There’s an old wine joke that still amuses – ask an Indian, where port wine is made? Pat comes the answer – Goa.
This singular remnant of Portuguese colonialism that imbued Goa for 450 years and has come back to bite them is best stamped out by tasting actual Port wine in Alto Douro in north western Portugal. This is the only region in the world that can call its ferment, Port by law. There’s very good reason for that that is borne of geography and history and a story that is perhaps best discovered on a sojourn into this underrated EU member.
Before taking off on a port wine trail, let’s look into just what is port wine and why Portugal’s Douro Valley has exclusive naming rights. Historical mining estimates that Portugal was producing wine as early as 1100 BC but Port’s famous story began only in the mid-17th century, when the English having fired up a lengthy war with the French needed a friendly source for wine import and turned to Portugal. However, an unavoidably long sea voyage compelled the English to fashion up a method to prevent the wine from spoiling. What came next is fascinating – the French took to emptying generous amounts of brandy into the wine. The brandy fortified it against secondary fermentation. This desperate improvisation was in fact the invention of fortified wine and by default, Portugal’s distinct wine style which honed up in the Douro and is instantly recognized for all over the world.
Port wine is made exclusively from indigenous varieties and is a far cry from the hooch that’s been illegally pushed in its name in Goa. The IVDP (Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto) which is authorized to regulate and classify port wines provides a neutral grape spirit known as Aguardente to all Douro’s quintas which add the spirit to the wine, leaving it consequently with a high level of sugar content and an alcohol level in the area of 19 to 23 per cent.
Let’s start with the light, easy drinking and fruit forward Ruby ports. Ruby is the most widely produced port wine, made from a blend of several vintages and stored in concrete tanks. Ruby port is a classic ‘drink now’ wine with a fruity bouquet that’s a rite of passage for port wine beginners. Tawnies are a step up, a blend of several vintages but barrel aged for three years, giving the wine weight and complexity. Tawny port has three variants – Colheita (grapes from a specific year), indicated age (blends of an older average age) and crusted (unfiltered wine).
Vintage ports sit at the very top of the order and are hard to come by – it represents a mere 2 per cent of the production – simply because Quintas rarely declare a harvest as one worthy of producing a vintage port (three per decade) and when they do, they still need the approval of the sharp, discerning palate of the IVDP. Vintage ports are barrel aged between two to three years and can be bottle aged for up to forty years.
By Bhisham Mansukhani