particularly well. We visited one quinta, the Quinta da Pachega, where they were selling today’s entry level wines at €12.50. I asked them if they had any of the great 1947 vintage. They did at €550 per bottle. Then I really tested them. ‘How about 1934?’ Yes, that was in stock at €750 per bottle. As a house Quinta da Pachega is nearly three hundred years old.

We also visited Taylor Fladgate in Gaia, across the river from Porto where most of the major brands are headquartered. Taylor Fladgate is even older having been founded in 1692. For more than three hundred years it has remained dedicated entirely to the production of Port and it is still family owned and managed.

After the harvest, the young Ports are left in the Douro valley until early the following year. Then, before the summer heat arrives in the vineyards, they are taken down to the coast where the environment is cooler.

As it matures Port gradually becomes paler, the intense ‘ruby’ red of a young wine gradually evolving into the seductive amber colour known as Tawny.  The wine’s character also changes, the firm structure and intense fruitfulness of youth giving way to the silky smoothness and subtle mellow aromas of maturity. With time, this change will happen in all red Ports and it is possible to influence the process by selecting the method of aging.

Port can be divided into two broad ‘families’: wood aged and bottle aged. Wood aged Ports mature in wooden casks or vats, usually made of oak. The smaller the vessel the greater the contact with the wood, so the wine develops the character and colour of maturity more quickly in a small cask than in a large vat. By contrast, the aging process in bottle is very slow and the wines retain their deep colour and youthful freshness and intensity for longer, slowly developing their subtle complex aromas over years or even decades in the cellar.

Only two kinds of Port age in bottle: Vintage Port and a relatively rare style called Crusted. All other Ports are wood aged. Wood aged ports do not need to be decanted and will remain in good condition for six weeks or so after the bottle is first opened.

Vintage Port only spends about twenty-two months in vat before being bottled. It then matures in the bottle. As it ages, it creates a natural sediment or ‘crust’ in the bottle and therefore needs to be decanted. Vintage Port is best enjoyed on the day that the bottle is opened and is usually served on special occasions when enough guests are present to finish the decanter. Some people will lay down a bottle of Vintage Port on the birth of a child or grandchild and then open it many years later to celebrate a milestone like coming of age or marriage.

Vintage Port is not made every year. It is a selection of the finest and most long lasting wines of a single exceptional year and represents a small proportion of the harvest.[i] Vintage Ports are excellent when enjoyed young but also reward patience. In the case of Taylor Fladgate its Vintage Ports are drawn from the firm’s three quintas, Vargellas, Terra Feita and Junco. After each harvest, the tasters select the finest Ports from each estate and place them in oak vats where they remain for two winters. In their second spring, the wines are tasted again. A blend is then carefully made up of the best wines from the three estates. If the blend is judged to be of exceptional quality, capable of long term aging and consistent with their house style, it may be bottled as a classic Vintage. The announcement of a new classic Vintage release is known as a ‘declaration’ and classic Vintage Ports are sometimes referred to as ‘declared’ vintages.[ii]

In my year as Master of the Worshipful Company of Marketors I served a Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas Port 2002. I admit to being something of a snob about Port and believe there is a huge difference in quality between Vintage and Non-Vintage Port wine. I am far less of a snob about regular wine and am always trying to find wines of good value. The problem is that I was introduced to Port wine when I went to New College, Oxford. The College had, and still has, an exceptional cellar. Some of the dons had the tough task of buying the wines on their summer tours of great French and Portuguese vineyards and they were laid down for decades in a huge cellar stretching under the College’s beautiful garden. In 1968 we were drinking the 1947 vintages and they were gorgeous. So when I entered the real world and was introduced to Non-Vintage Port wines to my palate they tasted like Ribena.

Taylor Fladgate is responsible for developing the idea of Late Bottled Vintage as an alternative to Vintage Ports. LBV is matured in vat where it is left to age for four to six years prior to bottling. In other words it is ‘late bottled’ compared to a Vintage Port. This means it is a ready to drink alternative that can be enjoyed by the glass.

Cheers! Or Saúde in Portuguese.


[i] Taylor Fladgate has declared a Classic Vintage in 33 of the years since 1900, but much more often it has declared a Vintage for one of its three quintas.
[ii] Taylor Fladgate traditionally announces the release of a new Vintage Port on 23rd April, St George’s Day!




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