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The Essential Guide to Port, a Global Powerhouse Born of a Happy Accident

Port is an expansive category of fortified wine that can be made with around 80 grapes and has been enjoyed for hundreds of years. If you have sipped this potent beverage, it was likely at the end of a meal. But where does this drink come from? And how exactly is it made?

Here’s everything you need to know about this fortified wine.

What Is Port Wine?

Port is a Portuguese fortified wine that is made by adding distilled grape spirit, usually brandy, to a wine base. The addition of the high-alcohol spirit stops fermentation and “fortifies” the wine.

Where Is Port Made?

Port is made in Portugal’s Douro Valley. Much like how Champagne can only be called such if it’s from the Champagne region of France, only wines produced in the Douro Valley can be labeled Port. You may also see these wines labeled as Oporto in Europe. All grapes must be grown and processed in this specific region.

The soils of the Douro River Valley consist predominately of schist and granite. The region is divided into three zones that sit west to east, hugging the river: Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior. The western part of the valley possesses a Mediterranean climate that produces warm summers and a fair amount of rain. Howeve, as you move more inland toward the Douro Superior, the climate becomes more dry and arid.

Three types of Port wine in glasses; red, tawny, and white.
Ruby, tawny and white Port/Getty

The Subregions of Port

The Douro River Valley runs from the village of Barqueiros to near the Spanish border. The westernmost of the three subregions, Baixo Corgo, gets the most rainfall and has the coolest temperatures. Grapes grown in the Baixo Corgo are used largely for tawny and ruby Ports.

In Cima Corgo, which is east of Baixo Corgo, the average temperature is higher and rainfall not as prevalent. Grapes grown in Cima Corgo are considered better quality than those grown downstream.

Douro Superior, the easternmost subregion, has the smallest volume of grape production, in part because of its river rapids and challenging geography. The area is the warmest and driest of the three subregions, yet produces some of the best grapes.

The Grape Varieties of Port

More than 80 grapes varieties can be used to produce Port. The major varieties used in Ports with a red wine base are Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Cão, Tinta Barroca and Touriga Franca.

Touriga Franca is the easiest to cultivate and, therefore, the most widely planted variety. Touriga Nacional, though the most difficult to manage in the vineyard, is seen as the most desirable.

There are more than 30 grapes that can be used in the production of white Port, which includes varieties like Donzelinho Branco, Sercial, Malvasia Fina, Viosinho, Rabigato, Gouveio and Folgasão.

Tinta Roriz grapes, Vineyards in Duoro Valley and River, Portugal World Heritage Site
A vineyard of Tinta Roriz/Getty

How Is Port Made?

The base for Port is made like any other wine. Grapes are grown, pressed and fermented with yeast, which converts the wine’s natural sugars into alcohol. In the production of fortified wine, however, there’s an additional step. Before all the sugar is converted to alcohol, a neutral grape spirit is introduced to the wine. This process is known as fortification.

For Port, the neutral spirit is commonly called aguardente, derived from água argente, which translates to “fiery water” in Portuguese. The aguardente kills the remaining yeast and stops fermentation. The resulting wines retain some of their residual sugar, resulting in off-dry to sweet final profilesand higher alcohol contents, typically around 20% alcohol-by-volume (abv). Wines are stored and aged in barrels before bottling.

What Are the Styles of Port?

Here’s a look at the major styles of Port.

Ruby Port

Ruby port is the least expensive and most produced style of Port. It’s stored in stainless steel or concrete tanks, which minimizes contact with oxygen when compared to wood vessels and preserves its ruby-red color. These wines, best enjoyed in their youth, are fined and cold-filtered.

Reserve Port and Rosé Port

Two subcategories of ruby Port are reserve and rosé. Reserve ruby Port is considered better quality. Rosé Port, which only entered the market just over a decade ago, is made in a way similar to traditional rosé wine. It has minimal exposure to grape skins, which gives it a pink hue.

Tawny Port

Tawny Port is made from wine aged in wooden barrels. The wood contact allows both evaporation and oxidation, which changes the color of the wines. They appear rusty or tawny, rather than bright red. Oxidation also introduces secondary, nutty flavors to these wines.

The highest quality tawny Ports are aged in wood and labeled 10, 20, 30 or over 40 years. However, the age distinction does not always correlate with the time the Port has aged. Instead, it denotes the characteristics of the final blend. Single-vintage tawny Ports are known as colheitas.

Garrafeira Port

Garrafeira Port, which is extremely rare and always vintage-designated, is matured in wood, but also spends a minimum of eight years in glass demijohns. The glass aging process creates a distinct aroma and flavor.

White Port

White Port is made solely from white grapes and can be found in dry, off-dry and sweet styles. It’s often used in Portugal in a popular cocktail, the Port Tonic, which is made with white Port, tonic water and a twist of citrus.

Late-Bottled Vintage Port (LBV)

Late-bottled vintage Port (LBV) is wine from a single year, always bottled four to six years after harvest. Unfiltered LBVs labeled Envelhecido em Garrafa have also matured in the bottle for a minimum of three years.

Vintage Ports are the most expensive and sought-after style. The wines must be aged in barrel and bottled two to three years after harvest. These wines can age up to 40 to 50 years before they are ready to be fully enjoyed.

With less time in barrel or tank, these wines are not oxidative like tawny Ports. Wines must be produced entirely from the grapes of a declared vintage, but not every year receives that designation. Each individual Port house decides about vintage declaration. Single-quinta vintage Ports come from a single quinta, or estate.

In years when no vintage is declared, many large Port houses produce a single-quinta bottling, with a vintage designation attached to it.

"Overview of Barqueiros and Douro River, Portugal"
Barqueiros, Portugal, on a hillside above the Douro River/Getty

How Port Came to Be

Port is named after Portugal’s seaport city of Porto in the Douro region, which became an official appellation in 1756, making it the third-oldest wine appellation in Europe. But grape growing and wine production in Portugal, and specifically in the Douro, began thousands of years ago.

The 1386 Treaty of Windsor laid the groundwork for a reciprocal relationship between Portugal and England. By the 15th century, Portuguese wine was exported regularly to England, sometimes in exchange for salt cod. By the 1670s, people began to refer to this wine shipping from the seaside city of Porto as Port.

Since the Douro’s vineyards are far from Portugal’s ports, the wines often suffered. Sea travel also took its toll, as the heat and movement inside the barrels deteriorated the wines. To offset this, winemakers began to add brandy to the wines, which extended their shelf life.

Peter Bearsley, whose father founded the Port house Taylor’s, was one of the first Englishmen to travel to the upper Douro. In the mid-1700s, his family was the first to buy vineyards in the region for wine production.

Around that same time, Portugal’s prime minister, Marquis de Pombal, began to distinguish vineyards based on quality. A century later, most Port was being made in the manner that it is today: fortified and sweet.


What Are Some of Port’s Notable Houses?

The most reliable and famous houses of Port include Broadbent, Cockburn, Quinta do Noval, Ferreira, Graham’s, Taylor’s and Warre’s.

How to Drink Port Wine

To start, you’ll want to utilize a Port glass. This stemware has a “short, tulip-shaped bowl, [that] is useful to reduce exposure to alcohol vapors and concentrating aroma,” wrote Tammie Teclemariam for Wine Enthusiast. The standard pour is about 2 ounces, and you’ll want to serve it around 62–63 °F.

What Food Pairs with Port?

Port can pair well with a variety of foods. But typically, when you are drinking a sweet wine, you’ll want to enjoy it with a sweet dish. Think laird trifle, butterscotch panna cotta with poached pears, chocolate and fig tart with homemade jam and other desserts. This fortified wine also pairs well with cheeses like Cambozola, Danish blue, Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Stilton and other more pungent options.

What Does Port Wine Taste Like?

A Port’s taste varies greatly depending on its style and how long it has been aged. But they are typically sweet or off-dry.

This article was updated on April 10, 2023. 

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