Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:19 am
I’m partial to a drop of port and normally keep a bottle of late bottled vintage in the cupboard. Although port wine is, of course, enjoyed all over the world, there is something quintessentially British about it, a product forged through trade and a long friendship with Portugal. It seemed to me that an article would slip down a treat with A Bit About Britain’s readers, so I got in touch with Taylor’s, one of the oldest port producers in the world, and asked if they would like to help. They were happy to. No money changed hands and this is what they came up with. Reading it through, it soon became clear that I am a tawny. How about you?
“Pass the port, old chap.”
Port Wine: A Tale of Two Nations
Port wine is the legacy of an ancient bond between two nations that was forged in one of the most decisive military engagements of the Middle Ages.
On the morning of Sunday, 14 August 1385, the forces of King John I of Portugal intercepted the invading army of Juan I of Castile at Aljubarrota, a small town in central Portugal. With the help of a large company of battle-hardened English longbowmen, the Portuguese won a decisive victory in the ensuing battle, which ended in a rout. The retreat of the Castilian troops, who fled the field of combat in terror, gave rise to the celebrated legend of the Baker of Aljubarrota. This formidable six-fingered woman is said to have finished off seven unfortunate Castilians found lurking in her bread oven with resounding blows of her baker’s shovel.
The military defeat at Aljubarrota ended Castilian aspirations to the Portuguese throne, consolidating John I’s position as King of Portugal and securing the country’s independence. The following year, the convergence of interests between the crowns of England and Portugal culminated in the signing of the Treaty of Windsor which enshrined the alliance between the two powers.
The marriage in February 1387 of King John I to Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster and sister of the future King Henry IV of England, further tightened the bond between the two nations and ensured the longevity of the Treaty, which is still in force to this day. The marriage, celebrated in the cathedral of Oporto, set off two weeks of jubilant revelry. Despite its inauspicious start (King John kept his bride waiting for several weeks before turning up for the nuptial ceremonies), the partnership was a great success. Philippa proved an exemplary queen and the couple’s children, known as the Ínclita Geração or Illustrious Generation, included Prince Henry ‘The Navigator’, principal patron and instigator of the Portuguese Age of Discovery.
Although not the oldest Anglo-Portuguese treaty (the English archers who came to assist John I against the Castilians had been sent under the terms of an earlier treaty signed in 1373), the Treaty of Windsor was the most far reaching. Not only was it a political and military pact, but it also had an important commercial dimension, giving reciprocal privileges to English merchants established in Portugal and vice-versa. This gave impetus to trade with Portugal and encouraged many English merchants to settle there. Initially, wine was not the main commodity in which they dealt. Much of the commerce carried out by the merchants in the north of Portugal was in English wool and dried cod, known in Portuguese as bacalhau.
The origins of port wine
Then, in the 1660s, everything changed. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, first minister of Louis XIV of France, began to implement a policy of extreme protectionism, imposing high tariffs on some foreign imports and prohibiting others. On the other side of the English Channel, Charles II (who married a Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza) retaliated by levying increased taxes on French wines and later banning them altogether. The opportunity was not lost on the English merchant community, which had established itself in the handsome coastal city of Viana do Castelo in the northwest of Portugal. There was an abundant source of wine nearby, particularly around the inland towns of Monção and Melgaço, on the banks of the Minho river, whose names the merchants anglicised as Monson and Melgassy. Today, this lush and verdant region produces exceptionally fine white wines from the alvarinho grape, but in the late 17th century it yielded a thin, astringent red known in the trade as ‘red portugal’.
The wine merchants of Viana soon realised that ‘red portugal’ was not to the taste of the English consumer. The English palate demanded stronger, more full-bodied wines, closer in style to the French claret of which it had been deprived. Among these early wine merchants was Job Bearsley owner of the Ram Inn in the London district of Smithfield and founder of the celebrated port house now known as Taylor’s, which he established in 1692. It was his son, Peter, who first ventured far inland to the wild and hilly upper reaches of the Douro River valley to seek out bigger, more robust wines better suited for export to England.
Sheltered by the Marão mountain range from the humid winds blowing off the Atlantic, the wild and remote Douro Valley has a climate of extremes, baking hot in summer and freezing cold in winter. In this arid climate the vines, clinging to the steep hillsides on hundreds of narrow walled terraces, produce wines of density and power which gain great complexity and elegance with age. These were the wines that the Viana merchants were looking for. But there was one small problem. The wines could not be transported overland from the distant hillsides of the Douro to the coast at Viana. They had to be carried by boat down the River Douro to its mouth near the city of Oporto. One by one, the wine merchants, or ‘shippers’ as they became known, migrated southward to build their cool, dark warehouses, known as ‘lodges’, at Vila Nova de Gaia across the river from the old city centre of Oporto. It is here, to this day, that the wines brought down from the inland vineyards of the Douro are aged and prepared for shipment.
The 1700s saw tremendous growth in shipments of port with Britain leading the way in consumption. To regulate this growth, which saw its fair share of opportunism and abuse, and to protect the quality of the wines, Portugal’s First Minister the powerful Marquis of Pombal introduced a series of reforms which began in 1756 with the demarcation and classification of the port vineyards. In so doing, he created the precursor of today’s appellation d’origine contrôlée system. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Scottish entrepreneurs joined their English brethren in establishing port houses in Oporto, as did merchants from elsewhere as the taste for port spread to other countries around the world.
Until the middle of the 20th century, the casks of new wine were carried down the Douro River to the lodges at Oporto in special vessels known as barcos rabelos. These long flat-bottomed boats were designed to navigate the treacherous shoals and rapids of the Douro and were fitted with long steering oars so that they could be manoeuvred successfully through the river’s boulder strewn canyons. In the late 18th century, the largest rabelos carried over a hundred casks of wine. Their experienced crews were drawn from tight communities of highly skilled boatmen whose detailed knowledge of the river and its hazards allowed the wine to be carried safely to its destination. The barcos rabelos were a vital part of the supply chain and had they and their crews not existed the famous wine of the Douro would never have reached the lips of wine enthusiasts around the world as it does today.
What is port wine?
Although these wines originated in the vineyards of the Douro, they became known as ‘port’ after Oporto, the city from which they were shipped. It is important to distinguish between the term ‘Douro wine’, used today to describe the dry table wine of the region, and ‘port wine’. What mainly distinguishes port is that it is fortified and this largely determines its character.
At the end of the 17th century, it was common practice for grape spirit to be added to wines prior to shipment. By increasing their strength, or ‘fortifying’ them, in this way it was hoped to preserve them during their ocean voyage. In these cases, the spirit was added after the wine had been made. However, this is not the way fortification is carried out today. As the 18th century progressed, grape growers began to realise that if the spirit was added before the grape juice had finished fermenting the wines never spoiled. Moreover, wines thus fortified were regarded as more palatable by the consumer. Not only were they stronger, but they retained some of the natural sweetness of the grape and were richer and smoother in taste. This technique is said to have been encouraged by monastic orders who were actively engaged in viticulture and had long used fortification to produce sweet communion wine.
What types of port wine are there?
By about 1840, it is likely that all ports were fortified and fortification had become an essential part of the production process. Apart from the benefits mentioned above, fortification has another very important consequence. It allows port to age for longer than wines to which no spirit has been added. This means that, by choosing different methods and periods of ageing, it is possible to create ports of many different types, each with its own distinctive character. As the wine writer Henry Vizetelly wrote in 1880, “It has been said that there are almost as many styles of port wine as shades of ribbon in a haberdasher’s shop.” This variety of styles is certainly one of port’s great merits. However, it can be rather confusing for the beginner.
The first thing to know is that ports fall into two broad families: those that mature in wood and those that age in bottle. Most ports belong to the former category and are matured in oak casks, which are usually around 630 litres (138+ gallons) in capacity, or in larger wooden vessels called vats which normally hold at least 20,000 litres (4,399+ gallons) of wine. The key here is air contact. The wood of the staves which make up the casks or vats is permeable, allowing the wine very limited but constant contact with the air as it matures. The smaller the vessel, the greater the surface of wood relative to the volume of wine and the greater the air contact. It goes without saying that the longer the wine remains in the wooden vessel, the greater its exposure to air.
Controlled contact with oxygen causes several changes to occur in the wine. It causes it to change colour, from the deep purple red of youth to the delicate reddish brown ‘tawny’ hue of a mature wine. At the same time, the flavours become less fruity and intense and become more subtle, complex and mellow, the aromas of berry fruit gradually giving way to a characteristic nuttiness and aromas of butterscotch and dried fruit. Last but not least, the wine loses some of its volume to evaporation – known as the ‘angel’s share’ – and becomes increasingly dense and concentrated with time. The speed at which these transformations occur depends on the size of the vessel. They will occur more rapidly in cask and more slowly in vat.
So, by acting on the two variables – size of vessel and period of ageing – it is possible to produce ports of very different styles.
The fruitier styles of ports are aged in large vats and remain there for a relatively short time. These include reserve ports and late bottled vintage (LBV), a style originally developed by Taylor’s, which ages in vat between four and six years. Unlike vintage port, of which more later on, LBV is ready to drink when bottled. All of these vat aged wines are firmly structured and full bodied, displaying the characteristic berry fruit flavours that often spring to mind when port is mentioned.
At the other end of the wood-aged port spectrum, there are the 10, 20, 30 and 40 year old tawny ports. These are blends, whose average age is stated on the label, which are left to mature for long periods in cask. They are noted for their silky smoothness and rich, mellow, complex flavours. There are also what are known as ‘single harvest’ ports – or colheita ports in Portuguese – which are similar in character but are made from wines of a single year. To make either style of aged tawny port, a producer must hold large stocks of ageing wine.
So much for ports aged in wood. Now for ports aged in bottle.
Bottle-aged ports represent a small proportion of overall production, but include the finest and most sought-after style of all: vintage port.
Vintage port is a relative newcomer and only made its appearance towards the end of the 18th century. The development of vintage port, as indeed that of champagne, is closely linked to the evolution of the wine bottle. The father of the modern wine bottle was the English courtier, diplomat and polymath, Sir Kenelm Digby. In the 1630s his glassworks used a very hot furnace and modified glass composition to manufacture bottles which were stronger than any previously made.
When the first shipments of port began in the late 17th century, wine bottles had a characteristic ‘onion’ shape, with a globular body, a tall, tapered neck and a flat base. They were used to carry the wine from the wine merchant’s cask to the consumer’s table and also for short term storage. As time went by, bottles became progressively more elongated, evolving from the early onion form to a mallet shape. In the last years of the 18th century, they finally took on a cylindrical form similar to that of modern port bottles. Unlike earlier bottles, these could be stored on their side and used for ageing, the cork being kept moist and airtight through contact with the wine.
The development of the cylindrical bottle heralded the birth of vintage port, a wine of a single year representing the finest production of the harvest. Aged in bottle, vintage ports are among the world’s most sought-after fine wines.
Because very little air reaches the wine as it ages in bottle, vintage ports age slowly and may take decades to reach full maturity. However, although vintage ports reward patience, there is no need to wait until they are fully mature. Vintage port is capable of delivering immense pleasure even when young. However long they have been in bottle, vintage ports benefit from being decanted to separate them from any sediment that has formed in the bottle and to allow their aromas to open out.
Pass the port
For much of history, Britain was the most important market for vintage port although there are now enthusiasts all over the world, particularly in the United States. Not surprisingly, given the historic link between this style of port and the British Isles as well as the reverence accorded to it by the wine collector and consumer, vintage port is surrounded by many traditional customs and rituals, most of which can be safely ignored. However, there is perhaps one practical and hospitable custom worth following. Traditionally the decanter of vintage port travels clockwise round the table so that everyone is given the opportunity to fill their glass. Why clockwise? Simply because most people are right-handed.
In Britain, port is inextricably associated with Christmas. Although it can and should be enjoyed at any time of year, it is during the festive season that it comes into its own. Whether it is a glass of late bottled vintage with the Stilton, a 10 year old tawny with the Christmas pudding, or even a bottle of Fonseca or Taylor’s vintage port to toast the New Year, there is a port for every moment and occasion.
I’d like to thank Taylor’s for that informative and lightly written article. In return, I’m more than happy to give them a plug on A Bit About Britain; I like their port, anyway! You can probably tell that they contributed some of the images too: the image of the Treaty of Windsor is from the National Archives, the others are via Pixabay. Naturally, you will find more about port on Taylor’s website. And, should you find yourself anywhere near Oporto in northern Portugal, you may want to visit Taylor’s port cellars.