Portugal’s Douro Valley, a world heritage site, is home to an array of port wine styles ranging from rosé ports to 40-year tawnys. After a day trip to several wine estates, we learned about the history of the region, the different fortified wine styles and what each port is best paired with.
The drive out of Porto into the Douro Valley unveils rolling hills of olive trees and vines, cascading down into perfectly manicured terraces reminiscent of the rice fields in Bali. The Douro Valley terraces feature hand-made schist walls that were carved into the mountains to keep the vines in place, and when you see the number of vineyards around the Douro Valley, one can only think of the manpower the work must have taken. It is no wonder it was named a World Heritage Site in 2001.
The Douro Valley has been a winemaking region since Roman times, and port came about in the late 17th century when the English, who were at war with the French and had therefore banned their wines, chose Portugal as their new wine importer and started adding brandy to the wines to help preserve the quality during exportation.
Adding the brandy stops the fermentation process, therefore preserving some of the sugars and raising the alcohol percentage to 20%—turning it into a fortified wine—which is then brought over to more tempered-climate Porto for the ageing process. The Douro Valley region was demarcated in 1756, becoming the only place in the world that can legally produce port wine.
But Douro Valley’s title as one of the oldest winemaking regions in the world was threatened just over 200 years ago, when the industry was on the brink of extinction due to a disease ravaging the land which left wine producers in financial ruin.
The future of wine in Douro Valley was saved thanks to Antónia Ferreira, also known as Ferreirinha. She came from a wealthy family and, widowed at just 33 years old, took it upon herself to compete against the English who were setting up shop in Porto and learned all about winemaking and how to fight against the disease. Not only did she share her techniques with her local peers, but she also helped those less fortunate with large financial donations. She even bought land to prevent the English from buying it, later reselling it to locals so it could stay within the Portuguese family. She died not only the richest woman in Portugal but also a saint in the Portuguese’s eyes.
Now visitors flock to the area to visit quintas, the port wine estates, for a taste of the different types of port, table wines, as well as olive oil, which is quite abundant due to the number of olive trees planted as “fences” between vines to show land ownership as well as to retain the soil and be an indicator of whether there is a disease brewing.
Port is much more complex than one might think. While we are used to drinking dark red Port around Christmas time or to finish off a sweet dessert, there are actually several types of port styles—white, ruby, tawny and rosé—to choose from.
Great for summer drinking, white port has low acidity and a citrus and stone fruit flavour profile. It is a base for the popular Port and Tonic drink you find in Portugal. Lagrima, the sweetest of white wines, has a more golden colour, aromas of dried fruits and notes of honey, and is best enjoyed on its own.
What to pair it with: A fig prosciutto salad, any seafood and desserts with a tropical fruit base. Lagrima goes well with blue cheese and pâté
Ruby ports come in three main styles: Reserva, Vintage and Late-Bottled Vintage.
The first is a blend of multiple vintages and showcases a deep ruby colour with a garnet rim. Expect dark fruit notes of cherries, raspberries, plums and spices.
The Vintage comes from one single harvest and is bottled between 2-3 years after the harvest, giving off a deep red colour to go with its blackcurrant, chocolate and smokey notes, a full body and great complexity. Best when aged about 20 years, it needs to be enjoyed within 24-48 hours as it has not been in contact with oxygen.
The Late-bottled Vintage comes from a single-year Ruby Port aged for 4-6 years in a barrel and has a purple red hue that goes with its hints of plum, dark chocolate, balsamic and wild berries.
What to pair it with: Chocolate desserts, all cheeses, figs and nuts
Aged in small oak barrels, tawny ports can be enjoyed for up to a year after opening. The styles vary from Colheita (single vintage-dated Tawny Port aged for 10 years), to 10, 20, 30 or 40 years and are best served at cellar temperatures. More garnet red with golden hues, expect aromas of wood, dried fruit and chocolate and flavours of caramel, cloves, cinnamon, hazelnut and prunes with an addition of tangerine peel, leather and licorice the older the Tawny.
What to pair it with: desserts with chocolate and caramel and strong cheeses (think blue cheese)
The rosé is the only port wine that ages in a steel barrel and unlike its counterparts which are better served at room temperature, this one should be served cold. A beautiful pink, the port puts forward strong notes of cherry and strawberry jam with caramel and light floral accents.
What to pair it with: Light and fruity desserts