The Portuguese claim port as the cure for all ills save death, an ambitious but not inordinate assertion. Though their ancestors were producing wines for thousands of years, it was only when Phoenician traders began sailing up their southern coast around 600 B.C.E., that the fame of the wines produced along the hills that flank the Douro River gained world-wide acclaim.
When the Romans dominated the region in 219 B.C.E., they introduced more sophisticated equipment for producing and aging wine, including stone vats for treading and amphorae for storing. Eventually, wine business in the province became so brisk that Roman Emperor Domitian had to issue a proclamation to reduce the number of vineyards in order to encourage the production of other essential agricultural products.
For over a millennium Portuguese wines continued to grow in renown. But it was only during the 17th century, when the English began importing these wines and then fortifying them in order to survive long sea voyages that the drink we call Port was truly born.
The history of Port is also the history of the appellation system. In 1756 the Marquis de Pombal, with the intent of maintaining both the high quality and price of wines produced in the Douro region, founded the Compania Geral da Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro. This was the world’s first wine appellation.
Soon after the Douro area was demarcated, Madeira, the eponymous island home of colonial America’s favorite wine, soon followed suit. Today, there are 56 designated regions in Portugal. These demarcations of place and quality are not just for wines but also for cheese, hams, smoked meats, and even honey.
Until 1986 all true port had to be shipped from Portugal’s northern city of Porto, and to this day the brand-name is vigorously defended. While many California wineries have come a long way on their quest to create novel and characteristic dessert wines, they still are restricted from calling them by the registered name of “Port.”
Ruby, tawny and vintage, are Port’s three main varieties, with vintage being the most sophisticated and expensive. Don’t be fooled by the words ‘Late Vintage’ on a bottle, this simply means that the wine was bottled late, a technique that, while it lends a lesser quality wine a bit of artificial maturity, ultimately deprives it of any long-term aging potential.
True vintage port requires anywhere from five to fifty years to transform its bright plum-red hue into a brick-to-amber tint, and for its youthful peppery nature to soften. To describe port as simply a fortified wine, originally created to remain viable over long sea voyages, is to miss the magic. The brandy which fortifies port must itself have an alcohol content nearly twice that of drinking level, and must be added at a precise moment when the wine is still a fermenting must. Wide variations in the quality of port is therefore always possible.
Many food pairings show Port in a favorable light but perhaps the most popular choices are cashews, or delicate semi-firm cheeses such as Emmanthal, Gruyere, Conte, or aged Gouda. Some enjoy green apples with port but it is well known that the bite of apples tends to unmask a port’s flaws, while the fats in cheese will flatter its weakness. This is the reasoning behind the time-honored adage of port merchants around the globe to “buy on apples, sell on cheese”.