While there are wineries throughout the world claiming to be producers of great Port, real Port comes from only one place on earth, the Douro Valley of Portugal. While most people have figured out that real Champagne only comes from Champagne France, somehow the abuse of the word “Port” just won’t go away. Wine which has a distilled spirt added to it is called fortified wine. It is made around the world, but has gets most of its fame from France, California, and Australia.
While many people are drinking Port, few know how it is actually made. Without going into details, here’s the general idea. Port starts out the same as wine while the grapes are growing in the vineyard. There are a wide variety of grapes that are used in the production of Port, many of which are only grown in very small production and are unfamiliar to most people. The dominant grape of the region is Touriga Nacional, a red grape which makes up most of the juice in most Port. After that is Tinta Roriz (also known as Tempranillo), and Tinta Franca.
Once the grapes are harvested, they are crushed. Portugal is one of the few places left where they are still stomped on with bare feet while in cement troughs. This helps extract the deep colors of the skins. After that, yeast is added which eats the sugars and turns them into alcohol, otherwise known as fermentation. This is where the difference between Port and regular wine takes place. When the sugars are only partially eaten in the early stages of fermentation, a neutral distilled spirit known as Aguardiente is added. Aguardiente is basically brandy that has not been aged in oak barrels. Think of it as Portuguese moonshine. The high alcohol content of the Aguardiente kills the yeast and stops fermentation. This leaves some of the sugars uneaten, causing the Port to have a sweet flavor. The aguardiente increases the alcohol content to around 21%, as opposed the 12% to 16% in most regular wines. After pressing to separate the juice from the solids, you now have Port ! The many different styles of Port are made by going through different lengths and types of aging. But we’ll talk about the different styles another day.
If the Aguardiente is never added to the fermenting grapes they will become regular wine after pressing. I believe this wine from the Douro Valley is one that most people are missing out on, simply because they are unfamiliar with it. I like to think of it as “Unported Port”. To be clear, don’t go to a store and ask for Unported Port, it’s just a name I like to use because it describes it well. This wine is usually an outstanding bargain at around $20 -$25 per bottle. Don’t write this wine off as low quality because of the low price. Portugal is famous for producing outstanding wine at a very low price. This is great wine that could easily be served in a fine dining setting. It has big, complex, dark fruit qualities that stand up great to lamb, boar, or game meat. Add a side of root vegetables and you’re ready to go. About half of the grapes from the Douro Valley are being made into Port, while the other half are made into regular wine.
While you’re shopping in the Portuguese section of your wine store, do yourself a favor and grab a bottle of white wine. The Vinho Verde region just west of the Douro Valley produces several great white wines. These wines often have a bit of fizz to them and should be served chilled. They are crisp, zesty, and perfect for a hot summer day. Some of my favorites are made with the Alvarinho grape, and are unbelievably priced at just under $10.