In my last regional overview, we went to Portugal. So, I figured the next natural progression would be to talk about Port, a fortified wine made by adding grape spirit to a fermenting juice to create an alcoholic sweet wine. As I mentioned in my Portugal post, the key Port-making region is the Douro Valley. To learn more about the other grape growing regions of Portugal, please see the original post.

Today, I’m going to play with a pop quiz question I received during my WSET Level 3 tutoring class. Have your Port hat on?

If they are opened in 2012, a 1992 Vintage Port and a 20 year old Tawny port would be a similar age, but very different in style. Describe how these wines will have been handled fortification to service in 2012 and the impact this will have on their style.

I’m not going to lie, I was going to make this a quick and easy post. However, in attempting to answer this question, I realized that there’s a lot of background information that needs to be understood. So, let’s take a look at what actually makes Port…Port!

Regional Overview:

INTERESTING ANECDOTE: The Port industry is divided between two coastal cities: Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia, which lie on opposite sides of the mouth of the river Douro. They are distinctly different and are often utilized at different times during the production process.

The Douro Valley is located inland of Vinho Verde, and, as such, is shielded from the cooling influence of the Atlantic Ocean; the area is defined as a continental climate. That being said, it is noted that the region is note uniform: The Baixo Corgo in the west is the coolest and wettest (probably because it’s the closest to the ocean); the vineyards then become progressively hotter and dryer the further east and inland you go. Consequently, the types of wines each region produces are a bit different as well: In Baixo Corgo, the wines are some of the lightest; Cima Corgo is where the greatest number of vineyards are found; Douro Superior is actually sparsely planted, but is the renowned source of top-quality wines.

The biggest vineyard risks are spring frosts and rain during flowering. Conversely, summers are very warm and dry and overall rainfall during the growing season is quite low. GOOD NEWS: The region’s soil composition consists of schist bedrock, which fractures vertically, allowing water preservation and for vines and roots to be able to reach that reserved winter rain.

Vineyards in both Baixo Corgo and Cima Corgo are planted on very tall, steep slopes—the base of which is the Douro River. There are clear temperature differences between the top and bottom of these slopes (due to altitude). Grape growers also have options as to the aspect at which grapes are planted—here, because of the hot conditions, many growers actually opt for north-facing vineyards to avoid direct sunlight. Traditionally, vines were planted on narrow terraces called socalcos, which were supported by stone walls. As you can imagine, this was not conducive to good vineyard spacing, not to mention mechanization. Though the system is still used, a more modern vineyard technique is called patamaresthese terraces are built without the retaining wall and with a wide enough spacing that tractors can actually get through. Where slope angles are low, an unterraced system called vinha ao alta is often used: vines are planted up and down the slope and accessed by roads cutting across the slope. The downfall to these two new systems is that they are particularly prone to erosion, thus not viable options on some of the steepest slopes.

Port-Making Grapes:

  • Touriga Nacional
  • Touriga Franca
  • Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo)
  • Tinta Barroca
  • Tinta Cao

The majority of red Ports (PS whites and rosés are also produced, but the WSET Level 3 focuses on red wine port) are blends of different varieties (often from different locations throughout the Douro). These varieties tend to be thick-skinned, producing quite tannic wines rich with black fruit and floral aromas.

Port Production:

Fermentation – Port fermentation is stopped by fortification once alcohol level reaches 5 to 9% ABV. This low ABV means that fermentation only lasts around 24 to 36 hours. Thus, there is not enough time for adequate extraction to produce the color or tannin structure needed for (or expected from) a red Port. As such, other extraction methods are often utilized.

  • Foot treading: This is the traditional method of extraction used in Port production and, indeed, it is still widely used for some premium Ports. However, as you can imagine it is quite labor intensive. The way it works is that teams of workers tread on grapes for three to four hours (hope there’s music involved) in shallow granite troughs, called lagaresOnce fermentation  is kicked off, the team can stop dancing and regular punch down routines take place.

  • Autovinifiers – This is basically an old-school automatic pumpover system. Crushed grapes are put into sealed vats. The rising pressure of the CO2 given off by the fermenting fruit pushes juice up through pipes into a holding tank. When the pressure of the CO2 reaches a set level, a valve automatically releases the wine from that holding tank, which then floods over the cap. The valve resets and the process starts again. This provides a lot of skin contact, as the cycle completes itself every 15 to 20 minutes.

  • Piston plungers and robotic lagares – These guys are meant to imitate the action of foot treading. Piston-plungers are round, shallow, open-topped stainless steel vats in which the cap is pressed down with robotic pistons. The robotic lagar uses rectangular stainess steel tank that’s about the size of a traditional lagar, which is adapted to carry a self-propelled gantry with robotic ‘feet.’ The gantry moves up and down the lagar, with the feet mimicking the action of traditional foot treading. Once that process is over, the machine then continues with the punch down routine.

 

Fortification

Alright, so fermentation and cap management complete. The wine has reached that 5 to 9% ABV. Fortification kills the yeast, creating a stable sweet wine between 19 to 22% ABV. NOTE: Although all Port is sweet, the level of sweetness depends on the individual producer. Thus, his/her fortification timing will depend on both the initial must weight and the desired level of sweetness.

The spirit, or aguardente, can be no stronger than 77% ABV, and since the alcohol level prior to fortification is so low, significant volumes of spirit have to be used. Indeed, an average 20% of the total volume of a bottle of port is spirit.

Maturation

Ports are usually transported downstream to Villa Nova de Gaia for maturation, as the cooler coastal climate provides the needed slow maturation process. However, some wines, such as those intended for Tawny Port (see below), are stored up the Douro, where the higher temperature results in faster aging and loss of color.

Types of Port

Ruby—These are blends of wines that are typically between one and three years old. They are inexpensive, lacking the concentration, complexity, or tannin structure of more premium ruby styles. These ruby styles have predominant primary fruit character, as they only age in for a short period time—either in oak or, in some cases, stainless steel (which will further minimize oxygen influence and maintain those primary fruit characteristics). These are typically fined and filtered before bottling, ready to drink upon release, and not intended to age further.

Tawny—Again, this is an inexpensive style of Port, not the age-indicated style asked about in the above question. These Tawny Ports do show browning (hence the term tawny), they also have undergone a short period of aging—oxidative aging (which gives it that brown color). To minimize that browning, producers use a variety of techniques: using less extracted or lighter wines from the Baixo Corgo (cooler climate); blending White Port; a period of hot maturation in the Douro (hot climate); and/or heaving fining to remove color

Reserve/Reserva—This term can be applied to both Ruby and Tawny Ports that are “higher in quality.” That quality is determined by an official tasting panel (cool job, no?). Ruby Reserve is still aged predominantly in large oak casks or stainless steel. Like regular Ruby Port, these are typically fined and filtered before bottling, ready to drink upon release, and not intended to age further.  Reserve Tawny, specifically, must be wood aged for at least six years.

Tawny with an Indication of Age—These wines undergo a long period of oxidative maturation in pipes (a specific kind of oak vessel). The wines turn garnet and then tawny, with the very oldest becoming a true brown color. Those primary fruit characteristics fade, giving way to aromas and flavors of raisins, walnuts, coffee, chocolate, and caramel. Due to the extended time in barrel, these wines throw out deposit during the aging process and, therefore, are ready to drink upon release.

These Tawny Ports can be labelled 10, 20, 30, or 40 years old. To qualify, the wines must be consistent with the characteristics typical of a wine of that age. The age stated on the label is there fore an average age rather than the age of the youngest component of the wine blend. The label must state the year of the bottling, which is important as the wines lose freshness after bottling.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)—These are vintage wines that have been aged between four and six years before bottling. This means the wines have undergone extensive oxidative aging, which makes them more “approachable” than Vintage Ports. They are said to be similar in style to a high quality Reserve Ruby Port and are ready to drink upon release but do not benefit from further aging in the bottle. However, there are a few producers who opt not to filter their LBVs, which means  they are more similar in style to a Vintage Port and can age for a time in bottle. These will most definitely need decanting.

Vintage—Hard core. Producers must register their intention to release a Vintage Port in the second year after harvest and the wine must be bottled no later than the third year. Aging can take place in either large oak vessels or stainless steel; wines are unfiltered and unfined before bottling. These are, upon release, the most concentrated and tannic of all the Ports. You can drink these young, but these guys are capable for aging in the bottle for decades. Again, Warning: decanting will be needed.

It’s noted that, for most producers, a Vintage Port will be their flagship wine and it will only be produced about three times per decade. They typically consist of a blend of the best wines produced from the best vineyards and it is up to the individual producer whether or not they ‘declare’ a particular vintage, and there’s not always a consensus from estate to estate.

Single Quinta Vintage Port—These are the product of a single estate (or quinta). The term quinta will appear on the label. Contrary to what you may think, this is actually a less prestigious Port than the Vintage Port. Large producers who own several quintas will pick from the best of each of their estates and declare a Vintage Port. However, in years that are not so successful, they will simply release their best wines from each quinta separately and call them Quinta Vintage Ports. However, smaller producers who may only own one estate, will only declare a Quinta Vintage Port in the best years, as they only have one egg in their basket.


Told you it was a lot of info. So let’s take a look at that question again:

If they are opened in 2012, a 1992 Vintage Port and a 20 year old Tawny port would be a similar age, but very different in style. Describe how these wines will have been handled fortification to service in 2012 and the impact this will have on their style.

Let’s start with the Vintage Port. This guy, we know, is made up of grapes that were all harvested in 1992. It would have received the same fortification process as all Ports: Fermentation would be stopped at 5 to 9% ABV with an aguardente of about 77% ABV, creating a still, sweet wine with between 19 and 22% ABV. All aging for a Vintage Port would either take place in a large oak vessel or stainless steel tanks and would age for a fairly short amount of time, as the wine must be bottled within the third year post-harvest. The wines are unfined and unfiltered, meaning they will be concentrated and tannic upon release. These can be enjoyed young, but are quite suitable for aging. However, as they age in the bottle, Vintage Port will throw deposits, and will need to be decanted prior to drinking.

The Tawny Port has an indication of age: 20 years, which we know to be an average age of the blended wines. The year 1992 would indicate the year the wine was bottled. Again, the Tawny Port would have gone through the same fermentation process: Fermentation would be stopped at 5 to 9% ABV with an aguardente of about 77% ABV, creating a still, sweet wine with between 19 and 22% ABV. However, it’s the agin process that differs here. Tawny Ports with age are those that undergo a long, slow, oxidative aging processThis is what turns the wine that tawny color, and gives those aromas and flavors of nuts, caramel, chocolate, and coffee. Now, because they age so extensively in barrel, all of those deposits are thrown out during the aging process. Thus, Tawny Port with age needs very little post-bottle treatment and is ready to drink upon release, and doesn’t benefit from further aging—nor would it necessarily require decanting during service.


How’d I do? I’m certainly notPort expert. In fact, I think I can count the number of Port wines I’ve had on one hand. Any questions, comments, concerns, observations, or requests out there? Any Port producers you’d like to recommend? Thanks again for playing with me!


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