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It is no secret that the British are responsible for the internationalization of gin, whisky and tea, but a lesser known fact is that they also put on the map the great wines from Porto, better known as port. Although port production in the British Isles is very limited, the Brits have greatly contributed to the development and universal appeal of this exquisite Portuguese wine.
The birth of port, known in the 18th century as a “luxury wine”, dates back to 1678, during the Nine Years War between France and England. The British embargo on French products, left England without access to their favorite wine. The Brits turned to their Portuguese allies to import wines from the Douro Valley.
According to the chronicles of the time, the emergence of port is credited to a group of Liverpool merchants who appropriated the wine-making techniques of a remote Portuguese monastery. Their secret consisted in adding brandy during fermentation to interrupt the process of decomposition. This resulted in wines of higher alcohol content and sweeter taste, since sugar does not ferment.
The popularity of port encouraged a large group of English investors to settle around the Portuguese city of Porto (Oporto), giving a major push to the region’s wine industry. Some of those wineries still maintain the English names of their founders: Dow’s, Graham’s, Warre’s, Smith Woodhouse, Quarles Harris, Gould Campbell…
The name port is not related to the region where the wine is produced. Instead it comes from the harbor from where it was exported to England. The region that produces port is located 62 miles upriver from Porto, Portugal’s second largest city, and extends towards the border with Spain. The aging and trade, however, take place at the mouth of the Douro River, specifically in Vila Nova de Gaia.
The climate of the Douro Valley can be quite extreme: long, harsh winters and dry summers with temperatures that can exceed 104 ° F. Of the large varieties of grapes grown here, the most valued are Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz. There are also great whites: Malvasia Fina, Viosinho, Donzelinho and Gouveio.
Unlike most wines, port rarely improves after it is bottled, with the exception of some vintages. Once opened, it maintains its quality and taste for more than a year. Furthermore, the cork is designed for multiple-use; it doesn’t expand and is covered with a plastic membrane for easy handling.
Port is aged in barrels and is classified according to the aging method:
RUBY. Red port aged 3 years in pipe (barrel), which should be enjoyed while still young.
TAWNY. Red port aged 5 years in pipe, which no longer has its ruby color.
VINTAGE. This port is marked on the label with the year of production. It comes from particularly stellar harvests, and amounts to less than 2% of the production. The Port and Douro Wine Institute should accept or deny the wineries’ request for vintage denomination two years after the harvest. These wines must be aged between 15 and 50 years.
VINTAGE PORT. One of the great wines of the world, Vintage Port is enjoyed mostly on very exceptional occasions. It matures slowly, has large amounts of sediment and a very high production cost. Historically, the best vintages were reserved for the British Royal House. Queen Victoria, Sir Laurence Olivier, Greta Garbo and Isadora Duncan were great lovers of Vintage Port.
WHITE PORT. Made from white grapes, it can be dry and sweet. It is aged 2 to 3 years.
Port matches perfectly with fruit salads, cakes and bittersweet desserts, especially chocolate, chestnuts and walnuts. It is also ideal if taken with blue cheeses like Stilton, which was the perfect ending to the meals of the British nobility in the 19th century.
Port is a delicate, surprising creation that seduces the most discerning palates with aromatic depth, marvelous fragrance, precise amount of alcohol and pleasant sweetness. ■