Port – History, Categories & Vintages

The documented history of winemaking in Portugal dates to Greek and Roman times, before the Kingdom of Portugal was established in 1143. Although wine was an important export for the country for many years, the first wines known by the name ‘port’ were shipped in the second half of the 17th century. In the 18th century, Portugal and specifically port wine had the benefit of preferential tariffs and treaties with Britain, leading many English, Irish, and Scots to set up business in the Douro region—a legacy we see today in the names of shippers and producers such as Graham’s, Warre’s, and Smith Woodhouse. After generations of this preferential treatment, these benefits were restricted, and port had to evolve. The demarcation of the appellation in 1756 directed the focus of port to the quality of vineyards, paving the way to port as we know it today, high quality and highly prized with the most prestigious bottlings being tied to each vintage and the fluctuations of the growing season.

In the Douro Valley, where port vineyards are planted, the vines somehow hold fast to centuries-old handmade terraces. Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cão, and Tinta Amarela are the principal grapes of the 30 indigenous varieties of the region allowed for port.

Port begins its life like a red wine, however, at a certain point during the fermentation process the winemaker decides the wine is at an ideal level of sweetness and it is time to fortify. Aguardente, a high-alcohol, neutral grape spirit is added and halts fermentation by killing the yeasts. This preserves the sugar so you end up with a wine around 20% ABV and moderate sweetness.

Port can be divided into two categories: tawny and ruby. Tawny port is aged in the barrel developing more toffee, roasted nuts, and dried fruit flavours. Tawny ports include an age date (10, 20, 30 or 40 years) on the label. What is generally accepted as the best quality port, known as vintage port, falls into the ruby category. Possessing rich and complex flavours vintage port is the most serious offering, comprising only 2-3% of production.

The declaration of vintage port occurs only every few years, approximately three times per decade. Vintages are declared when the growing season has worked in harmony to create the best and most age-worthy wines of the region. If the port house feels the wine is extraordinary and capable of great complexity and long aging, the vintage is generally declared. There is no distinct formula or criteria to determine whether a vintage should be declared, but more a bit of art and magic found in the wine that inspires the winemaker to proclaim it to be of vintage port quality.

While this is a designation left in the hands of the winemakers and producers—it is not determined by any governing bodies or wine organizations—there are certain steps that must be taken to put the vintage declaration in place. After several months, specifically the second January after harvest, a sample is sent to the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP) for approval for sale as a vintage port. Then around April the port house announces the vintage declaration, often to great fanfare and the excitement of port lovers around the world, and of course with cask samples. Then the wine is bottled and released. The requirements stated by the IVDP allow for bottling up to the end of July the third year after harvest, but many producers bottle a little earlier so as to not be doing it during the heat of summer. The wine can be sold from the 1st of May onwards.

Most recently, 2016 has been declared a vintage year, the first declared by numerous port houses since 2011. In May of 2018 these wines were released, and we are starting to see them in Alberta. The 2015 season was also viewed as being quite good, and certain houses did declare that a vintage year, but most producers held off for the anticipated greatness of 2016. With heat, rain at all the right times, and lovely cool evenings during harvest, 2016 was a banner year. The wines are of course meant to be aged, but the richness of black and blue fruits, cassis, and velvety tannins with acidic freshness make for a vintage port that could be enjoyed young in addition to standing up to three or more decades of aging.

While the tradition of finishing dinner with a glass of port is sadly not what it used to be, vintage port is one of the great classics of the wine world and for quality-price ratio it has Bordeaux and Burgundy beat. Now is a great time to charm your customers with the magic of great vintage port.