Port wine: What do you know about the world’s most famous wine?

“Scion” is the name Taylor’s gave to a 155 year-old batch of wine, with each bottle being sold for €2500. Port is not just one wine, it is many different wines. We reveal some of the mysteries of the treasure bottled in the Douro region.

By João Barbosa

What's New Wine & Food — 12 September 2012 by PDV
Port wine: What do you know about the world’s most famous wine?

Many of the Port wine houses have a foreign origin, namely British (Photograph: Real Companhia Velha/All Rights Reserved)

The word scion has two meanings: it can be either a young shoot of a plant used for grafting, or a descendant of an aristocratic family. This was the name that Taylor’s Port house gave to a relic discovered almost by chance about two years ago. And the name suits it perfectly.

This wine, the most expensive Port ever as far as retail price is concerned (€2500), was “discovered” on the company’s doorstep. The heirs of a producer from the Douro were clearing out their estate after the death of a family member, when they got in touch with the company. They had come across two casks with the 155 year-old relic! And the discovery held yet another, greater significance, as the wine dates back to an age before the phylloxera epidemic which decimated European viticulture. What could have ended up being a mere contribution to the company’s old wine assets for decoupage, became an icon for both Taylor’s and the region.

The Douro Valley – known for its steep terraced vineyards, its fertile mountain soil and for being a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is a place of tradition and conservation. The breathtaking landscape, humanised yet also wild, is a pretext for a visit, to which is added the pleasure of savouring these unique vinous nectars.

In some places, some of the tillage can already be done by tractor, but in the near-vertical slopes of many vineyards, it is still man who toils the land. The harvesting is almost entirely done by hand. In the wine cellars, grapes are still crushed by being trodden with bare feet, in granite wine presses. Although this may impress some of the more urban readers, the method is completely hygienic! More recently harvesting robots have been introduced. These differ from common machinery because they have been specifically designed to work with silicone “feet” in the Port wine granite wine presses, at a temperature of 37C, to try to reproduce the human foot. Even so, the main wines are still the product of human pressing.

The Scion is only one example, highlighted for being the most recent sensation in the sector. Other producers also have their own rarities and specialities worthy of note. Wine connoisseurs and tourists alike should not miss a visit to the guarded treasures held in the wine cellars in Gaia, across the river from the city of Porto.


The different types of Port wine

The simple designation of Port wine is misleading. There are in fact different types of Port, divided into two families: Tawny and Ruby. Knowledge of Port wine does not demand a university degree, but neither is it a simple affair. There are so many varieties that, in the 19th century, someone wrote that there were more varieties than hair ribbons in a haberdashery.

If Port wine is Portuguese, despite the designation being frequently, and wrongly, used in other countries, its British connection has been fundamental. The terms Tawny and Ruby attest to the huge importance of the British community. This is a Portuguese vinous nectar with a well substantiated date of establishment. The Portuguese guarantee it is the oldest appellation in the world, but this is disputed by producers of Chianti and Tokaj. What is certain is that its inception dates back to 1756 under the name of Companhia Geral da Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro, known in English as the Douro Wine Company, a company that exists to this day, operating as a regular producer commonly known as Real Companhia Velha.

Many of the Port wine houses have a foreign origin, namely British. Far removed from the olden days, the community of Her Majesty Elizabeth II’s subjects still has a gentlemen’s club in the historical centre of the city of Porto, known as the Factory House, where every day a copy of The Times is bought, and someone goes down to the library to get the edition printed 100 years ago.

Port wine was not always known as such, and one of its old designations is still in use in the Douro region: Vinho Fino (Fine Wine). In former times it was a different kind of wine. Ports have their fermentation process stopped by the addition of brandy, placing it in the category of fortified wines. The expansion of “normal” Ports only took place in the 20th century, classed as DOC Douro (Denominação de Origem Protegida; in English: Protected Designation of Origin).

There are different versions concerning the origin of the practice of adding brandy. One of the main currents claims it was a way of preserving the wine’s shelf life, as thus it better endured the hardships of being shipped by sea. Another theory guarantees it was a way of copying a certain vintage which was particularly sweet, with the alcohol level being so high that the fermentation process stopped naturally.

Despite the designation, the city of Porto only gives Port wine its name. The Douro Valley is the place where it all begins, and the city of Gaia (on the south bank of the Douro, across from Porto) is where it traditionally ends. In the old days, the wine was transported in casks in the traditional rabelo boats down the river to the quays in Gaia where it was aged. Today, these boats are mere tourist curiosities, which can be seen docked in Gaia or in an annual regatta. Nowadays, Port wines are already aged in the quintas (estates) in the Alto Douro.

Until the late 20th century, the main Port wine houses bought the wine from farmers and then blended and aged it. Despite some of the main companies running their own estates, the bulk of the grapes is bought from private producers. Thus, in a bottle of Port you can have grapes from different quintas or even from all the three sub-regions: Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo, and Douro Superior.


Port families

The designations Tawny and Ruby were not chosen for marketing purposes; they are in fact objective classifications.
Tawny – these are wines aged in wooden casks, exposed to gradual oxidation, gaining a golden-brown, or tawny colour.
Ruby – these are wines aged in bottle after being stored in tanks that prevent oxidative ageing and thus preserve a ruby red colour.

These classifications are not indicative of quality. However, it is common to place the Ruby Vintage on the highest level. Yet, even this is relative. As relative as the function to which it is destined for: to be savoured as an aperitif or dessert wine, or being simply enjoyed on its own.

For many, Port is equivalent to red wine, but this is far from being true. Whites are also produced, mainly served as aperitifs. And yet, there are also rosés!

Rosé Port wine is a recent innovation, first released in 2008 by the Croft house and soon copied by other producers. It aims to confer a more youthful appeal to a wine often associated with older age groups. As can be deduced from its colour, the rosé belongs to the Ruby family. Recently, white tawnies have also appeared. As expected, they are somewhat different, and have been well received by connoisseurs.

In terms of quality, variations in the two Port families, along with the whites, begin with the Reserve, which results from the blending of wines from different vintages, with an average age no older than three years. This is followed by the Special Reserve, according to the same logic, with an average age of five years.


Vintage, the best wines

In the Ruby family, this is followed by the Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), a wine made from a single year’s harvest which has matured in bottle between four and six years. Vintage is the highest category of Ruby wines and almost consensually regarded as the finest Port, being responsible for much of Port wine’s international renown. Vintage Port is made from grapes from a single vintage, bottled 18 months after the harvest. Until very recently, the Vintage style was very conservative, aged for many years in bottle. It is an austere wine, suited to English taste.

Americans have also discovered it, but they prefer having it sweeter, fresher, more effusive and vigorous, approachable at a younger age. There are thus producers who have opted for either one or the other style, with the largest houses releasing different brands to cater to all tastes. In the Vintage Single Quinta, the category is identical, with all the grapes coming from a single estate. Lastly, the Crusted Port is a blend of different Vintage Ports, a variant which nowadays has fallen into disuse.

In Tawny Ports, the scale begins with the Reserve and the Special Reserve, but their fame comes from the editions with an indication of age. In general these are wines produced from the blend of different vintages. Thus, a 10 years old is a batch that has an average age of 10 years. This is followed by the 20 years old, the 30 years old, and the 40 years old. The quality increases with each passing decade, and so does the price. The Porto Colheita comes from a single vintage and has spent, at least, 20 years ageing. There is also the Garrafeira, which is not very common these days, combining the nuances of wood with those of maturation in large glass carboys.

Variants of white Port range from the drier to the sweeter, with identical initial options, from Reserve and Special Reserve to the batches with an indication of age of maturation.

Photos: All Rights Reserved, Real Companhia Velha

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