Boozy Barrels: A Port Wine Primer

The city of Porto has been getting a lot of attention this week–for starters, it was featured in The New York Time’s list of The 43 Places to Go in 2013. So, what can you expect if you pack a bag and head to Porto? Port wine, of course! But–just what is that stuff? After visiting several of the wine caves that line the Douro River in Porto, plus additional internet sleuthing, I present to you: a primer in port wine!

 Red port, white port, and tawny hair

What is port wine?

Port wine is a fortified wine, meaning that extra alcohol is added to it. It has more alcohol than a typical wine–between 18 and 20%. Port wine is most often sweet and red, but white and dry varieties also exist.

This wine enjoys its current popularity because the English and the French fell out in the 1700s. England was on the prowl for another country to buy wine from, and Portugal filled those shoes. Because of the long journey by boat, that extra alcohol was added so that the wine would still be drinkable upon arrival.

Where is port wine made?

Port wine is actually not made in the city of Port, but 100 kilometers north in the region along the Douro river. This is called the Douro Valley, and the harvest takes place in the fall. After the grapes have been gathered, they end up in Porto, where they mature before being filtered and bottled.

 A boat carrying port on the Douro River

What the heck is a port cave, and what does it smell like in there?

I’m glad you asked! A port cave is a damp, dark, cave-live area where the wine matures in huge vats or smaller casks. In Porto, Portugal, many port vendors have set up spiffy tours to let you see the resting wine barrels. Tours are between 3 and 5 Euros, and include a tasting at the end. These caves have a heavy, thick scent which which is saccharine at best. Although some of the caves come off as very clean and pristine, rest assured that wine is really mellowing out in those containers. One of our tour guides showed us how, if you’re not sure wine is really in there or not, just give the barrel a thump; a hollow barrel will echo back to you, while a boozy barrel won’t.

 Aging away in oak barrels

Thanks for the history lesson. What types of port wine are there?

The color spectrum of port wines are:

Ruby – a deep, red-colored wine. After fermentation, this port is stored in big vats and does not age as long as other types. It is a very popular Portuguese export (harhar), and is probably what you will get if you order port at a restaurant. It has flavors of fresh fruits and berries.

Tawny – an amber-colored wine, this is transferred to big vats like the ruby. Unlike the ruby, however, tawny wine is also aged in smaller barrels for a minimum of two years, which give it a unique mellowed flavor. Instead of fresh fruits, you’ll find that this wine has notes of dried fruits, nuts, and caramel.

Rosé – this is ruby’s lighter-colored cousin. It is indeed a ruby port, but with the grape skins removed during the process, so as to leave a nice pink color. At our tastings we were told that it is often used in cocktails.

White -This wine is also aged in big vats until it is time to be bottled. Most whites are sweet but dry types can be found, as well.

Others – There are many other types of port wine for port connoisseurs — colheita (“harvest” wines from one specific year), LBV (Late-Bottled Vintage), 10-year-old port, 20-year-old port, etc.

A lineup of ruby, white, and tawny port at Taylor Fladgate

Ok, I have my bottle. What foods pair well with port wine?

Cheat sheet: White port is served as an aperitif, while the red ruby and tawny are after-dinner digestives.

The guides on our tours had all sorts of expensive ideas for things we could pair with our wine: caviar, truffles, chocolates, nice cheese… In our experience, though, Portuguese bars will often have these nifty cod fritters–bolinhos de bacalao–which are super cheap and go great with your Port.

 Cod fritters + port

How long does port wine last?

A regular ole port will last several months once opened, and we were told to store it in the fridge. If you have a vintage port, however, you must decant and drink it within two days of opening!

 Another wine cellar in another wine seller

What’s the most interesting tidbit you learned about port?

We were fascinated to learn that port wines (save for colheitas) are a blend of harvests from different years. Even though it is common to see ports which are labeled as 10 or 20 years old, this simply refers to the average age of the wine; a port labeled as 10 years old  may be a mix of 12 and 8-year-old wines!

Have you ever tried port wine? What’s your favorite type of port?

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14 Comments

  1. How wise you are on port wine? This was so informative. I am going to need to get myself a bottle asap. Is it the weekend yet?!

  2. Cassandra

    We’re pretty darn close to the weekend–deliciously close, you could say 🙂

    I hope the post inspired you to pick up a bottle of port–let us know what you think of it!

  3. You know what I know about port wine? Nothing exceptfor that I like it.

  4. I’ve actually never tried port wine! All I knew about it before was that it was usually for after dinner, because my dad used to have it sometimes. My brother actually works in the wine business, maybe I can impress him with some of these facts the next time I see him 🙂

  5. Cassandra

    @Cat – No reason is needed 😉

    @Katherine – I’m curious to hear your brother’s opinion of port–hope you can entertain him with this info!

  6. Someone was taking notes!

  7. Cassandra

    Guess I was stuck on student mode in this trip…

  8. This is fascinating! I knew next to nothing about Port wine before reading this, except that it’s very strong. Now I know! Looks like a fun trip too 🙂

    • Cassandra

      @ Kristen – If you like sweet wine, you should try it! It is strong, but still sip-able.

      @ Amelie – Wow, congrats to your dad! I would love to learn more about wine eventually and this exam sounds intriguing. I know you guys have done a lot of traveling around France–did you visit any vineyards or wine cellars there?

  9. This entire blog post made me think of my dad. He recently passed his Certified Specialist of Wine exam (he got a 96%!)–a very tough exam that tests you on everything there is to know about wine, including ALL the wine regions in the world (not just Europe!). He doesn’t even work in the wine industry, and I’m not sure what he plans to do with his certificate hahaha.

    I will have to show him this blog post and tell him we are using wine as an excuse to go to Porto. Also maybe you should consider taking this exam? It sounds like you know quite a bit about wine!

  10. The best part of this post is the first picture of you and the port bottles! I was dying laughing when I saw it last night 🙂

  11. Cassandra

    Alison, I can’t wait to take plenty of funny photos in this vein during our February trip!

  12. Mmmmmm!! I use port to make Solomillo al Pedro Ximenez! D-Man and I usually buy a big jug of port every year and it’s delicious for cooking and as a dessert portion. Loved your post on this, I learned new things about port. 😉

    • Cassandra

      Glad to hear that you were able to learn something from the post! You and D-Man should definitely plan a Porto get-away if you both love this sweet stuff.

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