Throwback Thursday: Port Lessons from May 1975
We thumbed through the mid ‘70s for wisdom from our past editors on all things Port.
From the very best of 1975, this edition of Throwback Thursday focuses on top tips for Port-iculture.
1. A Brief History of Port (from May 1975)
Britain and France broke up (again). After the Brits fell for Bordeaux wines in the early 17th century, these two countries hit another bump in their rocky relationship that put penalizing taxes on all French imports, including fine wines. Portugal stepped in to scoop up the injured English; they started a pleasant partnership after both countries signed the Methuen Treaty in 1703, which allowed trade with low tariffs for Portuguese wines and, reciprocally, for British wool and salt cod.
Portugal used to make really, really bad wine. Everyone has their faults (that always come out eventually) and Portuguese wines were dark, very strong and high in unpleasant tannins and acids. Desperate to make this honeymoon phase stick, British wine merchants moved into the old Roman city of Portus Cale, or Oporto as the Portuguese call it, and started to experiment (ie. save this newfound relationship) with Portugal’s vineyards.
Summer loving, had me a blast. Portugal is hot, and we mean hot, in the summer. The British merchants soon discovered that this caused the grapes to ferment themselves dry under the sun, which eliminated the sweet, smooth taste in the wines. Solution by 1720: stop the fermentation before it was finished by stunning the yeast action with grape spirits, which leaves the sugar undamaged.
Practice makes perfect. Trial and error ensued, but the mechanics of port were born and have followed similar practices ever since. Over time, the winemakers learned the times and quantities required, and how to age the wine-spirit mixture to achieve a “smooth marriage” (for port that is).
2. Fast Facts on Port
Survival of the fittest. Only the best of the best (well, wines from the upper valley of the Douro river or from the port of Oporto), are allowed to bear the name “port.” The Portuguese government ensures that all wine is checked by the Instituto do Vinho do Porto before it gets shipped out.
Old habits die hard. “In the hills, old practices and customs linger,” writes the author D. F. Dutkowski. And grapes are still commonly pressed by foot in lagares (open granite tanks) with care not to increase tannin levels with crushing the grape seeds or accidental stem inclusion. Once fermentation commences, the juices “are stirred almost constantly to extract the maximum amount of pigment from the skins” (a.k.a. how port gets the dark rich colour).
Whoa, we’re half way there. For two or three days it ferments (until around half-way done) before “it is coarse filtered into wooden cask called tonels” that hold one-fifth grape spirits (which stops fermentation). After this, the port rests at the wineries “or quintas” until the spring when they are shipped to lodges where they age in wooden vats before being “syphoned off into large casks called pipes” that hold 115 gallons.
Things to note. Port is always a blended wine and vintage years mean wines are only blended between other wines of the same year, while non-vintage wines are blended between years “to achieve a constant uniformity of product,” writes Dutkowski.
3. The Basic Types of Port
Vintage Port. Made exclusively from grapes harvested in a specially good year and stored on their sides, these bottles age 15 to 20 years (you could say they’re the aristocrats of wine). Over time a thin crust forms on the bottom and should never be broken (so do not, we repeat, do not disturb the position). Carefully transfer home and store with the original side up (a white mark will reference this). Leave for several weeks to let the crust reform; decant before drinking.
Crusted Port. Made from a blend of wine, it’s left in the wood to mature faster. Similar to vintage port, it also ages in bottles and (hence the name) develops a crust.
Late Bottled Port. Kept longer in the wood than vintage port (up to six years); a crust rarely forms. Made from grapes of the same year, but less selective ones than vintage port, it holds a ruby colour and develops unique flavours. “If you every see any in B.C., buy. It will most likely be a bargain,” says Dutkowski.
Tawny Port. Left in a wooden cast for up to 20 years to mature, this smoother wine holds a lighter, brownish colour and nutty flavour. “It does not improve substantially after bottling.”
Ruby Port. Rich in colour, it’s a blend of young wines that mature for a short period of time (2 to 3 years) and holds a fresh flavour.
White Port. Once quite sweet, but now made drier, winemakers ferment the grapes entirely and then add grape alcohol in an attempt to compete with current sherry markets (this is 1975, here). “I do not think that the product is of sufficient caliber yet to complete with dry sherry,” says Dutkowski.
A few notables from 1975: Brizard Roma Vintage 1958, Kopke Victoria Black Label, Harvey’s Fine Old Tawny Hunting Port, and Andres Rich Golden Cream Port.