Porto Ho – Part 1: Making Port

My inability to organise travel, amongst other things, is well known amongst the lovely people I refer to as ‘friends’, with my habit of constantly changing my mind and not being able to make simple decisions (such as ‘which hotel do I stay in’ or ‘ where do I go on holiday’) leading to a decent knowledge of the five or six places I wander around near my house rather than places further afield. So, when I was part of an email chain that started with ‘I think we should go to Porto’ and swiftly, with a mere ‘Yes, that’s a good idea’ as my only input, to ‘we’re staying in this hotel on these days, click this link to book a plane ticket’ it ticked all of my dream holiday boxes – someone else did the organising and they chose somewhere with interesting booze that I don’t know much about.

In the four days I was in Portugal I wrote tasting notes on 32 ports, visited two port producers and helped drink through pretty much the entire range that the finest port bar in Porto has to offer. As such I’m going to break this down into a few posts so that my euphemistically ‘well-researched’ and ‘thorough’ style doesn’t kill anyone with sheer length. Anyways, enough commentary, on with the beverages:

Dual City
The split city – Vila Nova de Gaia on the left, Porto on the right

Port, or Port Wine as the locals (when talking English) refer to it, is a fortified wine produced along the Douro river in northern Portugal. It has a Protected Designation of Origin and only wines produced in Portugal can carry the name ‘Port’. The Douro wine region itself has a protected Appellation and has since 1756, making it one of the world’s oldest protected wine regions.

The history of port is quite closely interwined with England and our two traditional loves – drinking and warring with the French. In the early 1700s England was, as usual, at war with France which curtailed our importing of French wines. After the signing of the Methuen Treaty in 1703 the lack of taxation on Portugese wine led to it becoming rather popular and Douro valley wines started flowing to England via the port at the mouth of the river  – O Porto (The Port). However, as the trip from Porto was quite long the wines often spoiled and the cunning winemakers started fortifying it to make it last longer. The UK connection continued with British traders setting up shop in Porto, buying and selling wines for import, and over time turning into the port producing companies we find today. This is the reason why we now don’t see many Portugese names on bottles of port, but the likes of Cockburn, Dow, Taylor and Sandeman are well known.

There are a number of different types of port, which I’ll go into more detail on in later posts, but the process of their creation starts off pretty much the same. Firstly there’s grapes – the fruit that goes into port comes from the area of the Douro valley within the PDO, stretching from about 60 miles east of Porto towards the Spanish border. The region is sheltered from the coast by the Marão and Montemuro mountain ranges and covers a range of different climates, being traditionally divided into three areas:

  • Baixo Corgo – the most westerly region. It has the most variable climate and produces wines that mature faster. It’s also the region with the longest wine production history.
  • Cima Corgo – the middle region. Has more rain and produces wines suitable for longer aging. It’s the largest region by area and amount produced, and is genereally considered to produce the best wines.
  • Douro Superior – the eastern region. The hottest, driest and least humid region, stretching to the Spanish border. The wines from here are more extreme, with some very intensely flavoured produce. It’s the youngest of the areas and while it does produce some good wines many are blended with those from the other regions.

The methods of growing are still very traditional, with the steep sided valley being a natural match for the terraced vineyards which stretch along pretty much the entire length of the river. The nature of terraced viniculture does mean that mechanisation is difficult and much of the work of maintaining the vines, harvesting the grapes and transporting them for processing is still done by hand, with workers carrying large baskets of fruit up and down the terraces after picking in September.

The grapes are crushed locally and the initial fermentation happens along the lines of normal winemaking. However, after a short ferment in stainless steel tanks of only 2-3 days the wine is fortified with a 77% ABV neutral grape based spirit called Aquardente which kills the yeast and stops the fermentation process. This early finish to alcohol production is balanced by the greater volume of fortifying spirit that’s added, unlike with dryer sherries where the ABV is kept low enough to allow fermentation to continue – in port the ABV is generally raised to about 20%. The characteristic sweetness of port is also a side effect of this, as there is a lot more sugar left in the wine than would normally be present after a longer fermentation – as the historical English taste was for sweet wines this makes perfect sense.

One of the boats formerly used to transport barrels.

The next stage in port production is aging, which usually happens outside of the winemaking regions in the areas closer to the mouth of the river, originally to help with transport. In ‘ye olden dayes’ the young wine was transported by barge down the river to Porto and its south bank sister city, Vila Nova de Gaia, where the vast majority of the port lodges and caves are located. The journey took about 8 days and the small boats could only carry about 40 barrels each, making it a rather labour intensive process. On arrival in Gaia planks would be pushed out to connect the boats to the waterfront warehouses and the hundreds of barrels from the flotilla would be rolled ashore – an impressive sight based on the photographs and paintings in the various port lodges. The last boats arrived in Gaia in 1963 and since then the less romantic transport method of tanker truck has been used.

What happens next comes down to what style of port the wine is intended to become. While I was there I tried most of the variations that I can find information about online – Ruby, Tawny, Vintage, Late Bottled Vintage, Colheita, White and Pink. More about those styles to follow in the future…