An Introduction to Port Wine

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

Closeup of a glass of port wine resting on a table

Are you searching for new wines for your collection? If you’ve never considered port wine, it might be time to start. You'll definitely be intrigued by its exceptional aging potential and robust flavors. Port wine, with its long history and knack for delighting the palate, could become your new favorite.

What Is Port Wine?

Port wine, typically shortened to port, comes from the Douro Valley in Portugal. Unlike other types of wine that are usually defined by one varietal or a blend of two to three grape varieties, port is all about blending. Indeed, that’s what makes port what it is.

There are roughly 100 grape varieties in the Douro Valley that can go into red port blends, with the most common being Touriga Francesca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (the same as Spanish Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca, Tinta Amarela and Tinto Cao.

Although port red wine is more abundant, port white wine is becoming popular as well. White port blends use up to 50 different white grape varieties, but some are more common than others – in particular, Rabigato, Viosinho, Esgana-Cao, Folgasao, Gouveio, Donzelinho Branco and Malvasia Fina.

A Bit of History

Wine has long been made in towns along the Douro River, with wine shipping industries taking shape near Vila Nova de Gaia and Porto in the early 1600s. The wine from these towns had a haphazard production style, with various grapes being used and additives included for taste, durability and alcohol content.

In the later 1600s, British merchants began trading their textiles for Porto wine. They would add a certain amount of brandy to help the wine last the overseas journey to Britain. The wine had higher alcohol content than usual and was often sweeter, since the addition of spirits prevented further fermentation in the bottle.

This led to the creation of port as we know it! During the 1700s, the Porto wine industry took off and eventually gave its name to the wine (which is generally capitalized in Portuguese, but not in English).

The Douro Valley received its official demarcation as a wine-producing region in 1756, far sooner than the now-famous Bordeaux region in France.

Port production soon was standardized with official rules and regulations, all designed to ensure consistency, authenticity, and quality.

How Is Port Made?

Port follows similar harvesting procedures as other wines, with the grapes harvested at their peak, taken to the winery and pressed before undergoing fermentation.

Of course, several of the steps in port's production are distinctive. One of those is the use of lagares, or shallow granite troughs. These troughs are open-air vats in which workers used to stand up and use their feet to crush the grapes. A few niche wineries continue this tradition, but most use mechanized tools to mimic the foot-crushing process.

The crushed grapes and juices reach about 7 percent alcohol content after a few days. This is when the next step unique to port takes place. Winemakers add a neutral distilled spirit called an aguardente vinica to the port so that fermentation cannot continue.

This aguardente is usually brandy, and it raises the ABV to anywhere from 17.5 to 20 percent. The aguardente kills the yeast, so that residual sugars in the port don’t undergo any further changes and simply serve to make the drink sweeter.

Like other wines, port then moves through the aging process. All port will have a bit of barrel aging, but some types undergo lengthy bottle aging while others remain in the barrel to age for many years.

What Are the Different Types of Port?

White Port

Here you’ll see standard bottles and Reserve bottles, which have spent an extra year or two in the barrel. Regardless, white ports are intended for immediate drinking. Interestingly, white ports can be anywhere from semi-dry to sweet, unlike red ports, which are distinctly sweet.

Ruby Port

Red port (known as ruby port) is more extensive than white port. It comes in several varieties, including standard (two to three years of aging), Reserve (about five years), Late Bottled Vintage or LBV, and Vintage, which is an exclusive category of its own. LBV port ages for about four to six years and comes from only one year’s harvest. Like standard and Reserve, LBV is meant for immediate enjoyment.

Vintage Port

A rare specialty, vintage port comes from an exceptional year of harvesting. A vintage port contains only the best grapes of the harvest, and it stays in the barrel for about two years, after which it goes to bottling. The port ages in the bottle at this point according to the buyer’s preference. Typically, it ages for anywhere from 20 to 60 years. Single Quinta Vintage Port comes from a single estate.

Tawny Port

Whereas all other ports age in larger oak barrels, tawny port ages in smaller barrels called pipas. These pipas provide more contact between the wood and the wine, allowing for deeper flavors and increased evaporation. The port is ready for drinking once bottled.

Tawny ports can have one of several labels, according to the rules of the Institute of Douro and Port Wine (IVDP):

  • Colheita – comes from one vintage and is aged for 7 years
  • 10 Year – spends at least 10 years in the barrel
  • 20 Year – spends at least 20 years in the barrel
  • 30 Year – spends at least 30 years in the barrel
  • 40 Year – spends at least 40 years in the barrel

The Varied Tastes of Port

With so many types of port come varying tastes, giving you plenty of ways to enjoy a glass of this Portuguese wine.

Ruby ports have fruit-forward notes of blackberry, plum and raspberry, while white ports have lighter fruit notes from apricot, citrus and apple.

The flavors of vintage and tawny port become richer with age. Vintage ports have darker ruby coloring and juicy fruits that are bold and young at the time of bottling. Later they deepen into intense fruits and chocolates, becoming rich and opulent with age.

Tawny ports have a russet to pale brown color and plenty of oaky smoothness, with notes of almond, walnut, vanilla, chocolate, butterscotch, dried fruits and spices.

Cheese Pairings for Port Wine

Have you been searching for “port wine cheese”? Port is known for going well with cheese. Certain cheeses suit certain styles of port best.

  • White port pairs well with Gruyere, Brie, feta, Camembert and Chevre goat cheese.
  • Ruby port pairs well with aged cheddar, Manchego, Parmesan, Pecorino, Asiago, Stilton, Gorgonzola and other blue cheeses.
  • Vintage port pairs well with Emmental, Gruyere, Edam, Stilton, Roquefort, Gorgonzola and Cambozola.
  • Tawny port pairs well with Manchego, smoked cheddar, Parmesan, Pecorino and Comte.

To explore our excellent port wines, visit the JJ Buckley Fine Wines online port collection or contact our wine experts for a personalized selection.