Although it's now being produced in a number of winemaking countries, including the U.S., Australia, India, Argentina, Canada and South Africa, authentic Port or Porto wine is unique to Portugal.
During one of the many wars between the British and the French, Britain found itself in need of an alternative wine supplier. Portugal was a good candidate, but all that sloshing back and forth in transit made Portuguese wines a bit unstable. To create a more reliably consistent product, a little alcohol was added to fortify the mixture. Fortified wines are wines to which alcohol is blended as part of the production process. In Port, the alcohol is usually a neutral brandy.
The thing about adding alcohol to fermenting wine is that it stops the fermentation process cold. If the extra alcohol is added early in the process before all the sugar in the grape mixture is converted to alcohol, the result is a sweet wine like Port. If the alcohol is added after all the sugar is converted, the result is a dry wine.
There are more than 80 grape varieties grown in Portugal's Douro Valley and surrounding regions for use in the production of Port wine. Many are exclusive to Portugal, which makes Port wine from Portugal unique. It's so unique, in fact, that only Portuguese-made Port can carry the identifying term "Porto" on the label. Port takes its name from the Portuguese city of Oporto, situated where the Douro River enters the Atlantic Ocean. It's the second largest city in Portugal and well placed to receive and distribute wine and other products produced from Douro Valley harvests.
Port is recognized as a fortified red wine, but there are a number of varieties and one notable exception to this rule:
- Ruby Port - This young wine is aged, but only for about three years. It's one of the least expensive Ports on the market -- and one of the most popular.
- Vintage Port - On the other end of the spectrum, vintage Port is the highest quality Port available. It's created from a single year's blended harvest across a number of vineyards (or Quintas) and aged 20 years or more. It's often placed in oak casks for six months and then transferred to bottles. When a Vintage Port is produced by a single Quinta, it's called a Single Quinta Vintage Port.
- Late Bottled Vintage - Sometimes confused with vintage Port, a Late Bottled Vintage designation (LBV) means that a Port was made from grapes grown in a specific year, but the resulting wine was aged in oak for four to six years and then bottled and marketed.
- Vintage Character Port - This cross is a Port made from multiple vintages (blends from more than one year) but designed to taste like a single vintage variety.
- Tawny Port - Light or reddish brown in color, tawnies are aged in casks and gathered from multiple vintages. They get their lighter color from wood aging and tend to be among the sweetest Ports available. Some tawnies are aged for up to 40 years. A tawny Port produced from a single vintage is called a Colheita Port.
- White Port - Gold in color, white Port is made from white grapes, not red. It tends to be less sweet than a typical Port, too.
Most often served as a sweet dessert wine, Port is wonderful with chocolate and has often been paired with cheeses like stilton and cheddar. As a finish to a fine meal, Port is an elegant choice that works with the most decadent desserts, tart flavors like aged cheese, or all by itself.