Port Wine – Portugal’s Decadent Dessert Wine

Harry Lambourne
22nd January 2022

Port wine is a great introduction to the world of fortified wine for any oenophile, particularly those who love a glass of complex red. This decadent Portuguese speciality comes in a number of different styles, tastes and price points. So, if you’re new to the world of Port, it can be a little confusing where to start your journey.

Whether you’re new to the game, or love a glass of Port wine and want to learn a bit more about this delicious drink, this article can serve as a guide.

Without further ado, let’s drift down the Douro!

Where Does Port Wine Come From?

Have you ever wondered what the Romans did for us? The more you look at old world wine regions, the more you’ll realise that viticulture is without a doubt a big one. Romans introduced winemaking to the Douro Valley in Portugal during the 2nd century. Viticulture in the Douro Valley, then thrived under the Moors. The Islamic leaders saw it’s value for trade, even if they could not drink it.

The Douro Valley has continued to grow. What started in antiquity has now become a modern wine-making powerhouse. The region is breath-taking. Verdant green and rocky hills on schist soils, on the banks of the Douro River.

Douro Valley with Vineyards
Douro Valley – the vineyards which are the home of Port Wine

However, it’s more than just easy on the eyes. While the Douro Valley is unquestionably stunning. The region produces excellent wine, particularly of the red variety. Indeed, Portugal and the Douro Valley are continuing to establish themselves as producers of high quality wine at fantastic price points. Yet, it is Port production which has given the region its worldwide acclaim.

Port production earned the Douro Region the status of UNESCO world heritage site in 1991. The Port vineyards actually have their own way of classifying the vineyards within the Douro region.

Vineyards are classified from A down to F according to natural advantages including elevation, location, yield, soil, inclination, orientation and the age, density, training and varieties of vine grown on it (Robinson and Johnson 213). So, while Port wine will come exclusively from the Douro region, there are other factors at work. A varied terroir leads to variety in the glass. Different styles of Port wine will also only further accentuate unique flavours and experiences when enjoying a glass of Port.

How Is Port Wine Made?

Fortification

Port is a fortified wine. This is likely a term you’ll have come across in the world of wine. However, you may not know what it actually means. Fortification broadly means strengthening. Think of fortifying a castle. Indeed, this tracks when looking at the term used in wine. Fortification is simply the adding of a distilled spirit to a base wine. This strengthens the drink, by making it more boozy and ultimately increasing the ABV, (alcohol by volume).

There is more to it than simply adding strength though. Before the fermentation is complete, the base spirit is added to the wine. This means the yeast hasn’t had time to munch up all the sugar in the wine. The residual sugar still present at the time of fortification means that the final product will be sweeter than your normal bottle of wine.

Fortification in Port Wine

Port wine specifically is made of partially fermented red wine, with at least half of its sugar intact. This goes into a barrel that’s already 25% full of a chilled grape spirit. Now, Port wine is often a deep and dark red colour. This type of colour is standard for red wine, as it comes from a long time in contact with the grape skins. This isn’t possible with Port wine.

Instead, treading and foot-stomping is employed to ensure all necessary liquid and colour is extracted from the grapes. Winemakers will link arms in long large stone troughs called ‘lagares’ and stomp away. However, these tireless and trudging stomps develop into an event in most communities.

The work becomes more jovial. Winemakers and farmers will link arms and dance on the grapes stomping with more vigour than before. Even musicians would turn up to provide a beat for the stomping. This stage is liberdade, (which translates to freedom), (MacNeil 516).

While this somewhat romantic approach to Port wine production sounds delightful, it is something which has become less widespread over time. Now, winemakers can use mechanical solutions to save some tired winemakers’ legs. These are unsurprisingly ‘robotic lagares’, (Robinson and Johnson 213).

What Are The Different Styles Of Port Wine?

Port lodges, in many respects resemble sherry bodegas. Ancient, dusty piles of big barrels of Port. All of them represent different styles, vintages and sizes. Let’s take a look at the styles of Port and see what sounds best for you!

Port Wine in Barrels
Port Wine in Barrels
Vintage Port Wine

These are the most prestigious and rarest of all the styles of Port wine. It’s posited that the Atlantic ocean makes the conditions for these Ports possible around 3 years out of every decade. Unblended and intended to be aged for long periods of time. These ports can hold up ageing for over 40 years. Make sure you don’t drink them to early and decant the port wine before drinking to experience something really special!

Tawny Port Wine

Most other styles of Port wine go through a blending process where different vintages are combined. These add layers of complexity and character. Tawny Port wine is made through this method. It’s aged in old wood barrels, therefore matures differently. The process is something unique and mellow. The extended periods of time in contact with very old wood barrels, gives Tawny Port its distinctive colour. Namely, a Tawny colour. These Tawnies are generally aged in increments of 10, 20, 30 to 40 years. In some instances they can even fetch similar prices to vintage Port.

Colheita Port Wine

They take the grapes for Colheita Port, from a single vintage. Colheita being the Portuguese term for vintage, (a useful thing to remember when browsing Portuguese wine). These types of Port wine are then aged for at least seven years in a cask, but can be aged for much longer. You can drink Colheita, a variation on Tawny Port, young. Yet, they will continue to develop and improve in the bottle.

Ruby & White Port Wines

These are your ‘everyday’ Ports. They aren’t aged for a long period and often don’t benefit from extended bottle ageing. They are a great entry-level, if you’re looking to try Port for the first time. Ruby Port is taken from red grapes. Whereas White Ports are functionally the same, simply made from white grapes.

Crusted Port Wine

Crusty food and drink doesn’t always sound wholly appealing. Yet, pizza, bread and crème brûlée can all have a crust and be delicious, so why not Port wine? Crusted Port wines are natural, unfined, unfiltered Ports. They bottle this Port wine young, made from unrefined base wine. This can cause a perfectly harmless crust to form on the side of the bottle – be sure to decant this one!

Late-Bottled Vintage Port Wine

Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port wine is not entirely dissimilar to the Vintage Port wine. They bottle it from a single-harvest, hence the term vintage. However, it’s bottled later than a vintage Port wine. Winemakers bottle Vintage Port after two years. Whereas they bottle LBV Port wine between four and six years after production. The key difference being LBV can be drank young. The winemakers do the ageing for you with LBV!

What Does Port Wine Taste Like?

This is a valid question and really the most important one. You may think with so many styles of Port wine, it’s hard to find your niche.

Port wine does without a doubt vary dependent on style. However, the grapes used are often the same. The region various Ports are grown on and produced in are also often similar. Therefore, some common flavours persist across most bottles of Port wine.

Red, Black and Dried fruit notes are often detectable. These manifest themselves in raspberry, blackberries, blueberries, raisin, figs and prunes. Secondary aromas such as chocolate, cinnamon and nuts, (particularly almonds), are also common.

The reason Port wine often ages for such a long time is its propensity to develop a wide array of new flavours over time. These secondary notes include such varied aromas and flavours such as green peppercorn, hazelnuts, butterscotch, caramel, truffles and tobacco leaf to name a few.

These are the broad strokes of the flavours to expect. The best way to learn is by doing though. Get yourself a bottle of Port and see what you can detect!

Port Wine Producer In Focus – The Niepoort Family

Now, you know the ‘how and where’ to Port wine, it’s time to look into one of the great producers of this delicious product.

The Niepoort family have run their independent family-run business since 1842. This began when Franciscus Niepoort emigrated from Holland. Now, Dirk and Verena Niepoort run the vineyards together. This is alongside the Nogeuira family, who are also fifth generation winemakers and master blenders. Over these five generations, they’ve both honed their skills and become one of the most outstanding producers of Port in Portugal.

Niepoort Family - 5th Generation Port Wine Producers
Niepoort Family – 5th Generation Port Wine Producers (Photo Courtesy of https://www.niepoort-vinhos.com/en/)

While they are one of the true bastions of this style of fortified wine, in their own words they want to remain a ‘niche player’. This means that they look to produce distinctive and innovative wines. Ports that remain true to the classic style of Port, but look to create something genuinely unique for the consumer as well. 

We’re proud to be stocking a good variety of Niepoort’s delicious drinks and they’re the perfect introduction to Port for a newcomer, or a must-try for any certified Port fanatic.


That’s the deal on Port – if you’re looking to learn more about other Dessert wines, or just want a perfect pudding pairing for your Port – then read here

Maybe you want to keep reading about Portuguese wine? Then, take a look at our overview of the wine and region of Vinho Verde here.

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