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What Is Port Wine?

Discover Port's history and appellation, winemaking process,

types of Port and food pairings.

I hope you enjoyed my story of how my journey to Porto changed my view of Port. What can I say, the only way to learn about wine is through experiences! If you don’t know what Port wine is, it’s a fortified wine, meaning a grape spirit is added to the wine during the winemaking process to give it a higher alcohol content. Port is required to be aged for a minimum 2 years, but many are aged for longer than that. Like many wines in old world countries, Port wine gets it’s name from it’s place of origin – Porto. We’ve just scratched the surface of Port wine, so keep reading to learn about the history, winemaking process, types of Port, and the most important part - food pairings.

History of Port

Did you know Port wine started off as a table wine? Yea, I was surprised too. As Portugal colonized many coastal nations including Cape Verde, India, Sri Lanka, Japan, and Brazil, they’d bring Port wine on their journeys by ship to trade. Unfortunately, they’d often find their Port turned into vinegar by the time they reached some of the farther nations like Japan. To ensure their product was preserved through the entirety of their journey and to differentiate their wine from other wines, they fortified it, so that their wine would be sellable by the time they reached their destination. In essence, Port became fortified because it had to be and that’s how this wine built its reputation over many centuries. Just like Champagne, Port is an appellation, meaning that the wine needs to be grown and produced within a designated geographic boundary and under specific regulations to be considered Port. So when you purchase a bottle of Port, you’re guaranteed that it’s made in the Douro region, was made in a particular process, and has a certain standard of quality. In fact, Port is the third oldest wine appellation in Europe, so it had a long historical journey to becoming a world-renowned wine variety. Learning the history behind Port gave me a greater appreciation for the wine and I hope it does for you too.

The Winemaking Process

Through my wine tours and visit to the WOW museum, I got to learn a lot about the process of making fortified wine. Some of it was a refresher of what was taught in my WSET 2 course, but this was an incredibly more interactive way to learn about it. The time it takes to make Port is a lot longer than most table wines. Port wine can be made from over 50 grape varieties that are grown in the Douro region and handpicked. As any other wine, the grapes are then destemmed, pressed, and fermented.

In tradition, Port was fermented through grape treading - where people would hop into a vat of wine grapes with their barefeet, link arms, and stomp on the wine grapes to crush them and begin fermentation while singing for hours (now there’s machines to do that). Fermentation normally ends when wine reaches up to 15% alcohol content. To fortify this wine, a grape spirit around 77% ABV is added to the wine before fermentation ends. This stops the fermentation process by killing any leftover yeast - allowing the wine to keep its residual sugar, which is why Port is sweet and has a high alcohol content, typically 18-22% ABV. The wine is then aged for a minimum of 2 years in wood barrels, and a minimum 1 year in the bottle.

Types of Port

You’ll find generally that Port is sweet, full-bodied, intense, aromatic. silky, and contains subtle tannins. The most common ports are Ruby and Tawny Port. Ruby Ports have a deep red ruby colour with notes of red fruits, some spice, charred wood, and dark chocolate. Tawny Ports are Ruby Ports that have been aged longer, making it a more deep brownish colour with notes of dried fruit, oak, and spice with hints of nut and caramel. The more expensive Ports are Vintage Ports and Late Bottled Vintages. Vintage Ports are made from a single exceptional vintage of grapes, and Late Bottled Vintages (LBV) are also single vintage wine, but aged for 4 to 6 years.

For ruby, tawny, and vintage Ports, producers encourage people to age them for longer in the bottle - some them can be aged for 10 to 50 years in the bottle. LBVs have already gone through an extensive aging process, so they are ready to drink right after they've been bottled.

There are White and Rosé Ports too. White Ports have a golden colour with notes of orange, lemon, and apple, alongside honey and nuts. Rosé Ports contain notes of raspberry and blackberry with hints of nut and caramel. With all these types of Ports, there’s one every wine lover.

Food Pairings with Port

Be very selective with what you pair Port with because the intense, sweet notes can easily overpower the food you have. In many cases, Port is considered a dessert wine because of its high sugar content, so pairing it with a dark chocolate dessert like a German chocolate cake, chocolate ganache, or during the holidays - a yule log cake, you can’t go wrong. If you’re enjoying charcuterie, be sure to have stronger cheeses like blue cheese, goat cheese and smoked cheddar with some prunes, dates, and figs to complement. For dinners, be sure to opt for meats that are high in fat like foie gras or pork belly. For White Port, pair it with a seafood salad, sushi, and oysters. Don’t forget to chill or slightly chill your Port before serving.

If you enjoyed some Port wine after this blog, let me know what your thoughts are of it in the comments.

Bon Appetite!

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