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5 Things You Should Know About Port Wine But Probably Don‘t, Including Why You Don’t Want To Know The Bishop Of Norwich
So when Elizabeth Doerr and I were recently invited to visit the workshops of Eleuterio, the world’s leading specialist in traditional Portuguese filigree jewelry, which is based near Braga just to the east of Porto, we not only accepted with pleasure, we took our spouses and extended our stay with a weekend in Porto.
Drinking Port in the port of Porto
There are a plethora of places to see in Porto − the city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site − but one absolute must for wine aficionados is to spend a couple of hours across the river Douro in Vila Nova de Gaia visiting a Port house and tasting the wines.
There are many to choose from, but do check in advance for tour times as they are not as frequent as you might expect in every language. My wife and I ended up at Quinta dos Corvos, a small upscale producer, and enjoyed both the visit and wine tasting immensely.
While the informative tour and tasting at Quinta dos Corvos (and I’ve no doubt everyone else too) is obviously designed to impart knowledge to encourages sales − and in our case mission accomplished −I found the story of Port wine, aka vinho do Porto, fascinating and hope you do too.
5 things about Port wine you may not know
1. Port wine doesn’t come from Porto
The grapes are grown and the wine is produced in the Upper Douro Valley (also a UNESCO World Heritage site), which is around 100 kilometers east of Porto.
While the wine was transported down the Douro river on photogenic Rabelo boats until around 50 years ago, less romantic but more practical road transport has dominated since. Porto is the city from which the Port wine was shipped to England, so the wine was widely known as coming from Porto.
2. Port wine as we know it today was invented specifically for the English
This soundly explains why so many of the big Port brand names are English; for example, Taylor’s, Graham’s, Dow’s, and Cockburn’s.
Inhabitants of the region that is now northern Portugal have been making wine for at least 2,000 years, but the signing of the Treaty of Windsor in 1386 created an enduring political, military, and commercial alliance between England and Portugal giving the merchants of each country the same rights as the other to reside in its territory and trade on equal terms. Commerce blossomed, increasing even more in 1654 when the Anglo-Portuguese commercial treaty created new opportunities for English and Scottish merchants living in Portugal, allowing them special privileges and preferential customs duties.
Adding brandy during fermentation when the alcohol level reaches around 7 percent kills the yeast before all of the sugar is converted, resulting in a sweeter wine with low alcohol level fortified by brandy (19.5 percent alcohol is common for Port wine).
However, the sweetness is just a fortunate byproduct of the process; the main aim in creating fortified Port wine was to enable it to be aged for much longer, a process significantly improving the quality of the wine, which was generally much rougher when young than the wines we enjoy today.
3. There are three main types of Port wine: Ruby, Tawny (red and white), and Vintage
Ruby: The wine is aged in oak casks for between 18 months and three years, perhaps with the addition of older vintages for balance, before being bottled. It’s then ready to drink as a young and fruity sweet wine. It’s worth trying a glass, but Ruby isn’t where the action is.
Tawny (white and red):
Wine from a full decade of vintages is blended and aged in casks for periods of 20, 30, or 40 years before being bottled. A 20-year-old Tawny will have wines from 20 to 29 years old; a 40-year-old will have wine from 40 to 49 years old. The reason that the oldest Tawny wines stop at 40 years is that the oak casks are not sure to last for 60 years (a 50-year-old Tawny would contain wine up to 59 years old).
Even once the bottle has been opened, Tawny Port can easily last up to a couple of years. Vintage Port, on the other hand should, be drunk within two to three days after opening the bottle (though I’ll bet it will be finished well before then).
Like vintage champagne, vintage Port is only made from the grapes of a single exceptional year. Unlike Tawny Port, which is oak-aged for 20 to 50 years before bottling, the wine for Vintage Port is aged in a cask for around two years and then bottled. Vintage Port then continues to age in its bottle like a fine wine and is best enjoyed after decades in the cellar rather than years.
We tasted a 1996 Vintage Port from Quinta dos Corvos and were blown away. Even in the rare exceptional years that Vintage Ports are made, only a tiny percentage of the wine is used to make Vintage wine so very little is exported. In fact, few people know that Vintage Port even exists.
If you can find a bottle I highly recommend trying it, but be warned: like any fine old wine it is unlikely to be cheap.
4. Red and white Port wines exchange color as they age
One interesting factoid is that, paradoxically, red Port gradually becomes clearer as it ages in the cask, while white Port wine becomes darker.
A 30-year-old red Tawny and a 30-year-old white Tawny are virtually indistinguishable in both color and taste. It is the rich red becoming a paler, more amber hue that gives the wine the name “Tawny.”
5. The casks are as interesting as the wine
What a life the casks used in the making of Port have; what travels they undertake: and what a variety of sensational drinks they help make. While cheaper Port producers use oak chips in stainless steel tanks, the best start with new oak casks that they carefully manage in rotation for up to 50 years. But that’s not the end of their lives.
A soupçon of port in your whiskey, sir?
Those of you who enjoy nicely aged Scottish whiskeys can thank the Port and/or Madeira wine-flavored casks that help enrich its smooth, subtle aromas.
Then there’s the Bishop of Norfolk and Port-passing etiquette
When Port is passed around at British meals, tradition dictates that immediately after pouring a glass for his or her neighbor on the right, the decanter is then immediately passed to the left. So you do not pour your own drink but that of your neighbor to the right. You then pass to your neighbor on the left, who fills your glass and passes to their left. The decanter doesn’t stop its clockwise progress around the table until it is finished.