A Lesson on Port
With some colder weather upon us, this is a great time to talk a little bit about Port. Plus, Jason just bottled our new GCV Port which I’ll review very soon!
Ports are “fortified” wines typically served with (or as) dessert. Stilton, a rich, creamy English blue-veined cheese originally from the town of Stilton in Huntingdonshire is the classic pairing with Port.
Let’s begin with some history before we discuss production and style. Port originated in the Durro Valley of Northern Portugal, and dates back to the seventeenth century.
In 1678, a Liverpool wine merchant sent two buyers to the Durro Valley where they fell in love with the smooth, fortified wine being produced there. They bought all that was available, and the English love affair with Port was underway. This passion was fueled in 1703 with the signing of the Metheun Treaty between Portugal and England. Also known as the Port Wine Treaty, it guaranteed low tax rates on wine imported from Portugal.
So, what are “fortified” wines? Well, they are wines that are “fortified” during fermentation with the addition of brandy or a neutral grape spirit while the wine still has a residual sugar of around 10%. The high alcohol in the spirit kills the yeast (stopping fermentation) and raises the alcohol content to between 18 and 20%.
Technically, to be called Port, the wine must be produced in the Durro Valley near the city of Oporto. The best of these are labeled Porto, not Port. There are two broad categories of Port, bottle-aged and wood-aged.
Bottle-aged Ports have a vintage date that is “declared” by producers only in exceptional years; on average about three times every decade. Almost all the aging is done in the bottle (at least 10, and up to 50 years) after about 2 years in large wooden casks.
Wood-aged Ports have several categories, most notably ruby and tawny. Simple ruby and tawny Ports are aged in large oak casks for 2-3 years before bottling. Ruby Ports are just that in color, while tawny Ports have an amber or brick hue. They are inexpensive and lack the complexity and longevity of vintage and aged tawny Ports.
Aged tawny Ports are incredible, and spend 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years in barrels before being bottled. They are aged and blended through a unique process called the “solera system”.
The “solera system” is centuries old, and originated in Spain with the production of Sherry. It’s a system of blending wines from different vintages so as to achieve complexity and consistency.
Imagine a row of barrels of wine on the floor of the aging cellar. This is the solera, which literally means “on the ground”. It is the “starter” and the oldest wine in the blend. A row of barrels on top of these is called the 1st criadera, the second oldest wine in the blend. On top of that is the 2nd criadera, the next oldest, and then the 3rd criadera. There may be as many as 8 or 9 criaderas, with the youngest wine on top.
Now, let’s bottle and blend. We’re going to remove 1/4 to 1/3 of the oldest wine, the solera, for bottling. We’ll replace it with wine from the 1st criadera, and replace that with wine from the 2nd criadera, replacing that with wine from the 3rd, and on up to the youngest wine. This is called “fractional blending”. The oldest barrels, the soleras, might be 40-50 years old.