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Q. Is Port classified as a wine? How is it made? (from B. Gray, via email)
A. (via John Cawood, Fine Wine sales) Port falls under the broad umbrella of wine in that it is produced from fermenting grapes, but is more specifically Fortified Wine, as grape spirit is added to the wine during production. The historical reason for this addition of a spirit is demand from England. During the 17th century, trade wars between England and France meant that French wine was no longer imported, with the English turning to their allies Portugal to fulfil the demand. The longer, hotter shipping required meant that fortified wines were more suited to the conditions of the journey and the British love affair with the strong, sweet wines of the Douro Valley began.
THE WINEMAKING PROCESS
After the grapes have been picked, alcoholic fermentation begins – albeit in a somewhat turbo-charged fashion. As the fermenting must is in contact with the grape skins for a much shorter length of time than is the case in the production of red table wine, there is a need to extract the vital colour and tannins from the skins as quickly as possible. This has traditionally been done by foot-treading in large stone vats known as lagares, but is now often carried out mechanically.
A neutral grape spirit of 77% abv (known as aguardente) is added after a few days, which stops the process of the sugars naturally present in the grape converting to alcohol and leaves the resulting wine sweet. With the addition of the spirit (about one-fifth of the total volume), the alcohol increases to around 20% abv and the newly made Port wine is ready to begin its ageing.
CATEGORIES OF PORT
There are numerous categories of Port, with perhaps the most famous being Vintage Port – declared in only exceptional years and produced using grapes from the finest vineyards. These wines are given relatively short ageing in wood before bottling, where they should be left undisturbed, preferably for a few decades before opening. Tawny Ports are given longer ageing in barrels and as a result have a more ‘oxidative’ character – nuttiness and a more open structure. Look out for 10 and 20 year old Tawny Ports, which are often excellent value given the quality and care (not to mention time!) that has gone in to their production. Ruby Ports are in the fruit-drive style of Vintage Ports, without the structure and ageing requirement and can give a good introduction to the style of a Port House. LBV (Late Bottled Vintage) Ports are a step up from Ruby, coming from a specific year and offering a hint of Vintage style at a fraction of the price.