What Is Port Wine?
Although not technically an alcoholic spirit, port wine uses distilled grape alcohol as an essential part of its production. Most of the process for making port is much like table wine where grapes are harvested, crushed, fermented, and pressed.
Alcoholic fermentation consists of adding yeast to a liquid that’s rich in sugar. The yeast then proceeds to consume the sugar and produces alcohol, heat, and carbon dioxide as byproducts.
However, before the fermentation has completely finished, neutral grape spirit alcohol is added to the wine, which kills the yeast. Consequently, the wine has a greater quantity of residual sugars, which results in a sweet flavour.
You can learn more about the whole process in our guide to how port wine is made.
Therefore, port is defined as a fortified wine. Typically, most port is derived from black grapes like white wine. However, white and rosé ports have grown to become quite common, too.
Port Wine Etymology
Port wine’s name derives from the Portuguese city of Porto, located at the mouth of the Douro river. Historically, port wine was transported up the river from Lamego and then exported from the city’s harbour.
Interestingly, port wine, its home city, and even the country itself all share a common etymology. Originally named “Cale” after a Celtic deity, Porto was conquered by the Romans around 200 BC.
They rechristened it as the Port of Cale (Portus Cale), which was eventually corrupted as “Portugal” to define the whole country. Meanwhile, the city’s title was shortened to “Porto”, which resulted in its main export inheriting its name.
Port Wine History
Douro Valley Vineyards
Portugal has been cultivating wine since it was conquered by the Romans. Indeed, much of modern Portugal was a Roman province named “Lusitania” after Lusus, the son of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine.
Throughout its early history, most of the wine consumed in Britain was imported from France thanks to its geographical proximity. Although some Portuguese wines were occasionally exported to the United Kingdom, it often spoiled due to the difficult journey along rough seas.
Nevertheless, the 1386 Treaty of Windsor proved particularly lucrative for Portugal and the start of a much closer relationship. The pact between the two countries, which still existed until 2009, allowed Portuguese wine to effectively replace France whenever the two countries fell into conflict.
Following the Civil War and the execution of his father, Charles II was restored to the crown in 1660. However, he had picked up a rather expensive taste for French wine while under the protection of his cousin, Louis XIV.
In order to limit his expenses, English Parliament banned all French wine imports in 1679 while also requiring Charles II to ask it directly for money. Therefore, he partnered with English merchants to source wine from Portugal.
English Merchants Discover Port Wine
Traditional Rabelo Boat
In the following year, English merchants discovered a unique fortified wine in Lamego while seeking new products to ship back to England.
Fortifying wine by adding spirit alcohol to improve its longevity was a relatively common practice. Indeed, it was a technique often used by Dutch traders when importing cognac before it was entirely distilled.
However, the neutral grain spirit was often added after fermentation, which resulted in a strong and dry fortified wine. Meanwhile, abbot of the Lamego monastery instead added sugar while the wine was still fermenting as described above.
Although the 1679 ban was eventually lifted, the Methuen Treaty imposed significantly higher import duties on French wine. Since Portuguese wine was now much cheaper, it further encouraged English merchants to trade port.
As conflicts continued with the French throughout the following decades, taxation on its wines continued to rise until all trade was severed with the War of the Spanish Succession.
With few competitors, port wine boomed in popularity. Eventually, unscrupulous producers started responding to high demand by adulterating the wines with sugar, fruit juice, and spices. On some occasions, grapes from Spain and other Portuguese regions were shipped in to make port.
As rumours of the illicit practices spread to England, it caused a scandal that resulted in its imports halving within 30 years.
In response, the Marquis of Pombal founded the “Companhia Geral da Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro” (CGAVAD) or the “General Company of Viticulture of the Upper Douro or Douro Wine Company” in 1756.
Consequently, the Douro region became the third oldest protected wine region in the world. The General Company worked in partnership with the Portuguese government to supervise and regulate its production in order to restore its reputation.
By the 19th century, port had become synonymous with English fine living and “three-bottle men” were a staple in most social clubs.
What Does Port Wine Taste Like?
As we highlighted above, port is distinguished from other fortified wines by its characteristic sweetness. Had fermentation been stopped by other processes such as sulfites or filtration, it would have instead resulted in a weak but sweet wine.
However, the addition of spirit alcohol renders it both strong and sweet. Otherwise, port wine’s flavour can vary according to a variety of techniques that can be used by producers.
For instance, ruby port typically retains a distinctive fruitiness by stored in inert stainless steel containers for at least 18 months. As a result, it delivers notes of blackberry, cherry, plum, and occasionally spices like cinnamon and clove.
Meanwhile, tawny port is aged in oak barrels. The micro-oxidation causes the alcohol to evaporate while also imparting the wood’s influence. Consequently, its flavours are significantly spicier with notes of dried fruit, fig, cinnamon, clove, and vanilla.
As port wine is often blended from several grape varieties, it can produce a spectrum of different flavours. Similarly, some types of port wine aren’t filtered when bottled, which allows for it to continue ageing with its sediment.
You can learn more about their flavours via our guide to the different types of port wine!
Ways To Drink Port Wine
At Bespoke Unit, we firmly believe that there is no right or wrong way to drink a beverage as long as it’s the way that you enjoy it! With that being said, there are ways that you can heighten your port drinking experience.
Traditionally, port wine is enjoyed during an evening meal and is often served alongside either the cheese or dessert course. However, it’s not necessarily a digestif.
You can learn more about traditional ways of enjoying it with our guide on how to serve and drink port wine.
Otherwise, port wine is a little-known and often underrated cocktail ingredient! Indeed, it can add a certain level of complexity to a cocktail and there are many fascinating recipes to try. You can read about our favourites in our guide to the best port wine cocktail recipes!
Similar Drinks & Port Substitutes
Port’s closest geographical relatives are sherry and Madeira, which are also fortified wines. However, the processes involved in producing them are quite different, which results in unique beverages.
Firstly, sherry is produced in the Province of Cádiz along Spain’s southern coast. As it is fortified after fermentation rather than during the process, it results in a drier flavour profile. Furthermore, it is aged using its unique Solera system, which has also been incorporated into some rum production.
While Madeira is Portuguese, it originates from the eponymous island west of Morocco on the African continent. Although it may be fortified during or after fermentation, it differentiates itself by using an “Estufagem” process where the wine is heated.
A more distant relative to port is ratafia, another fortified wine, which mustn’t be confused with Italian ratafia liqueur. However, ratafia is produced using the grape must with unfermented grape juice. A notable example of French ratafia is Ratafia de Champagne.
Finally, both cognac and Armagnac share a common ancestry with port wine. Initially, both alcoholic spirits were originally wines that were fortified by Dutch traders who added grape spirit to wines that they shipped from France.
However, they soon sought to distil the wines entirely, which resulted in the celebrated alcoholic spirit. Indeed, in both cases, the intention was the same and they were originally created so that wine could withstand ocean transportation.
Port Wine Health Benefits
Throughout its history, port wine was long touted for having a variety of health benefits. One of the leading beliefs was that it was a natural remedy against gout. Indeed, British Prime Minister William Pitt The Younger was given a bottle of gout a day as a treatment since he was 14 years old.
Ironically, alcohol consumption only emboldens gout rather than preventing it!
Nevertheless, moderate consumption of port wine may offer some health benefits. After all, it is derived from red wine, which is often lauded for its positive effects. For instance, it will usually contain sufficient antioxidants to probably encourage help heart and blood circulation.
Is Port Wine Fattening?
A typical 75 ml (3 Oz) glass of port may deliver as many as 100 calories and 120 grams of sugar! Therefore, it is quite fattening as it’s loaded with sugar compared to dry table wine.
That being said, it may have some advantages and can be cleverly used as part of a healthy diet. As previously mentioned, port wine is occasionally enjoyed as a substitute for dessert.
Indeed, you could certainly perceive a 100-calorie glass of port as a lesser evil than a 250-calorie slice of cake. Furthermore, while alcohol isn’t particularly healthy and should always be enjoyed in moderation, it is known to suppress the appetite.
As a result, it can be perceived as a suitable nightcap even when on a diet.
Now that you have read our introductory guide to port wine, let’s dig deeper and learn more!