Porto, in the northern part of Portugal, is one of the most beautiful wine-growing regions. It is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Douro Valley has created the dynamic sceneries where vineyards spread throughout. The Port wine region is a popular travel destination and the cuisine, culture and local people all attract tourists from all over the world. The area is originally famous for its traditional port wine. It also produces a range of other wines, including dry red, white, rosé and sparkling and is worthy of attention.
The history of a fortified wine with world reputation
The Port wine region is historically famous for its sweet, fortified wine. By adding a 77% alcohol brandy during the fermentation, the yeast stops working, and the sugars remain in the wine. Because brandy is added, the alcohol level is higher than usual still wines, with 16-18% abv. The high sugar and alcohol makes it possible to preserve the wine for a long time, which is actually part of the story how port wine came to be born.
Port wine's history dates back to the 17th century. At the time, England was at war with France and so importing French wine was prohibited. This caused British wine merchants to turn their attention to Portugal. The wine was transported by a long journey on the sea. The port wine was useful as it could bear a long storage due to its high levels of sugar and alcohol.
The Douro Valley has a long history of about 2,000 years of grape growing. Many port wine producers are based in the city of Vila Nova de Gaia, which has moderate climate because of the proximity to the sea. The vineyards are deep inland, along the Douro River, and reach as far as the border with Spain. The further inland you go, the drier and hotter the climate becomes.
Vila Nova de Gaia
Both an apéritif and a digestif
There are basically three types of Port wine: 'white port,' made from white grapes; 'ruby port' made from black grapes with deep purple color and 'tawny port' also made from black grapes but became amber through the oxidative aging.
White port is a fruity wine with fresh apricot and citrus flavors, which is enjoyable as an apéritif. A cocktail of white port mixed with tonic water is perfect for a hot summer's day. Ruby and tawny ports are good to match with desserts after the meal. Ruby port and chocolate are a perfect pairing.
'Vintage port' is the top category of ruby ports, made from only the best-quality grapes in great vintages. It is bottled after a relatively short period of aging in barrels of 1.5 to 3 years. A full-bodied wine with high tannins and rich flavors would show its potential after a long-term maturation in bottle. In fact, it is one of the wines that has the greatest longevities, so it might be a good idea to try a vintage port from your birth year.
Tawny port, on the other hand, is aged in barrels for as long as 30 or 40 years oxidatively. This causes the wine to evaporate and the pigment in the wine to fade, and wine becomes amber in color with extremely concentrated flavors of hazelnuts, dried fruits, toffee and mellow texture. It also has a pleasant, sweet finish. It can be enjoyed on its own or with nuts, cheese or dessert. If you try a tawny port, I would recommend choosing the one with 20-year or more maturation.
Tawny Porto including vintage 1900
Innovative producer Ramos Pinto and the future prospects for dry wine
During my stay in the Porto wine region, I visited Ramos Pinto, a historical producer that was established in 1880, and Jorge Rosas, the owner and CEO, guided me through the vineyards and winery. Ramos Pinto is a long-established winery with its own ideas, including the opening of sales channels with Brazil, to expand since the time when exporting port wine to Britain was its main business.
In recent years, Ramos Pinto has contributed to the development of port wines by, for example, conducting research to select the optimal grape varieties from the numerous varieties planted. It is also one of the first to have started sustainable farming. Champagne Maison Louis Roederer became the owner in 1990 that is also a visionary producer and Ramos Pintos continues to aim for producing higher-quality wines.
Ramos Pinto's cellar is located in Vila Nova de Gaia, which is open to public for the tours and tastings. The museum there is also worth visiting. There, you can learn about the history of port wine while enjoying exhibits related to port and Ramos Pinto.
If you have a chance to dive into the Douro Valley, you might wish to visit the vineyards as well. 'Quinta Bom Retiro' owned by Ramos Pinto is open to the public. The terraced vineyards, created by stacking stones by hand, make for spectacular scenery. Walking along the steep vineyards gives a clear understanding of how hard and labor-intensive it is to grow grapes in the Douro Valley.
Jorge Rosas, the 5th generation and CEO, and his cousin Ana Rosas, Master Blender
A dry wine with growing reputations
Besides traditional port wines, dry still wines are currently having more attention in the Douro wine region. In 2003, a group of five producers known as the 'Douro Boys' was formed to promote those wines.
Ramos Pinto is one of the pioneer, having started production of dry wine in 1990. I had the opportunity to have a vertical tasting (tasting of the same wine from different years) of 1990s still wines, 'Duas Quintas Reserva'. Through long aging, the tannin became rounder and the texture became smoother. Furthermore, the layered flavors of raisin, tobacco, dark chocolate, and spice came out. I was impressed by its quality and potential for long aging.
In the Douro, many kinds of indigenous grape varieties are planted and, because the viticulture area is so large, there are various microclimates and different soils, topography and altitudes. This makes it possible to produce a wide range of wines.
The dry wines from Douro is not yet widely known and are still reasonably priced. The innovation has been happening such as research on viticulture and winemaking techniques that are suitable for dry wines. Modern facilities and equipment are also introduced. It is worth paying attention to its future growth and development of this region.
The Japanese version of this article is published for my wine column at Forbes Japan (here).