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Port Wine, Olive Oil and Chocolate

  • "Port wine, olive oil and chocolate" - Jeanne Louise Calment's recipe for a long life. It killed her, of course, on the 4th August 1997, she was only 122yrs & 164 days old.

Andi Healey

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As I welcomed in the New Year, earlier this week, with a lovely, sweet glass of Vintage Port, it occurred to me that I haven't written about it in quite a while. So, here goes.  

Port is one of the most famous dessert wines on the planet. Most of us have tried this rich, sweet wine a few times and found it to be absolutely delicious. It's higher in alcohol, and more viscous than traditional red wines, which makes it the perfect option for sipping and relaxing at the end of a meal. 

You may have tried it, but do you know how to drink port? Do you know how is port made? How about opening or decanting port? Do you know how long port lasts once opened? All good questions, which I will try to answer below.  

What is Port wine?

Made for centuries in the rugged region of northwest Portugal's Douro Valley, Port is a fortified wine that leans heavily on the sweeter spectrum and comes in a variety of styles ranging from youthful Ruby Port to aged Tawnies, and Late-Bottled Vintage Ports up to the distinguished character (and price) of Vintage Port. 

Port wine, though typically associated with Portugal, really owes at least part of its invention to England as a direct (and delicious) by-product of Britain battling France through the 17th and 18th centuries. Essentially, the English boycotted French wine in the late 17th century as a result of continuous conflict and began sourcing their red wine from Portugal. They started adding a wee bit of brandy to the still wine to help sustain it during the voyage back to England. This brandy addition served to give the fragile still wine the fortitude to make the long trip on a rocking boat without spoiling, but it also made the wine considerably sweeter when it was added early enough to halt fermentation and leave residual sugar levels on the higher end. As a result, Ports have a reputation for being higher in alcohol, noticeably sweeter, with more body and palate density than other wines. 

There are over 50 different grape varieties grown in the Douro Valley, but the most common ones are Touriga Nacional (offering consistent structure), Touriga Franca (adds a softer edge with velvety tannins), and Touriga Roriz (same delicious grape as Spain's Tempranillo). 

While the majority of Port is made from red wine grapes, there is a lesser-known "White Port" category that, as the name implies, is made from white wine grapes. 

The name “Port” is derived from the coastal city of Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city, strategically located at the mouth of the Douro River, where for centuries merchant ships loaded with casks of Port began their journey North, across the Bay of Biscay to England.

How Is Port made? 

Port starts off similar to other still wines as far as the production process goes. Grapes are harvested and pressed to extract the juice and initiate fermentation. Many Port producers still embrace traditional foot-treading, in open air Lagares (large stone or cement tanks) for pressing the fruit, though recent years have seen the advent of mechanical treaders, fashioned after the human foot. After treading, the grape must, which contains all of the fresh-pressed grape juice that still has the seeds, stems, and grape skins ferment for several days until alcohol levels reach around 7%. 

At this point, the young wine is fortified with brandy to bring the fermentation process to a sudden stop, while capturing the new wine's youthful fruit nuances and preventing the grape sugars from continuing their classic conversion to alcohol. This fortification will leave the residual sugar levels considerably higher than most still wines, typically in the 100 g/L range. 

Finally, the batch of baby Port is pumped into large oak casks typically for 18 months or so of aging. At the year and a half mark, these young Port wines are blended with other "lots" of Port wine to find complementary components that will ultimately deliver a delicious wine with well-defined fruit, friendly palate appeal, and over-arching balance. At this point, the young Port may be transferred to bottles for further aging or continue time in a cask depending on the style and range of Port production in the process.

Types of Port wine 

There are a few different types of Port: White, Reserve, Tawny and Vintage. Some producers even make pink versions now! 

White Port

White Port is usually a lighter type of port, made with white grapes. Common flavours include citrus peel, roasted nuts, baked apple, and apricot. There is less sweetness to this type of port, depending on the producer, and it isn’t aged for as long.

Rosé Port

Rosé Port has much stronger berry flavours: strawberry, raspberry, and cranberry. It has a delicious jammy note that gives it more sweetness than white port, but it’s not as rich as a tawny or ruby port. 

Tawny Port

Tawny Port gets its name and colour from extended ageing in wooden casks before bottling. It is a blend of many vintages, and is sometimes sold as 10, 20, 30 or 40 year old. It has mellow flavours of caramel, cloves, cinnamon, hazelnut, fig, and prune. Tawny port is ready to drink once bottled and does not improve over time. 

Ruby Port

Ruby Port is the least expensive style, aged for two or three years in vat before bottling and sold ready to drink. Ruby port does not improve if kept in the bottle. 

Reserve Port

Reserve Port is the next step up from Ruby, and has deeper flavours of raspberries, blackberries, chocolate, and cinnamon. This is the type of wine you want to enjoy slowly. It is aged for at least three years before release. 

Vintage Port

Vintage Port is usually the most expensive Port. It is made in tiny quantities from the best grapes, and only in the very best years. It is aged for two years before being released but can improve for decades in the bottle. 

How to drink Port

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If you want to know how to drink port, you’ve come to the right place! Tawny and Reserve Port should be served at just below room temperature, around 10-16 C. This helps to bring out the sweetness and flavours of the dark red wine, without making the alcohol overpowering. 

For Rosé and White Port, you want to go a bit colder: 4-10 C. These lighter ports are better enjoyed very cold. In Portugal White Port is often enjoyed with tonic as an aperitif. 

With Port, you don’t need to take a big mouthful at a time. Port needs to be approached like a fine brandy, small sips. You want just enough that you get those delicious fruity and berry flavours.

Finally, the batch of baby Port is pumped into large oak casks typically for 18 months or so of aging. At the year and a half mark, these young Port wines are blended with other "lots" of Port wine to find complementary components that will ultimately deliver a delicious wine with well-defined fruit, friendly palate appeal, and over-arching balance. At this point, the young Port may be transferred to bottles for further aging or continue time in a cask depending on the style and range of Port production in the process.

Decanting Port

Do you need to decant Port? 

Only vintage Port and crusted Port need to be decanted before serving, but you can decant any Port if you wish. Why does Port need to be decanted? Vintage and crusted Ports need to be decanted because they have sediment in the bottle. This is not harmful to drink, just unpleasant. Any other Ports can be decanted, just like wine, if you want to release the aroma or add some theatre to the serving.

You don’t need to have a special decanter, any receptacle will do. (Jugs, vases and milk bottles have all been used in my house!) You can even rinse the original bottle with water and pour the port back into the bottle to serve if desired. 

How do you decant Port? 

Simply stand the bottle upright for a day or two. This will move all the sediment to the bottom of the bottle. Open the bottle gently and pour slowly and steadily in one motion until you can see the sediment moving into the neck of the bottle. It may be useful to have a light source underneath the neck so you can see clearly. Traditionally, this is done with a candle, but a phone torchlight works just as well! 

How Long Does Port Last? 

Many people ask : “How long does Port last once opened?” and “does Port go off quicker than other wines, due to its extra sugar and alcohol content?” 

Most wines will go off within a few days of opening, but Port can last for much longer, depending on the style. Vintage Ports are best consumed within a few days, but Reserve and Tawny ports should last a few weeks in the fridge. 

To keep your ports good for longer, store them in a cool, dark place. Use a vacuum preserver to remove oxygen from the bottle before re-corking—it will make the wine last longer! 

Ageing Port 

The beauty of Port wine is that it can age much better than regular red wine. The best Vintage Ports can be aged for many decades from the bottle. Tawny and Reserve Ports will keep but can be drunk immediately, having been aged by the producer. 

The ageing process softens the tannins. The rich, dark aromas of the fruits and berries will give way to dried fruit and nut flavours. 

Cooking with Port Wine 

Cooking with wine, and especially cooking with Port, is a great way to add rich, fruity flavours to your meals. With Port, you want to use it for sauces in savoury and sweet dishes. You can also make rich, gooey chocolate sauces to serve with cake. 

If you want to make a delicious red wine reduction to serve with rich dishes such as venison or a nut roast, Port makes an excellent alternative to red wine. The higher sugar content of port means it reduces into a thicker consistency than red wine. It’s a great way to bring depth and sweetness to meals. For cooking, Ruby or Reserve Port is your best choice.

  • So, there you go, hopefully most of your "Port related" questions answered. Also, like other red wines, Port contains beneficial vitamins, minerals, nutrients and antioxidants (like flavonoids and a substance called resveratrol). Recent research has shown that drinking red wine can protect against prostate cancer, Alzheimer's disease (staving off mental decline) and heart disease. As if we needed an excuse! 

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