Skip to content
The History Of Port

History Of Port Wine

Port takes its name from the city of Porto located at the head of the river Douro in Portugal, facing west out into the Atlantic. Although vintage port is famously associated with the wine lodges in Porto, the local vineyards cannot actually supply the port wine grapes, as they mainly grow the lighter, drier grapes for vinho verde.

Vintage Port History

The success of port wine was born of adversity when England and France were at war in the 17th century. With French wine unobtainable the British wine merchants had to look elsewhere for their supplies and port was the answer.

However, the local wine was a little thin and acidic compared with what the British were used to – heavier, richer Bordeaux wine. So two adventurous English traders headed further inland in the Douro where they came across a local wine that was smoother and richer than most red Portuguese wines of the day. The difference was that it had been fortified with brandy, a practice still used today in all port wine production. 

Port Wine Making In The Douro Valley

Port wine grapes are grown in the upper reaches of the Douro valley, almost to the Spanish frontier like Taylors Quinta de Vargellas, where the vineyards cling precariously to the steep hills in terraces of thin soil over slate and granite. This area undergoes extremes of weather; snow is not out of the question and in summer the vineyards bake in almost constant sun and temperatures in the high thirties Celsius.

The Douro port wine region is divided into three districts; the Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior – unlike French wines these districts will rarely appear on the label of a bottle of vintage port. However, the Baixo Corgo tends to be the wettest region and hence the grapes are less ripe resulting in less concentrated port wines. The Cima Corgo produces the ripest grapes thanks to its balance of heat and rainfall, whilst the Douro Superior produces equally high quality port wine grapes but is isolated with fewer vineyards.

Vintage Port Grapes

Port wine is inherently a blend of varieties; however, the Touriga Nacional has now received almost universal consent to be the Port wine grape. It produces very deeply coloured and tannic vintages with blackcurrant notes and intense fruit character. Other grapes used are Tinta Roriz, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cao.

Making Vintage Port

Since the Douro area is so rugged the port harvest is still mainly done by hand and in some of the older quintas the treading to produce “must” is still done primarily by the human foot. The skin of the grapes provide the colour and tannin of the port wine and these days modern fermentation vats circulate the fermenting “must” – when it is half-fermented and still sweet, the grape skins are discarded and the port wine is fortified by the addition of neutral grape brandy, killing the yeasts and halting further fermentation.

This young port wine is rough and tannic and will need two or three years as a minimum to mature to something drinkable (basic ruby port) and at least a decade to mature into the premium vintage port and tawny port that are characteristically smooth and rich. Maturation can be either in wooden casks or in the bottle in the case of vintage port.

The following spring most of the port wine will be transported to Oporto where the more even, temperate climate guarantees a long, slow maturation process. The lodges hold thousands of elongated old oak casks, known as “pipes” which hold approximately 712 bottles of port.

Previous article Styles Of Port Wine
Next article Guide To Serving Port At The Right Temperature