Portugal’s city of Porto is known as the world capital of port wine – aka ‘God’s nectar’. Tamara Pitelen investigates the famous ruby red beverage.
Why do some tourists flock to Porto in Portugal’s northwest? The clue is in the name. Port. No, not a place that ships dock. I’m talking about port wine; that tawny, sweet, burning liquid that slips down the throat like molten amber and goes so utterly beautifully with cheese and chocolate… [gulp, excuse me a moment…]
Also known as Vinho do Porto and God’s nectar, port is a wine that’s been fortified with grape spirits that are similar to brandy. Typically a sweet red wine and often served as a dessert wine, port can also come in rose and white as well as dry and semi-dry but its most well-known form is the rich tawny-coloured beverage.
A little like champagne and chianti, although other countries produce a similar fortified wine, it’s only Portuguese fortified wine produced in the Douro Valley of Portugal’s northern provinces that can be labelled ‘port’.
Although the city of Porto is generally viewed as the world capital of port wine, that’s not 100 per cent accurate. It’s actually its neighbour just across the River Douro, Vila Nova de Gaia, that is the true heartland of port. This is where at least 36 different port brands have headquarters and tasting cellars for port-curious tourists, most within walking distance of each other.
From atop the Dom Luiz 1 Bridge that joins these two cities, the skyline of Vila Nova de Gaia is dotted with huge hoardings that shout the names of some of the world’s most famous port brands – Taylors, Sandeman, Offleys, Croft… These tasting cellars are called caves in Portuguese and you’ll see brown street signs all over the town indicating that one is within reach – you can very easily do a port wine cellar crawl in Vila Nova de Gaia and not walk very far.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Douro Valley has the perfect climate for grape growing, very cold winters and very hot summers. As well, the soil is composed of schist, a layered rock that is rich in nutrients and easy to drain.
Wine harvest begins in late September. Grapes are handpicked and transported to the wine cellar in baskets for crushing. In years gone by, men and women used to crush the grapes underfoot to the rhythm of popular songs but these days the process is usually mechanized – which I think is a shame, who knows what we are losing as the human touch is removed from our food production?
After treading, fermentation begins. Sugar is converted to alcohol and then fermentation is stopped with the addition of distilled grape spirits. This maintains a high level of natural sugar. Then the ‘vino fino’ begins its ageing in stainless steel vats or oak barrels, depending on what final product it will be. There is a whole other story to be written on the oak barrels alone. The best wood is considered to be oak from French forests that has been aged for two to three years in sun, wind and rain so as to season the wood and eliminate undesirable tanins.
The difference between a standard port and a premium port basically depends on in what and for how long the port has been aged. Your standard supermarket ruby port has generally been aged for three years in stainless steel vats while your premium quality colheita will have been aged for at least seven years in barrels of French oak.
Which is all very well and absolutely fascinating but what you really want to do is just drink the gorgeous stuff, right? Then put on your walking shoes and head to Vila Nova de Gaia on the edge of the River Douro. At that point, you can’t go three feet without seeing a sign for a tasting cellar or have someone thrust a free tasting voucher into your hand. If you are paying, it’s about five euros per person for a tasting glass and extra if you want snacks to go with it.
There are also plenty of bottles of port on sale for taking home. You’ll pay from about 13 euros for a 75cl bottle of white to 69 euros for a 75cl 2013 vintage [prices correct as of November 2016].
QUICK PORT GUIDE
What makes one type of port different to another? Here’s a quick explanation…
Ruby: Aged for three years in stainless steel vats.
Ruby reserve: Aged for six years in stainless steel vats.
Tawny: Aged for four years in French oak barrels
Tawny reserve: Aged eight years in French oak barrels
White: Aged four years in stainless steel.
Colheita: Aged more than seven years in French oak
Vintage: Made from grapes of a single harvest and bottled two years later without being filtered. It keeps on improving for 10-50 years in bottle and once opened it should be drunk within 48 and 72 hours.
Late bottled vintage: As above but bottled four years after harvest.