Is Port Wine Sweet?

Wine is wonderful stuff, but so many people are put off by the snobbery of it – John Cleese 

He may well have made his name as an actor and comedian, but John Cleese is also a well-known oenophile of some repute and when it comes to wine, he knows exactly what he’s talking about.

He isn’t the first to suggest that wine is overly complicated and that those who are devoted to its pursuit are widely seen as being aloof, and we daresay that he won’t be the last.

But the idea that wine exists in a labyrinthine world of fastidious rules and ideas is ridiculous, as it was always meant to be, and always has been, the drink of the common man. 

Take Port for example, while it’s often portrayed as being an aperitif best enjoyed by those fortunate enough to enjoy the membership of exclusive gentlemen’s clubs and as a pleasant way to finish a meal in a Michelin starred restaurant, this fortified Portuguese wine is actually a robust, rich drink that deserves to find a much larger, and far more appreciative audience. 

And if it were up to us, it would already be the drink of choice for every wine lover, the world over. 

Any Port In Storm

That doesn’t, however, mean that Port isn’t special and shouldn’t be cherished, it is and it should, but not for the reasons that you might think.

Port, much like Champagne, is a region-specific wine that can only be produced in the Douro Valley in the North of Portugal, and any wine claiming to be Port that isn’t produced within that incredibly specific region of the world, shouldn’t even attempt to pass itself off as a pale imitation of the world-renowned beverage.

If it doesn’t say Douro on the bottle, it isn’t Port. 

While it would be only natural to assume that Port was named after its country of origin, if you do, you’d only be partly right.

It didn’t take its name from Portugal, but it is named after a town in Portugal, Porto, which was the seaport at the mouth of the Douro River, that exported and sold most of the wine that made its way to other countries during the seventeenth century.

It was, and still is, one of Portugal’s most famous, and beloved exports and has been savored and enjoyed all over the world for nearly half a millennia.

The Douro Way  

The Douro Valley has its own microclimate which made, and continues to make it the perfect place to grow the Bastardo (yes they really are called that), Marufo, Tinto Roriz, Cornifesto, and Rufete grapes that produce the finest varieties of Port.

How the first vintners responsible for creating Port stumbled across their methodology for making it dreamt up the idea and put it into practice has long since been lost to the mists of time, but the way that Port is produced today has hardly changed since it was originally barreled and bottled in the Douro Valley. 

After the wine that will eventually become Port is initially produced, during its fermentation a local spirit called aguardente is added to the wine to fortify it, which halts the natural fermentation and transforms the residual sugar to alcohol, which fortifies the wine by increasing its aforementioned alcoholic content. 

If you were to ask most Port connoisseurs about the spirit used to fortify Port, they’d happily tell you that it was brandy and while this is sort of true, it isn’t entirely accurate.

Yes, aguardente is brandy, but it isn’t any sort of brandy that you’d want to enjoy a glass of with a good cigar. It’s more like the sort of “accidental” brandy that’s been made in a backwoods still that the government doesn’t know exists. 

And that’s what makes Port special. The grapes it’s fermented from, the area that they’re grown in, and the spirit that’s used to push its ABV (alcohol by volume) content skyward and fortify and intensify its flavor. 

Oh, How Sweet It Is

So, let’s get to the crux of the matter. Is Port a sweet wine? Even though it can be dry, semi-dry, and can also be a white wine, traditional Port is a sweet, red dessert wine.

The fortification process that’s used to make it relies on the high residual sugar content of the grapes to increase the alcohol content of wine, and when the alcohol level is pushed up, so is the sweetness of the wine. 

So yes, Port is a sweet, red wine that’s traditionally served during, or after dessert.

Is There Anything Else That I Need To Know About Port? 

We could spend a long, lazy weekend regaling you with a thousand and one different historical facts and stories about Port, but we’re sure that you’d rather spend that time enjoying a glass or two of this incredible wine than listening to us ramble on about it.

That said, we’ll leave you with a few Port truths that should help to guide you in the right direction when you’re considering whether or not to spend a little more time with this wine. 

A good Port should be aged for at least two or three years in an oak barrel, and the label on the bottle should tell you exactly how long it was matured for before it was bottled.

While Ruby Port is the most commonly enjoyed variety of this wine, it’s also a relatively young Port, and the most desired and sought after Ports among its many legions of aficionados are tawny Ports which are aged for a minimum of ten years but can spend as long as fifty years aging in barrel. 

Obviously, the longer a Port spends aging in a barrel, the more complex its flavor is going to be, and more it’s going to hurt your pocketbook if you want to try it.

And while we’re on the subject of flavor, if you do want to try Port, the flavors you can expect to taste in even a young bottle, are remarkable and should overwhelm your tastebuds with a deep, dark fruit flavor and a natural, almost vanilla sweetness. 

Christina Day
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