The surprising wealth and intensity of the Port grape varieties. Port, part two.
Port wine can be made from more than 30 to 90 different local indigenous grape varieties. The typical vineyard in the old days would have around 15 to 70 varieties all planted together. The varieties were also fermented together, but these times are mostly gone. To improve quality the wine maker wants to choose the best quality grapes and to determine which Portuguese grape varieties show more depth and concentration under certain growing conditions. In this way the best combination of the soil, (micro-)climate and aspect conditions with the right grape variety can be made.
Five of these native grape varieties are especially suited to make port of superb quality. I added another variety, the Tinta Amarela mostly found in the Baixo Corgo, the coolest and wettest of the Douro’s three subregions, about 20% of the vines planted there are of this variety.
These grapes account for a small amount of the region’s vine stock but is growing rapidly. The grape had virtually become extinct by the 1970s but was brought back by producers who worked vigorously on clones, as well as the grape variety itself. Touriga Nacional is a thick-skinned grape, and its skins are rich in colour and tannins, giving excellent structure and ageing capacity. But it also has wonderful, intense flavours, at the same time floral and fruity (ripe blackcurrants, raspberries) with complex hints also of herbs and liquorice. Yields are never high. A difficult grape to manage but it can produce the darkest and most concentrated of wines: deep, dense and with cast-iron backbone and is the most highly regarded.
This grape is planted at higher altitudes or on cooler north-facing slopes in the Cima Corgo. It is the first to ripen but is susceptible to extreme heat. This grape produces supple, well-structured wines, which frequently have a distinctive rustic, earthy character. Tinta Barroca has a very thin and dark skin which allows it to impart colour and alcohol to the port blend without adding too much in the way of tannins. When grown in cooler climates or higher elevations Tinta Barroca can be quite aromatic and full of fruit, black cherries, black plums and purple flowers.
This grape is even more challenging to grow than Touriga Nacional, with small bunches and small yields. It ripens late but needs to be picked at just the right time to achieve the delicate balance of alcohol and acidity. It is very resistant to disease and rot, and supports very high temperatures. Tinto Cão is often blended with Touriga Nacional and Roriz, among others. Produces wines loaded with colour and delicate, floral aromas. This grape has the capacity to produce long-lasting, complex wines.
This grape is also known as Tempranillo in Spain and goes under the name Aragonês (Dão region) and Tinta Roriz (Douro region) in Portugal. It makes rich, lively red wines that combine elegance and robustness, luscious berry fruit and spicy flavour. It’s an early ripening variety. It blends well with other varieties, like the Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca, and also Trincadeira and Alicante Bouschet in the Alentejo region.
The most widely planted variety. It flourishes on warmer south-facing slopes and gives consistent yields. This variety is late in budding and ripening, and the clusters and berries are larger than Touriga Nacional. It takes a little work to extract good color from the thick-skinned berries. This grape brings structure, persistent fruit, elegance and a floral fragrance, often described as violets. The young reds for immediate drinking have cherry and raspberry aromas. After some ageing in the cellar the reds start with notes of black fruit and chocolate, but aged 20 years or more the wine has great delicacy and complexity.
The Tinta Amarela is a dark-skinned Portuguese grape variety grown in the Douro for port, know for its its dark colouring. Its use in the Douro region is increasing in recent years. The grape produces wines of serious quality when ripe, but it does not always achieve ripeness. Yields are generally high, but unreliable. It is very sensitive to rot and other vineyard diseases. Site selection is very important to grow ripe fruit, areas that are warm with good air movement are critical. For this reason the Tinta Amarela does better in hot, dry places. In the Alentejo it’s known as Trincadeira.