Wine Time

Wine time: Port wines go back to Portugal

May 12, 2014 

Port wines come from the Douro Valley, a wild mountainous area in northern Portugal. The vineyards, which date to the 17th century, are some of the oldest in the world.

In those days, there wasn’t nearly as much wine produced in the world as there is today. As a result these wines became popular and were shipped to distant locations.

Thomas Jefferson was a big fan of port wines and imported large amounts to his Mount Vernon estate. Basically, port wines start out the same as other wines. The grapes are crushed and then fermentation is started. The shipping to distant locations is what brought about changes to production methods, and changes to the style and character of port wines.

It was found by fortifying the wine with neutral grain alcohol, the wines were able to survive long sea voyages better and arrive in good condition. After fermentation has rendered about 7 percent alcohol to the wine solution, it’s fortified with neutral grain alcohol, a distilled product. Essentially, it’s pure alcohol with little taste other than the alcohol itself. Around here it might be called White Lightning.

The infusion of the alcohol stops the fermentation, which leaves residual sugar and produces a wine with sweetness and usually about 18 percent to 20 percent alcohol content. Both the sweetness and high alcohol content led to increased popularity of port wines.

The British have always been big importers of port wines and shipped them to their colonies throughout the world. As a result, fortified wines in various forms have become popular in many locations. Australia produces many fortified wines. We found one there made with chocolate. We’ve enjoyed good zinfandel ports from California.

The name port comes from the city of Oporto, which is Portugal’s second largest city and located at the mouth of the Douro River. It’s where most port is shipped from. These days a number of fortified wine products use the word port on the label. However, if the label uses the word porto, it is indeed from Portugal.

There are more than 100 types of grapes officially sanctioned to go into port wines, but only five are cultivated. They are: tinta burroca; tinta cao; tempranillo; touriga francesa; and touriga national.

There also are a variety port styles that can be broken down into four basic categories: vintage, tawny, ruby and white. Vintage ports are generally the most expensive and considered the best. The Douro Valley is a tough area to grow grapes. Only in exceptional years do they declare the crop good enough to be considered vintage.

Most of the time, port is made from a combination of grapes grown in various years. Tawny ports are made from grapes blended from several years. They are aged in wood casks for up to 40 years. The labels on the best tawny ports stipulate the number of years aged –10, 20, 30, or 40. Ruby ports are made from lower quality grapes and aged in wood for up to two years. They’re bottled young while still showing fruitiness and bright color. It’s the least expensive port and generally doesn’t improve with age.

White ports are produced in pretty much the same manner as red ports but use a longer fermentation period and are made from white grapes. White port is usually sweet and served as an aperitif. There also is Madeira, which comes from Portugal’s Madeira Island about 530 miles southwest of Lisbon. It, too, is a fortified wine.

Lisbon, Portugal, is one of our favorite destinations. It’s semi-tropical with palm trees and good beaches, some of which are topless. The people are friendly, the food excellent, prices are reasonable, the weather is usually beautiful, and it’s easy to get around. The city is compact with good transportation. You can ride ferries, take trains and walk to many tourist attractions. English is widely spoken.

One attraction you don’t want to miss if you visit Lisbon is the Solar do Vinho do Porto, the Port Wine Institute. It’s a very interesting place. Located atop a hill you can ride a short funicular, if you wish, or walk up. It’s situated inside an 18th century palace and very nicely appointed. It’s presided over by civil service employees, which makes for an unusual experience. It’s kind of like a combination of a really nice wine bar and a visit to the DMV. Their wine list includes several hundred port wines. We poured over the list but whenever we pointed to one of our choices on the list, the nicely dressed bartenders always said the same thing, “We’re outta that.” We finally pointed to some of the bottles of port they had sitting on the bar and ordered those. They were all good.

US Airways will begin nonstop service between Charlotte and Lisbon on May 22.

Jim and Marie Oskins live in the Lake Wylie area. Email wine questions to

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