Grape Destinations: What is Port Wine?
Port, when used in the context of a cruise ship, usually refers to the left side of the vessel. However, when in the dining room of that very same cruise ship, port becomes something very different.
In the Douro region of Northern Portugal, you’ll find thick bunches of touriga and tinta grapes cascading down the slopes of the river valley. From those grapes, perhaps the most popular dessert wine is born. Rich with sweetness and with hints of berries and chocolate, port wine is a complex and historic fortified wine thousands of years in the making.
What is Port Wine?
While the unique climate of the Douro river valley lends itself nicely to olives and nuts, it’s port wine grapes in particular which grow with outstanding vigor. The process for producing port starts out similarly to any wine; grapes are grown, harvested, pressed and fermented. However, that’s when things take a turn. Aguardiente, a clear brandy with a high alcoholic content, is added to the mix. Adding the extra alcohol stops the natural sugar fermentation process in the wine, meaning more sugar remains at the end, giving port its sweetness.
There are a number of different varieties of port just like traditional wine. There’s white port, rose port, tawny port, and more. Each has its own characteristics and flavor profiles which have been studied and perfected over the years.
An Aging Process
One of the most important factors in port-wine making is the aging process. As long as port is kept in cask following fortification with brandy, it will continue to age and improve. The length of time spent aging and the vessel in which the port was aged are the two most important factors in how it turns out. Wine aged in wooden casks, for example, ages faster than varieties aged in bottles. This is because of oxygen exposure. Some ports can be aged for decades, up to 40 years even, before being distributed. This makes port one of the longest-lasting wines and a necessity for anyone who prides themselves on a fully stocked home cellar.
The Best Port Wine Pairings
Port is considered a dessert wine to be enjoyed with something equally sweet. Some port varieties are also aperitifs to be enjoyed with a cheese plate or other hors d’oeuvres. Cheese is a very popular pairing like with any wine, but port lends itself to a cheese with bold flavors like an aged cheddar or Stilton, a blue cheese from England. Whatever your food of choice, there’s a port wine to go with it!