By Amanda Schuster
The story of Port begins in Oporto (or Porto), Portugal's second largest city, located at the mouth of the Douro. It is the gateway to wine country and center of Portuguese shipbuilding and trade, with a history that dates back to the Roman occupation and through the Moorish settlement of the area.
The beginning of the 14th century began a strong relationship with England, with the marriage of John I of Portugal to Philippa of Lancaster (daughter of John of Gaunt). This is when the English fascination with Portuguese wine began, as the country's relationship with France had become quite shaky, resulting in far less access to quality French wines. England's new friends, the Portuguese, had an abundance of wine in the Douro, though being somewhat resistant to change, the English found it to be much more "crude" compared to what they were used to. So they began to add brandy to the wine to preserve it for shipment back to England, and thus, in a sense, the first Ports were born. But it wasn't until the 17th or 18th century that this process became more refined. Someone, likely someone in the religious sector as these things tend to be, came up with the idea of adding brandy to the wine during fermentation, instead of after, thus preserving the wine's sweetness and vitality.
In 1703, the Treaty of Methuen (Methwen) was passed between Portugal and England. This assured discount textiles to Portugal and discount Port trade to England. From here, the Douro region was subdivided and the quintas (estates) were founded. The Port trade began to boom, with further quality control measures set in place for both still and fortified wines.
British merchants then began to set up shop in Porto and buy vineyards for production. By the 19th century, wine-making in the Douro expanded to an unprecedented degree, with vineyards built right into the mountain and the mass construction of wine storage centers.
In the 1730s, the Marques de Pombal created the Old Wine Company to regulate the production of Port, which had started to get a bit sloppy. Some vintners were adding excess sweeteners and juices, usually elderberry, to the wines, which were already suffering in quality and causing a big dip in sales. The Old Wine Company had control over the quantity of wine produced, the highest and lowest prices possible for trade and they arbitrated all disputes. By 1756 they set up the demarcated growing region for Port, and uprooted any vineyards outside of it along with the elderberry trees that were previously providing the juice to bulk out the wines.
By the 19th century, the major Port houses had been established, most of them with British ownership: Sandeman, Croft, Calem, Taylor, Warre, Fonseca, Niepoort, Graham, Smith Woodhouse and so on. Then the Phylloxera crisis came to the Douro and did its damage, but this was turned around relatively quickly by prioritizing Operation Regraph - the "cure" of grafting the root stock to American vines - and most of the vineyards could be replanted. Business began to boom again by the 20th century, and new houses, such as Barros, emerged.
Incidentally, vintages are only declared in years with stellar growing seasons, and since the Phylloxerra outbreak to this day, the major Port houses have declared fewer vintages.
Note: 2011 is the latest declared Port vintage. Time to stock up!
• Tawny: Essentially wines that have been aged in barrel long enough for it to take on an amber/brown appearance.
• Aged Tawny: Left to age in casks a minimum of six years with age indicated on the label.
• Colheita: Tawny ports from a single year, with the date of the harvest on the label. Aged at least seven years.
• Crusted: Blended from different harvests and years, usually younger wines. Wines develop in the bottle and sediment forms. Decanting is necessary for proper consumption.
• LBV - Late Bottle Vintage: Wines made from grapes harvested in a single year and bottled four or five years after harvest. This does NOT mean vintage, only the year they were harvested.
• Ruby (Branded): Blended wines aged in bulk and bottled relatively young before they can take on any color imparted from the barrel. The new trend for labeling is to drop the name "Ruby" altogether in favor of a brand name or style.
• Garrafeira: Wines from a single year, which spend only a small amount of time aged in oak, then a much longer period in bottle. These wines are then decanted and re-bottled after a very long aging time, usually between twenty and thirty years or longer.
• Single Vintage Quinta: Wines from one estate and a single vintage, which is displayed on the label.
• Vintage: Wines from a single year, bottled after two or three years of wood aging, then aged in bottle for many years before release. These are the most sought after Ports, using the highest quality grapes, usually from the Cima Corgo subregion of the Douro.
• White Port: Wines with little or no maceration time during fermentation so the wine takes on a minimum of color. Otherwise, it is made in the same way as red and always has a certain degree of residual sugar despite being labeled "Dry or “Extra Dry".
• Rosé Port: Very short maceration time to take on a pinkish hue, and otherwise made the same way as ruby port.
Cheers from DrinkUpNY!
Amanda Schuster is a native New Yorker, but without much of the accent. The mobile landscape of the city has taken her on a whirlwind journey from Medieval historian, photo archivist, jewelry designer and invitation specialist to earning her sommelier certification in late 2005. After working as a retail wine and spirits buyer and freelance brand promoter, she turned to the one thing that has stayed a constant all these years – her love of writing. She has published dozens of articles on cocktails, spirits, wine and other culinary interests, and is currently working on her first novel. Her favorite cocktail is a Manhattan.