Two weeks ago, I was invited to a lunch hosted by Tânia Branco Oliveira of the noted port producer Sogevinus. During lunch Tânia led our group on a port adventure by treating us to 14 different ports produced by Sogevinus, from aged white ports to a dashing 2010 Kopke Vinhas Velhas (an old vine dry table wine), a broad range of Tawnys and Colheitas plus a splendid pair of glorious surprises — 1961 Calem Colheita and 1941 Kopke Colheita. In addition to Kopke and Calem we also enjoyed several superstars from Sogevinus’ Barros and Burmester labels.
It was quite an exciting and educational adventure.
Port wines are produced solely from the Douro Valley in northern Portugal under the strict regulations and oversight of the Port Wine Institute (PWI), the government of Portugal and the European Union. In 1756, the Douro Valley was defined and established as a protected region, making it the world’s oldest recognized appellation.
Port wines are fortified by the addition of neutral brandy (77 percent alcohol) during fermentation to halt the process, preserve residual sugar and raise the alcohol level to between 19 and 22 percent. With this addition, the brandy (aka aguardente) accounts for about one-third of the wine’s final volume.
This process is also used in other wine producing areas but only the wines from Port (aka Porto) are legally allowed the status of that name on the label in the international market. There are a few exceptions in the U.S. as they were grandfathered in 2006 when we accepted the international protocol established by the E.U.
When collectors talk about port the discussion often turns to Vintage Port as this is the most highly regarded and collectible category in the U.S., yet accounts for less than 5 percent of port production. Tawny and Ruby also garner their share of interest. Tawny is a multi-vintage blend that carries the average age of the blend (10, 20, 30 or 40 years) on the label. Ruby (not aged in cask to preserve both color and freshness) is an entry-level port accounting for a significant segment of port production.
However, the little seen and very intriguing Colheita (translated to single harvest) category consistently flies “under the radar” and is perhaps the least understood here at home. The region’s newest and very successful venture is now dry table wines from indigenous white and red varietals. The PWI has placed a cap on new vineyards used for sweet port but continues to approve additional sites for expanding dry table wine production.
Tawnys are aged in cask (from various wood sources) until their release (up to 40 years), and then bottled with no further aging potential. Colheitas are produced and aged a minimum of seven years as a Tawny but come from a specific vintage and bottled when sold. The white ports we tasted were also made along the lines of a Tawny and aged for 10 years and 20 years, respectively, in cask before bottling.
Vintage Port emanates from a specific year that is “declared” by the house to be superior shortly after harvest and bottled within two years to continue aging in the bottle as opposed to the cask. Widely acclaimed vintages are those declared by many houses and are the most collectible.
Port wines have a rich history dating to the mid-17th century. Kopke was founded in 1638 and is said to be the oldest house in the region. The English established themselves in the late 17th century and continue today as the dominant firms in port production and export with England remaining one of the largest markets.
In a postscript to Tânia’s port adventure, I will be leading a wine-tasting group in August 2017 on a luxury Douro River Barge cruise focusing on the wines of Portugal and including an optional three-day excursion of the old city of Oporto with private visits to both port wine and cork producers. If any of my readers would like more information, contact me at my email address below.
My Oct. 16 column “Does vintage really matter?” inspired many questions and comments as to what a vintage stands for and what it means to the consumer.
Edwin — As a vintner here in the valley, I have found that vintage makes a huge difference in Napa. We get less variability than other wine regions, but each year is truly unique. The subject of vintage and quality is, to me, an endlessly fascinating topic.