The Story of Port

by winenews on Oct.22, 2009, under Articles

Port Wine is a fortified wine, as defined in EU legislation. It is produced in the Demarcated Region of the Douro under very specific conditions resulting from natural and human factors. The winemaking process, based on traditional methods, includes stopping the fermentation of the “must” by adding grape brandy, making a blend of 2 or more wines, and letting the wine age.

According to traditional winemaking methods used for making certain types of Port Wine, after the grapes have been de-stemmed (separated from the stalks), they are crushed in “lagares” (open stone treading tanks with a maximum height of 60 cm). This operation, the treading, is traditionally performed by men and women although it may also be done with mechanical devices that simulate the action of the feet. After the first such crushing, the fermenting must is left to rest for some hours, after which it is again crushed until such a time as the fermenting must is separated from the solid matter in the juice (running off) and the brandy is added.

Today, most of these wines are made in highly technical wineries that associate quality with profitability. In these wineries, most operations are mechanized. Once the grapes have been fully or partially de-stemmed, the grapes are crushed and pumped into vats where they ferment for 2 to 3 days. During this period the juice is pumped over several times to extract the maximum of color from the skins.

White wines may be made differently. According to the traditional methods, it is made with some maceration and in these cases it ages in conditions that lead it to oxidate. The time of maceration is reduced for wines in which the winemaker wishes to keep a pale color and the fresh aromas.

Fortification with Brandy or Benefício

Fortifying the wine with brandy gives the wine specific organoleptic characteristics, improves the chemical stability and at the same time helps control the final degree of sweetness of the wine. Thus, fermentation must continue until the amount of unfermented sugars in the wine gives it the desired sweetness. The fermenting must is then separated from the solid matter (run off) and pumped into vats where the fermentation is stopped by adding grape brandy in set proportions.

Port Wine stands out from ordinary wines due to its unique characteristics: an enormous variety of types that surprise us with the wealth and intensity of their incomparable aromas, a highly persistent aroma and flavor, a high alcohol content (usually between 19 and 22% vol.), a vast range of degrees of sweetness and a assortment of colors. There is a set of categories that identify the different types of Port Wine.  

The different types of red Port vary in color from deep purple to light gold, with a range of intermediary hues (tawny, golden tawny, golden and light gold). White Port comes in various shades (pale yellow, straw and golden white), all intimately related to the winemaking technique used. When aged in cask for many years, white wines acquire, through a natural oxidation, a golden hue that is very similar to that of a very old tawny wine.  

In terms of sweetness, Port can be very sweet, sweet, semi-dry or extra dry. Just how sweet a wine will be is a choice made during production; it depends on when the brandy is added to stop the fermentation of the wine

Port Wines can be divided into two major categories according to the manner by which they are aged.

Ruby Style

Are wines in which the winemaker looks to restrain the evolution of their deep red color and maintain the fruit and strength of a young wine.  This is the type of wine that you will find in the following categories, in ascending order of quality: Ruby, Reserve, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) and Vintage. The finest category wines, especially Vintage, followed by LBV, are good for storing as they age well in bottle.

Tawny Style

Are obtained from lots of different wines that have aged for different lengths of time in casks or in vats. With age, the color of the wines slowly develops into tawny, medium tawny or light tawny, with a bouquet of dried fruits and wood; the older the wine, the stronger these aromas. The present categories in this style are: Tawny, Tawny Reserve, Tawny with an Indication of Age (10, 20, 30 and 40 years old) and Colheita. These are blends of wines from several years, except for Colheitas, wines of a single year that are similar to an aged Tawny of the same age. These wines are ready to drink when they are bottled.

White Port

Varies in style according to whether it has aged for a shorter or longer period of time, and different degrees of sweetness according to the manner by which it is made. In addition to the traditional White Ports, there now are other wines with a floral and complex aroma and a minimum alcohol content of 16.5% ( Light Dry White Port ) capable of meeting the demand for less alcoholic Ports.

Categories of Port:

The various types of Port Wine are all duly regulated and correspond to the following designations:  

Vintage Port

Is a wine of exceptional quality made in a single year. It must be bottled between the second and third year after the harvest; it is deep purple in color and full-bodied.

Presenting exceptional organoleptic characteristics, the wine must be very full-bodied and deep purple when it is approved as a Vintage (when the wine is two years old). As it ages in bottle it becomes smooth and elegant, and it gradually loses its initial astringency and acquires a balanced, complex and highly distinctive bouquet. The aromas of Vintages that have aged several years in bottle are associated with roasting (chocolate, cocoa, coffee, cigar box), spices (cinnamon, pepper…) and, sometimes, ripe fruit.

L.B.V. (Late Bottled Vintage)

Are wines of a superior quality from a single year that are bottled between the fourth and sixth year after they were made.

These are red wines of great finesse and distinction upon them. They are full-bodied, smooth and with a varying fruity aroma and may reveal some evolution, depending on the length of time they spent in wood. Usually less astringent and less full bodied that a Vintage from the same year, although equally well balanced, they possess a smoothness and elegance that are more or less marked according to the house style.

Colheita or Dated Port

Are superior quality wines from a single year that are aged in wood during varying periods of time, but never less than 7 years, before bottling.

Whilst they age in cask, the young, fruity and fresh aromas undergo changes through oxidation and give way to a bouquet in which the foremost aromas are of dried fruits, roasting, wood and spices. As they age, they improve in smoothness, balance, their bouquet becomes more complex, and their color changes towards the golden; very old wines may even have green nuances.

Port with an Indication of Age: 10 years old; 20 years old; 30 years old; 40 years old

These superior quality Ports are obtained by blending wines from different years in order to obtain complementary organoleptic characteristics. Aged in wood for varying periods of time, the age that is indicated on the label corresponds to the approximate average age of the different wines in the blend. From that age, one obtains an indication of the characteristics the wine acquired as it aged in wood.

In the mouth, they are smooth and well balanced and they have a very persistent aroma.


Are very good quality wines obtained by blending wines with different ages. In this category, the most notable are the Tawny Reserve Ports. They are medium tawny in color and present aromas of dried fruits, toasting and wood, resulting from their compulsory minimum 7 years’ aging in wood, with some hints of fresh fruit. In the mouth, one particularly notes the characteristic smoothness of wines aged in wood.

In turn, Ruby Reserve Ports, a blend of younger wines that gives them their ruby color and intense and fruity bouquet, are full-bodied and tannic in the mouth, but less so than Vintage and LBV.

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