Port Wine: A Happy Accident of Nature

You may think port wine is a granny drink, but Tim wants to prove otherwise. Here’s the story of how a war, a treaty and some accidental aging turned the Night Train of the 1700s into the nectar of the gods.

I’d tasted port a few times before that trip, but it was a drink that I somehow equated to a granny beverage or some sort of sick bastardization of wine.  I was dead wrong.  Sure, you can buy a $4 bottle of syrupy sweet ruby port, but the real magic of the beverage comes after aging for 20 years or more, but more on that later.

The History of Port

Port wine really exploded with the Methuen Treaty in 1703.  Lots and lots of wars and power plays were going on in Europe at the time, all very complicated, I won’t get into it.  Prior to this culinarily-significant treaty, Portugal had aligned with France who was in turn providing them with naval protection.  England was at war with France and started conducting naval maneuvers off the coast of Lisbon to prove to Portugal that the French were in fact not offering them any real protection.  Portugal took heed of the demonstration and quickly flip-flopped, aligning instead with Britain. As part of the deal, they signed the Methuen Treaty, which allowed Portugal to import wine into England at 1/3 less duty than French wines forever. Regardless of whether England was at war with France down the road, the Portuguese would have a market for their wines.

You see, while England was at war with France, the aristocracy was criminally short on their supply of French wine.  Parliamentarian John Methuen was called in; this dire situation would not stand.  As a result of Methuen’s heroic pen stroke, the Portuguese wine industry exploded and rich Brits stayed happily drunk.

Here’s where the happy accident comes in.  The sea voyage from Porto, the central hub of Portuguese wine production, to England was quite a bit longer than the hop across the channel from France.   As a result much of the Portuguese wine was arriving in England already spoiled.  To combat this problem, the Porto wine merchants began fortifying their wines, basically dumping in brandy (distilled wine) into the barrels to increase the alcohol content thus making the wine less susceptible to spoilage.  And that was the birth of what we now know as “port wine.”  Dumping booze into wine doesn’t exactly seem highfalutin, and was almost certainly sneered at by the French winemakers, probably with good reason.   The same process is used today to make cheap but potent ghetto staples such as Night Train, Mad Dog 20/20 and Thunderbird.

The second part of the happy accident is what happened next.  Time.  Barrels have been used to “mature” wine since the 1st century AD and have been used to mellow fine whiskey since the late 1400s.   Barrels of port wine left (probably accidentally) to mature in oak barrels for many years, however, were unexpectedly and sublimely transformed.  As the seasons change and temperature and humidity varies, the wine soaks into and is released out of the oak barrel.  A small amount of the alcohol evaporates and in turn small amounts of oxygen enter the barrel and oxidize the wine.  This oxidation slowly changes the ruby red color of port to a tawny brown.  More importantly, however, this action mellows and replaces the  harshness of the brandy with a long, complex, delicious and nearly spiritual finish.  Barrel aging transformed the Night Train of the 1700s into a nectar of the gods.

A lasting epicurean industry arose around port wine, one that for a long time was almost exclusively British.  A tour of the port lodges and aging facilities in Vila Nova de Gaia exposes the British legacy of the beverage.  Dominant houses aren’t Portuguese family names, rather they are Grahams, Warres, Cockburn, Sandeman, Taylor Fladgate, Dows and Croft, British families who have controlled the port wine trade since the 1700s.

Nowadays there are lots of different styles of port: vintage, late bottle vintage, colheitas, crusted, etc.  My two recommendations are as follows:

1) Spend a bunch of dough on a great vintage year. A vintage port is aged in oak for 18 months during which time the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP) and the individual port lodges determine if that batch was exceptional.  If it was, that wine is bottled without filtration and left to age and mature for 20-50 years or longer.  1970, the year of my birth, was an exceptional year and you can get a bottle for about $200 (or you can buy that bottle of 1920 above for 2500 Euros).  You have to filter, decant and drink the bottle-aged vintage port right away, as it will go bad in about a week after opening.

2) The best bang for the buck however, is to get a bottle of 20 year Tawny Port.  Taylor Fladgate or Warre’s 20-year Tawny retail for about $40 and it is worth every penny.  A 20-year Tawny is a blend of a bunch of different non-vintage years, the average age spent in oak barrels is 20 years.  They are much lighter in color than the vintage ports because of the oak aging.  As for the taste… well they are almost sinfully delicious.

That’s about it for port.  I hope you enjoy a bottle soon.  I’ll be back soon to reclaim another one of my favorite granny beverages, another British staple: the oft misunderstood sherry.