Port: The Great Fortified Wines of the World
One of the great fortified wines of the world, very much a wine created for the British taste and, in certain instances, seen at the peak of its perfection in the U.K. It is made in a defined area of the upper Douro, in northern Portugal, from a variety of grapes, both red and white. The grapes, traditionally pressed by foot in a stone trough called a lagar, are now often mechanically pressed; or an ‘autovinificator’ is used, which achieves the same end. At a certain point in the fermentation the process is arrested by the addition of brandy. The wine, once made, then goes down the River Douro to Oporto or, more correctly, to Vila Nova de Gaia, where the port shippers have their lodges or establishments. Here it is sorted out, differentiated according to quality and the style of wine for which it is destined.
Although the majority of ports are destined to spend their life in wood or cask (the pipe) the youngish wines can be bottled early and sold as Ruby Port, the colour being as the name implies. A fine ruby, left to mature in wood, will lighten in colour and increase in delicacy and may become a fine old Tawny Port. The best of the tawnies are as fine as any fortified wine – and the sort of wine the shippers drink themselves for sheer pleasure. Inexpensive tawnies may be made by blending ruby and white port. White port is used as an aperitif; it is made from white grapes only and is a pleasant warm weather drink. The finer white ports are completely dry, the fermentation process being allowed to finish using the grape sugar before the brandy is added. Cheaper white ports can be sweet or slightly sweet. (People are often confused about the sort of wine that port is – but all port is a fortified wine and therefore of higher strength than table wine. All port, because its fermentation has been arrested by the addition of brandy, is possessed of a certain sweetness – but this should be a subtle thing, never cloying, and the wine should be balanced. The ports of each port house will differ in style; vintage ports differ in both according to the style of the house that declares them and their vintage.)
Some consider this to be the greatest dessert wine in the world. It is the wine made from the ports of one single year – which has been ‘declared’ as a vintage by the shipper whose wine it is. It is up to the shipper to decide whether to declare a vintage or not, and although certain years are declared by many port houses, by no means every one declares the same years. Each vintage year, naturally, has its own individuality. The wine selected as a vintage is bottled after spending only 2 or 3 years in wood. In former times it was invariably shipped to the U.K. And bottled there, but vintage ports must nowadays be bottled in Portugal. In former times it might be handled and bottled by a number of merchants buying it, as well as the shipper in his premises in the U.K.
The port in bottle is then laid down to mature, a splash on the side of the bottle indicating where its first recumbent position has been. This is important because the formation of the crust must be allowed to develop gradually for the first 5 or 6 years of the port’s life. If the bottle is disturbed at this point, the crust never seems to form satisfactorily and the deposit may remain in suspension in the wine, making it unpleasant to drink and spoiling the beautiful colour. Vintage port, even in a light year, is not really ready to drink before it is 8 to 10 years old, and ideally not before it is 15 years from its vintage. It can live very much longer than that – ports a century old are still sometimes shown to privileged guests of the port trade. If vintage port has to be moved, it will reform its crust quite satisfactorily, after a certain number of weeks or months, if this has originally formed properly. However it lives on this crust and should always be carefully decanted off before it is served.
As the port bottle is specially designed to enable the wine to be laid down for a long while – with a long, slightly bulging neck, into which a long, high quality cork is inserted – it should be handled with especial care. Because the extraction of a cork can present difficulty after many years, and it may crumble, the neck of the bottle is sometimes taken off. This is done either with heated bottle tongs, or by inserting the corkscrew gently into the cork, and then giving the bottle one or more sharp blows upwards under the flange of the lip with the back of a carving knife or similar heavy instrument. The bottle neck will then break neatly off and the wine can be poured – through a filter if there is any danger of glass or bits of cork. (Ideally practise with an empty, recorked bottle beforehand!) The bottle should, of course, have been standing up for at least some days before it is to be drunk. Vintage port should be drunk within 24 hours of being decanted as it will fade with exposure to the atmosphere. But ruby, tawny and white port (the last should be chilled) may be served for up to a week after the bottle is opened, or after they have been decanted to show off their colour: there is no deposit.
VINTAGE CHARACTER PORT:
A wine of particular quality, blended, and ready for drinking once it has been bottled. It has great appeal, especially in circumstances where people want to drink a fine port but cannot consume a whole bottle – or cannot afford a vintage.
LATE BOTTLED VINTAGE PORT:
Port of a single year which has been matured in wood for 3 to 6 years – unlike the 2 to 3 of vintage port. – and which therefore is ready for drinking sooner, in fact as soon as it is bottled. It may bear a vintage date and the date when it was bottled. This also is a fine wine, made so that it can be easily drunk without having to be decanted, for the handling and serving of vintage port are not always everyday processes.
A blend of quality ports kept in cask for, possibly, 5 or 6 years before bottling and which therefore may throw a crust. This too is a fine type of port.
Apart from vintage port, which should be decanted at least an hour before serving, ruby and tawny and the others are served at the temperature of the room in which they will be drunk. White port is served chilled. Glasses should be of moderate to generous size: those used in many catering establishments are far too small for the port lover to be able to swing the wine around in the glass and enjoy its beautiful bouquet. The glorious colour of fine tawny or vintage port should be appreciated by serving such wines in clear glass or crystal, though port decanters, for which Britain is famous, are usually elaborately cut to show off the wine inside the facets of the receptacle. It is traditional always to serve port from a decanter that is passed clockwise around the table – whether or not the tablecloth has previously been removed. This custom is variously attributed to the passage of the sun and certain legends, but in fact it is the most practical way of serving, because a right-handed person can easily pass the possibly heavy decanter over to his left. People help themselves to port, but the host is allowed a ‘backhander’, which means that he can help the chief guest on his right, who would otherwise have to wait until the decanter had passed right round the table before getting any wine. It is also considered correct always to take some, if only a few drops, of the port as it comes round and not to refuse. If anyone forgets that the decanter is in front of him, traditionalists remark, ‘Do you know the Bishopof Norwich (or Winchester)?’ This is supposedly because the original bearer of the title was a mean or unconvivial person, who would not pass on the port.
Port is traditionally the wine in which the loyal toast to the Sovereign is drunk at the end of special meals. But, although port is very much the ‘Englishman’s wine’, it must be admitted that the French have drunk far more than the British in recent years, preferring it as an aperitif. They seldom drink it with dessert and indeed seldom drink vintage port. One other curious thing about a fascinating wine is that the great vintages in port in the past seldom coincide with the notable vintage years for table wines. Some of the greatest port years are those of ‘off or even non-existent years for other wines (but improved scientific vinification may change this in the future). Port, according to law, can only be sold as such if it is shipped over the ‘bar’ or past the spit of land outside Oporto, where the ships pass from the port.
Wines made in similar style are produced in other countries, and can achieve quality, even though they are not in any way the same thing. Some even bear vintage dates, and this can be of interest even to the most dedicated port lover. Although the wines of the Douro are now mostly produced from grafted vines as protection against the Phylloxera, there are some regions in the winelands of the world, such as the Hunter River in Australia, where the vines are still ungrafted and a type of port is made. Wines of port style are also made in South Africa, often making use of some of the port grapes. These can be extremely good, as are those of California.
Wines which are still, in very small quantities, made from ungrafted vines in the Douro region, will have the description nacional on their labels. Wines, also in small quantities, which come from asingle property, or quinta, will have this denoted on the label also. One of the most famous of these is Quinta do Noval, where a proportion of the vineyard remains planted with the old. Ungrafted nacional stock. Other well-known quintas are Roeda, Vargellas, Boa Vista, and Bomfin to name only a few.
Port is traditionally the wine to lay down at the birth of a child (or the conception if this is a better vintage) for drinking at the twenty-first birthday. It is safe to assume that a vintage wine will be very good, even if not yet at its peak, after this time: it will also be a sound investment.
1. The grapes are crushed mechanically and the juice is pumped into the fermentation tank. The autovinificator is fitted in the centre of the tank: on the right is the water valve; on the left the tube for the must to escape through.
As the must ferments, it gives off carbon dioxide. Thisfills the space above the must and forces it down as the pressure builds up. The must escapes through the tube on the left and spills —foaming furiously — into the subsidiary tank above.
At a certain point, the pressure is released and the must spills back into the autovinificator. This forces the water in the water valve up into its tank, thus opening the valve.
As the must pours through the autovinificator into the mam tank, the carbon dioxide is vented through the water valve. As pressure drops and the main tank fills, the watervalve closes. Then the whole cycle begins again.
The natural sugar in the grapes becomes alcohol. At a certain point, the must is drawn off and grape brandy is added, if the fermentation is arrested by this addition at an early stage, the resultant wine is sweeter: the later the arrest of the fermentation, the dryer the wine.