Drinking Port in Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal

Drinking port in the Taylor Fladgate cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Porto, was almost a religious experience. For the last 10 years we have celebrated almost every special occasion with a bottle of 20 year old Tawny Fladgate port. One Christmas we were even gifted a Tawny Fladgate collection that contained 10, 20, 30 and 40 year elixers… a very special night to remember.

Taylor's cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia
Taylor’s cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia

For 325 years, Taylor Fladgate has been producing and marketing port. They know all there is to know about making the best. We spent about an hour touring the famous Taylor Fladgate lodge at Vila Nova de Gaia, where their museum provides a detailed history of port….

Barrels of aging elixir in Taylor's cellars.
Barrels of aging elixir in Taylor’s cellars.

Port is a fortified wine grown and processed in one of three wine regions Portugals’ Douro Valley – the Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior. Port is usually red, although there are some white and rose ports on the market.

One of Taylors' terraced quintas in the Douro Valley.
One of Taylors’ terraced quintas in the Douro Valley.

The process sounds fairly straight-forward: start with growing, picking and stomping on the grapes. The most common grapes used for red ports are a blend of small, dense, concentrated Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cao, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Fancesa and/or Touriga Nacional varietals. After a brief fermentation, the wine is fortified with a neutral grape spirit (aquardente, essentially Portuguese grappa), increasing the alcohol content to about 20% and stopping the fermentation process. This preserves the residual sugars. The wine is then matured in tanks of concrete, stainless steel, sealed glass bottles or in wooden barrels in a Lodge (cellar), and aged before bottling.

Larger barrels allow the port to age with less contact with the wood and oxygen than smaller barrels.
Larger barrels allow the port to age with less contact with the wood and oxygen than smaller barrels.

Until 1986, all port could only be exported from Vila Nova de Gaia. Until the 1950s and 60s, when Boomers were boomed, the wine makers would float their precious cargo down the Douro River to VNG in flat bottomed boats known as barcos rabelos that were able to shoot the rapids. Dams built since the Second World War have eliminated the need to shoot rapids, but even so, boats are no longer in use – the port is now shipped to VNG in tanker trucks.

Rabelos boats are no longer in use to bring barrels of port down through the rapids, but they remain as decorations - and brand advertising - in the port.
Rabelos boats are no longer in use to bring barrels of port down through the rapids, but they remain as decorations – and brand advertising – in the port.

There are a number of different types of red port including:

Ruby: fermented in concrete or stainless steel, the wine is then blended and bottled to prevent oxidation and aging. The port is a bright red, sweet and fruity concoction, but (with a few premium exceptions) does not get better with age.

Reserve Port: is a premium aged Ruby Port.

Tawny Port: aged in wooden barrels, resulting in oxidation and evaporation which over time changes the color of the port from red to brown, mellows out the nutty flavors and leaves a sweet to medium dry wine. The age on a bottle of tawny is not necessarily its actual age, but rather denotes a blend of wines selected to achieve the standardized characteristics of a wine aged in a wood barrel for 10, 20, 30, or 40 years. A nice bit of marketing, that.

Colheita: a single dated vintage (not blended) tawny port that has been cellared for at least seven years (and sometimes a lot longer). The year of the vintage is noted on the label. It is unfiltered and generally needs decanting to get rid of the gritty bits. A vintage port is made only during the best years… 1994, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2011 are generally considered good years. Aging can dramatically change the flavor profile.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV): like a Colheita Port but aged in barrels, then fined and filtered before bottling, which means it can be drunk without decanting.

Garrafeira: a single vintage wine aged in wood for three to six yeas, then transferred to a glass demijohn to age for at least and additional eight years before bottling.

Crusted: usually a blend of several vintages. It is unfiltered (so will need to be decanted) and corked. The age on the bottle refers to the date it was bottled. They are aged in the bottle for at least three years. It is ready for drinking as soon as it is released, but it will improve with age.

Single Quinta Vintage: wines that come from a single estate (quinta).

While produced in Portugal, Port is mostly consumed by the British, who developed a particular fondness for it during their wars with France in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The outbreak in Europe of an American alien invasive species called phylloxera in the late 19th century devastated Europe’s wine industry. With the collapse of the vineyards in the Douro valley, the Portuguese sold their estates to British companies who planted new vines with phylloxera-resistant American rootstock, and now are the owners of many of the most famous port houses.

Taylor's yard has roosters, peacocks, and other decorative touches.
Taylor’s yard has roosters, peacocks, and other decorative touches.

Peacock perched on a railing

If you want to learn more about port you may wish to visit the For the Love of Port blog.

As fascinating as the history and production methods are, the best part of port is drinking it…

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