Many are drawn to port because it’s a comparably small category of wine, meaning a basic understanding is something that most people can swallow within a few gulps. Once one moves beyond the overly sweet versions that are popular at American wineries, the nuanced flavor profiles of authentic port wine represent a much broader range than the few sub-categories might suggest. Because a full understanding of port requires going back to the original, this article deals with Portuguese port only, unless noted otherwise.
This is due in large part because port wine is not so much about a specific chateau or vineyard, but is instead more closely related to the flavor profile of each individual port house (also called a “port lodge”). Master blenders will often spend their entire career with one port lodge, guaranteeing that their particular flavor stays consistent over time. Once you find a port you like, it is likely you will enjoy other ports from that same lodge.
Similar yet different
Port is a fortified wine, meaning a distilled spirit is added during its fermentation process. That spirit is often referred to as “brandy,” although it is actually quite different. This addition causes fortified wines to have a higher alcohol content — roughly 18 to 20 percent — compared to standard table wines that are usually 10 to 13 percent. Port is just one in the family of fortified wines, which includes madeira, sherry, marsala and vermouth. Each has its own distinct characteristics, born from its origin of production, the grapes used and when the distilled spirit is added.
Port and madeira are most similar. Both come from Portugal, and both use “aguardente” as a spirit additive, which suspends fermentation midway through the process. Port comes from the city of Porto, which is where it, and Portugal, get their names. “Aguardente” loosely translates to either “fire water” or “water with teeth,” both apt descriptions. To say that it is unpleasant on its own would be an understatement.
Madeira sources different grapes than port and comes from the semi-tropical Portuguese island of Madeira. Due to higher ambient temperatures during aging, as well as the heat that madeira was historically subject to during shipping, it has a much different flavor. Today, madeira is heated during aging in order to replicate that flavor profile.
Sherry comes from Jerez, Spain, and is made exclusively from white grapes. The fortification comes at the end of fermentation, so it tends not to be as sweet as port. Vermouth comes from Turin, Italy, and starts as white wine, before spirits and various botanicals are added to give it an aromatized characteristic. Marsala comes from Sicily and is available in both fortified and unfortified. It was first produced by John Woodhouse, of the Woodhouse port lodge, as an inexpensive substitute for port and sherry.
Port is made by adding the aguardente part way through the initial fermentation. This suspends fermentation, ensuring that more residual sugar is retained compared to standard wine, which is allowed to complete fermentation. Technically, to be called port, the grapes must be grown, crushed, fermented and initially aged in the Douro Valley of Portugal, which is world’s oldest demarcated wine region. The Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto, or IVDP, is the consortium responsible for regulating, monitoring and promoting the port industry.