The importance of the Roman harbour at the mouth of the Douro River was such that the city that grew up around it took its name. Much later the modern name of the country was derived from it and its most famous export is still known around the world as Port, from the Roman word Portus. The country is Portugal, a construct of Oporto, the city on the northern bank of the Douro, with Gaia, the town on the southern bank.
Port wine begins its life a hundred miles inland where vines have been planted on narrow ledges hacked out of the almost vertical steep banks of the Douro river. The country beyond comprises deep valleys and steep wooded hills and even today the roads, modernised with generous European Union subsidies, twist and turns around hairpin bends. The river then was the route to market.
Barrels of local wines went to Oporto and from there were exported. But often the scorching summer heat and length of the sea journeys meant the wines were in poor condition when they reached their destination. The locals added brandy to fortify the wine for its travel and so started the tradition of Port wine.
It took a beneficial trade treaty with the British (who were at war with their traditional enemy France which was also their traditional source of wine) and an influx of British wine merchants to regularise the Port wine business.
In 1795 George Sandeman borrowed £300 from his father to set up a business importing Spanish and Portuguese wines.
He bought cellars in Gaia where he matured wines shipped downriver in barrel on traditional wooden sailing boats called barcos rabelos. Sandeman became one of the first registered trademarks in 1877 and its now iconic logo of the ‘Don’, a silhouette wearing a black Portuguese student’s cape and wide brimmed Spanish hat — indicating the Sherries and Ports traded by the company — appeared in 1928.
Adding neutral grape brandy to fermenting wine kills yeast, stopping fermentation and leaving the grapes natural fruity sweetness. Port wine is taken, now in tank by road, to Gaia which, being on the southern bank is in the shade and cooler than Oporto, where it matures in oak casks. Different aging regimes produce various styles of Port.
The main two are Ruby and Tawny. In especially good years a ‘vintage’ may be proclaimed meaning that a Port will be made solely from the grapes of that year, but generally Ports are non-vintage, being a blend of many years’ harvests.
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape, also available for the Kindle.