Port 101: Why The Fortified Wine’s Resurgence Is Well-Deserved And Long Overdue

By Émilie Steckenborn |

Fortified wines were once something that only your grandmother would drink. No more. Now, the category is making a resurgence as a component in cocktails—and of course, as a delicious digestif. Getting to the heart of what makes these wines so great, it’s time to learn again how to enjoy them on their own. In this piece, we will begin by taking a look at one of Portugal’s finest and most historical exports: the humble Port.

Port: The Once and Future Star of Fortified Wines

Fortified wines, including Port, Sherry, Vin Doux Naturel, or Madeira, are simply wines which have had alcohol added during or at the end of the winemaking process. By raising the alcohol over 16% ABV, vintners inhibit fermentation by killing the yeast, giving the wines their fortified status.

Port is produced in the Douro Valley, located in the northern provinces of Portugal. In 1756, the region became one of the world’s first official designated areas. Yet, until recently, countries such as Australia and even the US were labelling their own wines using the name Port. However, this is no longer the case as the Douro region regains its ownership of the name. In fact, in 1980 the Wine Australia Corporation Act made it illegal for any products made in Australia to be labelled as Port.

Over 80 grape varieties can be used to make Port, with the most famous being Tourigna National, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tourigna Franca and Tinta Cao. The sweetness and style of the wine largely depends on two key aspects: timing of fortification and maturation.

Specifically, the overall sweetness of the final product is determined by the time spent in fermentation. In the case of Port, which has a signature sweet and rich palate, alcohol is added a few days after the winemaking process begins, when alcohol is around 7-8% ABV. Raising the alcohol up to 20-22% ABV effectively kills the yeast and stops fermentation, resulting in a sweet wine. Port is always sweet, unlike Sherry, which is fortified at the end of fermentation.

Next comes maturation and aging. With Port, the length of oak aging determines the taste, color and style. In both table and fortified wines, oak aging transforms the color from a deep, bright ruby hue to a lighter, almost brick-like color.

Aging also plays a huge role in the Port’s style. If only aged for a short time, a Port will contain strong notes of expressive fruit. After a longer time, these wines will develop tertiary characteristics like caramel, fallen leaves, and toasted nut aromas.

A young Port that has aged for only two years in a large cask will have a character that’s unmistakably rich with black and red fruit and spice and a ruby color; hence, the name Ruby Port. Many see this style as the simplest of Ports.

On the other end of the aging spectrum lie reserve Tawnys. Tawny Ports have a brick, orange hue, a product of years in old casks. Bottlings range from an age indication of 10 to 20 to 30 years. Of note, the age number represents the majority (but not all) of the blend.

How to Drink Port

For years, a number of misunderstandings about serving Port have run rampant amongst consumers. Now that Port is enjoying a resurgence, it’s time to bust these myths.

Jorge Nunes from Symington Family Wines told me that Port’s biggest market barrier was a product of was a product of a forced serving style.

“We have this misconception that Port should be served in small, whisky-like glasses. Instead, Port should be served like a wine. It’s meant to be in a large wine glass that it can be swirled in.”

Contrary to popular belief, chilling Port before serving is essential. I can’t even guess the number of times that I’ve been served a warm — or even worse, a hot—fortified wine. Like a sweet cocktail, any Port served warm will feel sappy and overwhelming on the palate. Instead, it should be stored in the fridge, served cold, and drunk with every sip savored.

Why Port Deserves More Recognition

Going back over 400 years, Port’s history is as rich as its taste. The wine’s high alcohol content originally allowed it to be shipped around the world and survive long voyages at sea. Today, Port remains particularly popular in France and the UK — currently, the beverage’s largest export markets.

Over the centuries, Port producers also endured hostile grape-growing terrain. Douro is not the simplest of places to harvest grapes: Vines are planted along steep terraces with over half of the vineyards at over a 30% gradient. A significant amount of the work is done manually, but with many young people moving to big cities, manual labour is becoming increasingly hard to find.

In addition to struggling with the land, growers must also grapple with a hostile market forces. A trend towards dry table wines means that many producers in the Douro are choosing to use their old vines to make dry reds instead of Port.

Yet, for consumers, the market shift is a positive. When it comes to value, there’s no denying that Port overdelivers. Connoisseurs seek out vintage ports made in only the best year and produced from top vineyards. Vintage ports are a collector’s item and can be aged in bottle for 50 or 60 years. “We are one of the last affordable fine wines around, for what you get,” Nunes declared.

Port has a lot to offer, and should be treated with the respect its 400-year history and resilient producers deserve. There’s a reason the wine has lasted so long: Just make sure to reject the misconceptions and enjoy it as it was intended.

Emilie has cultivated her palate through gaining her Diploma and Certified Educator from WSET, Certified Sommelier from CMS, HEG Certificate from Cordon Bleu, and is currently a Master of Wine Candidate. As Head of Education Asia & MEIA, she develops programs for front line staff across China, where her team trains thousands of drink enthusiasts across Asia. She currently serves as China Eastern Airlines Official Wine Consultant for First and Business Class.

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