The head of the River Douro begins in Spain, making its way westward across Portugal. This river has carved out a fertile valley called the Douro Valley, where the Portuguese have been growing wine grapevines and olive trees for hundreds of years.
Along the river, a town named Regua was originally established as a staging point for the transportation of wine to Porto. Since then, Regua has become the capital of the Douro Valley region, and harbors the Port Wine Institute, which oversees all matters of port wine productions.
The once-flowing rapids of the River Douro were used to transport Douro Valley wines down to the city of Porto, where the wine got its name: port. The construction of eight dams along the River Douro cause the rapids to give way to nearly tranquil waters.
Varieties of Port Wines
Port wines can be divided into two general categories: vintage ports and wood ports. Vintage ports spend only two years aging in wooden casks before they are bottled and set aside to age. Wood ports, on the other hand, spend most of their lives inside wooden casks until they are shipped. These wood ports are ready to be consumed immediately out of the cask.
Ports can be divided into these subcategories:
- late bottled vintage
After the Ruby port is fermented, it is usually placed in a stainless steel container, which prevents oxidization. Usually aging does not have a significant effect on the taste of the wine, which makes it quite stable. This is why it is the mostly widely produced port. Ruby port has a very sweet, fruity taste to it.
Tawny port is older, drier to the taste, and it has a lighter coloring than the ruby. Tawny ports are made from a blending of several vintages over a long period of time. These wines must age for at least seven years before they are bottled.
Late bottled vintages follow the same concept as other vintage ports, but the wine is allowed to ferment in the cask for up to six years. Unlike vintage ports, which age in the bottle for some time, late bottled vintages are ready to drink right from the cask. These have a richer, nuttier taste than vintage ports.
Vintage charts for ports have a rating out of ten, one being the worst, and ten being the best. The vintage charts also have a lettering scheme to inform cultivators and consumers how the vintage received a particular rating. Some vintage ports are unrated because they have never been tasted because of their rarity.
The lettering typically found on vintage charts for ports consist of:
- HO: hold off, needs more time to mature
- RS: ready soon, not long until mature
- DW: drinking well
- AS: age showing, has been maturing too long
- ED: early days, un-tasted vintage
- NV: no vintage.
Vintage ports are required by law to be bottled within two years of beginning fermentation. This is why vintage port charts show only the years up to 2006. Vintage ports dating from 2004 to 2006 have not yet been tasted because they are still considered too young to have developed proper flavor.
Vintage ports put out after 1992 have generally been considered palatable, but could stand to improve through further aging. Any vintage dating before that year is often considered ready to drink and may not necessarily improve with more maturity.
A Taste of Port
Port is typically a sweet wine, but some vintages can also be quite dry. During fermentation, port wines are fortified with brandy in order to boost the alcohol content as well as to lower the amount of residual sugar. The amount of brandy and type of brandy can seriously alter the taste.
Several different vineyards and wine-makers in Portugal produce their own styles and brands of vintage port. Each of these wines has a unique mixture of grapes and method of fermentation, so the range of flavors can be fairly broad. A vintage port is usually consumed as a dessert beverage due to its sweetness.