What is Port? How is it made, and where's it from?

What is Port? How is it made, and where's it from?

April 10, 2018

We’ve written about the different types of wine in other posts, but we have tended to focus on reds and whites, being the main types of wine we commonly drink. Like most things in life, you have more than a few choices at your fingertips! One of the most interesting types of wine made is ‘fortified’. You’ll no doubt have come across fortified wines before, and common types include Sherry, Madeira, Marsala, Vermouth, and our favourite - Port.

What makes a wine fortified?

This one you might be able to guess, based on what it sounds like! A fortified wine is any wine to which a spirit has been added. Most commonly with the types of fortfieds mentioned above, that spirit is brandy, but it can also be a spirit made from grapes or even rice (more common in places like Korea).

What is Port, then?

Port, or ‘Port wine’, (also known as vinho do Porto in Portuguese) is produced exclusively in the northern provinces of Portugal, hence the somewhat uncreative name. It’s typically a sweet red, usually served with or after dessert, although it’s also found in other varieties such as semi-dry and white. Fortifieds which might also be called Port are also produced in other countries such as  Australia, France, South Africa, Canada, India, Argentina, Spain, and the US - but under European guidelines, only the product from Portugal may be labelled as Port (or Porto) - similar to how Champagne must come from the Champagne region in France.

The people of Portugal have been growing grapes for over two thousand years. The wines of the region were officially demarcated in 1756, meaning that the quality of Port produced in the region was protected by law. As an export, Port became extremely popular when English merchants started adding brandy - which acted as a preservative to safeguard the wine for the journey back to England.

There are two main reasons why Port is special:

  1. Port is a sweet red wine - which is actually quite rare!
  2. Port has added spirits (77% ABV brandy), which acts as a stabiliser and preserves the wine for long-term aging - so you might see very old bottles of Port which still make for great drinking.

How is it made?

There are quite a few new methods to make Port, but one tried-and-true classic method. Traditionally, shallow, open vats called ‘lagars’ are used to crush the grapes and intensify the colour extracted from the grape skins. The use of these lagars is from ancient times, and rarely used anywhere else in the world - in fact much of Port production stems from some of the oldest winemaking traditions: some of the ancient terraces are protected by UNESCO and are too narrow for tractors - so all grapes are still to this day picked by hand.

There are quite a few unique grape varietals in northern Portugal’s Douro region, but most of them are picked, destemmed and fermented together. The only thing that’s crucial is that they’re picked at the right moment!

The process of crushing the grapes takes up to three days, and can be done either by mechanisation or by foot. The wine is then transferred into fermentation tanks where it continues to ferment until the desired level of sugar is reached.

Now, to add Brandy!

Port doesn’t actually completely ferment, as the process is stopped when the ideal sugar level is reached. The addition of Brandy stops the fermentation, as it changes the environment to one where the wine yeasts can’t survive. Winemakers add the brandy evenly into the wine so the yeasts calmly ‘go to sleep’. Most Port producers use about 30% Brandy to reach the legal minimum of 17.5% alcohol by volume.

Getting older...

Like most wines, Port needs time to develop. In Portugal, law dictates that all Port must be aged for a minimum of 2 years before release, and even then, it’s illegal for a producer to sell over 30% of their vintage. The result of this is that Port producers are encouraged to age their wines for extended periods of time.

Different styles you might find

There are quite a few different styles of Port, and they all slightly differ. You may find the below in your local bottle shop:

  • Vintage Port: generally aged for 2 years in barrel before bottling; can be aged anywhere between 10-50 years in bottle
  • Late-Bottled Vintage Port: aged for between 4-6 years in the barrel before bottling. Intended to be then drunk young, although some can be kept like Vintage Ports
  • Tawny Port: Port made from multiple vintages, aged for 3 years in barrels, but usually 10-40+ years! Intended for drinking soon after bottling
  • Colheita Port: single vintage, typically aged for many years in barrels before bottling. Also intended for drinking soon after bottling
  • White Port: similar to other Port, but made with white grapes
  • Rosé Port: similar to other Port, but made rosé style


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