Deep In History

By / Wine + Drinks / December 10th, 2007 / 2

I have never understood why Port, always known as “the Englishman’s drink,” has not been more popular here in Canada. Surely, with our brutal winters, we need its heart-warming qualities even more than the English do. It appears, though, that Canadians are increasingly discovering the joys of this elixir. Interestingly enough, Quebecers are the runaway leaders in Port consumption in Canada.

Port, more than any other wine in the world, was created by politics. It has an entertaining, though somewhat disreputable, history. It was a crudely improvised expedient foisted on the English by their politicians during the long period of hostilities with France. As Hugh Johnson recounts in The Story of Wine, “They had two motives: an embargo on imports from enemy France, which of course included wine, and a brazen intention to take advantage of an old ally, Portugal.” Early versions of Port were dull table wines and no substitute for the Englishman’s accustomed drink of Claret (red Bordeaux).

The politics felt like a tyrannical imposition to some and a patriotic duty to drink the stuff to others. Two bits of doggerel quoted by Johnson illustrate the point:


Firm and erect the Highland chieftain stood,
Sweet was his mutton and his Claret good.
Thou shalt drink Port,” the English statesman cried.
He drank the poison, and his spirit died.  

And the politically correct version:


Be sometimes to your country true,
Have once the public good in view;
Bravely despise Champagne at court
And choose to dine at home with Port. 

In the early eighteenth century, wine merchants began adding brandy to Port. This was likely intended to kill the bugs produced by the unsanitary winemaking conditions (use of poorly cured wineskins for one thing); to preserve it for shipping — or perhaps, to kill the awful taste. At any rate, this practice, at first deplored, became more refined. Eventually it resulted in the most heart-warming drink known to humanity. Port as we now know it was born.

With the exception of relatively inexpensive Ruby Ports, the “true” stuff has become rather pricey. Producers in South Africa, Australia and California have come up with a number of “Ports” of their own. The question is, has anyone really come close to duplicating the real thing? So far, I am afraid that nothing quite measures up to the unique qualities of true Port. It is like Champagne, which has many New World imitators, who have produced quite lovely sparkling wines by the same methods and with the same grapes as in Champagne but still fall short of the original.

For my money, South African styles come closest. Serious Port production has been going on there for a long time and several fine producers make very good Tawny and Vintage Port styles. Celebrated specialists such as De Krans, in the Klein Karoo, have been planting all the classic Portuguese varieties since 1985. Others like Boplaas Wine Cellars, J. P. Bredell and Overgaauw all make serious, age-worthy wines using authentic varieties and methods. More widely available is the entry level Tawny Port from KWV Cellars. Though inexpensive, it has an authentic Tawny character and it is not excessively sweet. KWV Ports in the $20–$30 range represent good quality and value. 

Ficklin, in California’s San Joaquin Valley, have also been making more or less authentic Port styles since the 1940s. Another Californian producer, Kunde Estate, has applied Port methods to make a “Port” using Zinfandel. It is enjoyable in its own right but hardly the real thing. I have yet to taste a “Port” from either California or from Australia that comes as close as South African versions to that unique combination of power, sweetness, with the fiery warming sensation on the finish. That will be my wish for the New Year.



Port Primer

Port comes in a number of varieties, which differ significantly in style, quality and price. Authentic, “true” Port comes from the Douro region of Portugal. There are many imitations made in the New World, and they continue to improve. Below is a short primer to “true” Port styles.

WHITE: Traditionally lightweight; a rather bland, sweetish drink, usually enjoyed as an apéritif. Recently, more interesting examples have become available. Correspondingly, they are more expensive.

RUBY: Robust young Port. As its name suggests, it is ruby-coloured and tends to be sweet and fruity, without the complexity that comes from longer aging.

RESERVE: Though used for a long time, this term only received official approval in 2002. It is somewhat hazy but it tends to mean a wine of good quality blended from different ages to create enhanced flavour and complexity. The best guide to quality here is the reputation of the producer.

TAWNY: Wine that is given prolonged aging in wood, resulting in its characteristic tawny colour. Fine tawny can be superb, developing subtle, nutty tones and a dryer finish. Cheaper versions are a simple blend of white and ruby.

COLHEITA: Like Vintage Ports, Colheitas come from a single vintage, but the resemblance ends here. Colheitas are aged in wood for a minimum of seven years, usually longer. They most resemble Tawny Ports and can be excellent value for money.

VINTAGE CHARACTER: A relatively superior Port from a particular shipper. Usually aged for four years in wood before bottling. Ready to drink when released, it has been filtered and will not throw much sediment. In the view of many port aficionados, this filtration robs it of true vintage character.

CRUSTED: A blend of several good years, this Port is wood-aged for four years. In all other respects, it is treated like Vintage Port, which it closely resembles.

LATE-BOTTLED VINTAGE: Wine from a single year, aged four years before bottling. Like Vintage Character, it is filtered and will not have the richness and complexity of true Vintage Port. It can nonetheless be good value for money. Recent unfiltered versions are more interesting.

SINGLE-QUINTA VINTAGE: The wine of a single year and of a single vineyard or quinta. It is the product of a good year, but not necessarily a widely declared vintage year (see below). In almost all respects, it closely resembles the vintage Port. The main difference is that it is somewhat lighter and tends to mature faster.

VINTAGE: The greatest of all Ports. Vintage Port is the product of a single vintage. The wine spends two years in wood and is then bottled. Vintage Port should age for at least a decade in bottle, and in most cases longer. Ports from a great year will often need twenty years or more to reach their peak. A vintage year is one that is declared by a majority of “shippers” (Port houses). In a very great year, almost everyone will declare.


Complexity In A Bottle

There’s been much consolidation in the Port business in the last few years. Many of the great old traditional houses set up by English merchants in Oporto are now owned by larger concerns. The Symington family, for example, owns Graham’s, Dow’s, and Smith Woodehouse. Symington also acquired another great house, Martinez, last year. Several other venerable names have been gobbled up by major players as well. With this has come new capital investment in the vineyards and the modernization of winemaking facilities.

Hand in hand with these changes, there appears to be a new tendency toward more approachable, fruity styles that require less prolonged ageing. You may not have to wait quite as long before enjoying a Vintage Port, but this will likely come at the cost of complexity.

Cockburn’s Twenty Year Old Tawny Port ($47.49) 

Delicate, light tawny colour with a refined rancío bouquet, dried fruit and a dusting of fine spice. Extremely smooth on the palate with stylish dried fruit, some toffee and a trace of licorice.

Martinez Late-Bottled Vintage Port 2004 ($24.23) 

Shows some complex developed notes on the nose, with good depth of dark, concentrated, richly plummy fruit and supple tannins. More character and depth than most LBV Ports.

Graham Malvedos Single-Quinta Vintage Port 1998 ($66.80) 

Very noticeable fruitiness on the nose with ripe spicy red plum and hints of toffee and caramel. Soft dried-fruit flavour, some caramel, chocolate and a long, rather straightforward finish.

The following two Ports from celebrated years showed the power, complexity and age-worthiness that fine Vintage Port can deliver.

Graham’s 1985 Vintage Port ($100)

The lighter ruby colour indicates advanced bottle development. Gloriously elegant developed bouquet displays dark cherry with Kirsch-like intensity, together with plum, pencil-box oak, cinnamon and clove. Integrated dark rich black cherry and plum, with sweetness balanced by classic fiery bite on the palate. Wraps up with layers of fruit, elegant spice and dry pencil-box oak on the finish.

Dow’s 1994 Vintage Port ($85)

Sill youthful plummy dark fruit bouquet with black cherry, cinnamon and clove spiciness and a whiff of alcohol. Powerful, densely textured flavours of black fruit, black chocolate and plenty of fiery alcohol, fruit and well-integrated oak on the finish. Still a youngster, this Port has yet to lose its primary fruit character. Needs another 3 to 5 years at least.


Sean Wood is a weekly wine columnist for the Halifax Chronicle Herald. He has written for both national and international wine magazines and travels frequently to report on wine regions throughout the world. He has provided consulting services to government on wine-related issues as well to the hospitality industry. Sean also serves frequently as a wine judge. His book Wineries and Wine Country of Nova Scotia was published in September 2006.

Comments are closed.

North America’s Longest Running Food & Wine Magazine

Get Quench-ed!!!

Champion storytellers & proudly independent for over 50 years. Free Weekly newsletter & full digital access