What Every Whisky Drinker Needs To Know About Port

Several months ago I wrote an article on Sherry focusing it for the whisky drinker. This swiftly became one of the most read articles that I have published so far. What follows is a follow up of sorts – this time looking at Port wines. Although there is much less to link the Whisky and Port industries there are still numerous whiskies out there that include a Port finish or maturation.

This is not designed to be authoritative guide, there are many excellent (and more eloquently written) resources available, this is just a distillation of the myriad of information available allowing us whisky drinkers to better understand both the product itself and the impact it has on our whiskies.

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Port is, by definition, a fortified wine that is produced with distilled grape spirit that has probably been around for some time prior to the first written reference in 1678 . Only wine produced in Portugal can officially be referred to as Port however, the name itself deriving from the town of Porto at the mouth of the Douro river, where much of the wine was exported from.

Port originates from a region in Portugal known as the Douro Valley. Many of the vines are grown on terraces carved into the steep rocky cliffs that have been there since the 17th Century.  The area extends for about 50 miles from Peso da Regua up towards the Spanish border. Frozen in the winter and with temperatures in Summer reaching over 40 degrees the area is truly one of extremes.

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The Douro region is geographically protected by European law and is subdivided into three regions in which over 100 varieties of the grapes sanctioned for Port production are grown.

These three regions are:

Baixo Corgo. The wettest and coolest region, which produces mainly the cheaper Ruby and Tawny Ports. 

Cima Corgo. Slightly warmer and with less rain than the Baixo Corgo region, this are produces what is regarded as a better quality grape commonly used for Vintage Reserve, aged Tawny and Late Bottled Vintage Ports.

Douro Superior. The least cultivated region and the most arid and warm.

Much of the flavour of Port is due to a quick fermentation period in which the tannins and other elements required are quickly extracted.  Traditionally the grapes were trodden by foot in large stone troughs (called lagares) more recently however the extraction is done in large, closed tanks in which the large amounts of carbon dioxide produced by the fermentation process agitates the wine and skins enough to replicate the treading process.

When deemed ready the wine is then decanted into tall wooden casks which are referred to as pipes (I have used the terms ‘pipes’ and ‘casks’ interchangeably through this article) Inside the cask the wine is mixed with a neutral grain spirit called aguardente, which is similar in nature to a brandy. 

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This not only boosts the alcohol content but halts the fermentation process, leaving many of the natural sugars that would usually be consumed by the fermentation process within the wine. The sweetness of the wine is determined by the precise time the fermentation is stopped by the addition of the aguardente – defining whether the wine will be sweet or dry.

There are a large amount of differing variants of Port. There are a myriad of different techniques, grape varieties etc that differentiate them all but to keep it simple I have outlined several of the main styles below.

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White Port – Utilises a white grape as the basis of its wine.

Ruby – After fermentation it is stored in stainless steel tanks prior to bottling, reducing oxidisation and allowing the majority of the natural sugars and the rich natural colour to remain.

Rose – Fermented with minimum contact with the grape skins creating the lighter colour and flavours.

Tawny – Made using red grapes and aged in wood. This additional oxidation creates a different style with a lighter colour and a dryer, nutty style.

Colheita – Aged for a minimum of 7 years and from a single vintage (eg. year)

Crusted – Typically a blend of several vintages.

Vintage – Made from the grapes harvested in a single year that has been declared a ‘vintage year’ by the industry. Aged in barrels or steel tanks for up to three years before being bottle aged for anything up to 40 years and even more.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) – Originally designated as for use in Vintage Ports but left to age longer in the barrel if the demand was slower. Now a style in its own right.

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There is often little information to be found about the exact style of Port or even the wine producer that whisky companies source their casks from. Sherry finished / matured whiskies will quite often state the specifics of the style used but not so when it comes to Port finished / matured whiskies. Dalmore are one of the few to state their source – W&J Grahams.

As with the Sherry industry the casks used in the production of Port have historically made their way into the whisky barrel supply chain after the Port industry has finished with them.  Their use however is nowhere near as prevalent as the use of Sherry casks and there has been nothing like the entire sub industry created in Portuguese cooperages to construct bespoke casks for the whisky industry – although there have been several whiskies released that state they were ‘Port seasoned casks’ (my thanks to Reuben over at WhiskyNotes for the clarification) So in a roundabout way the term Port Pipe is on average much more accurate as it has been more likely used in the production of Port wines, rather than a manufactured cask specifically for maturing whisky.

Here are a few recent examples of whiskies which have utilised port casks in their maturation.

Dalmore Port Wood Reserve

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Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban

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Balvenie 21 y.o Portwood

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Tomatin 14 y.o Portwood

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Cragganmore Distillers Edition

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You can find more of my tasting notes in the Amateur Drammers Archives.

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