Port ageing, the last time the wine is racked is just before bottling. Port, part four.
There are several distinct styles of port, but all ports are fortified. A neutral grape spirit or brandy is added during the fermentation process to stop the fermentation, the adding of grape spirit or brandy also augments the percentage of alcohol. The fact that the wine becomes fortified means that it can continue to improve in cask, vat or bottle for much longer than most other wines.
After being fortified and stabilised the new wine is stored in the Quinta (the wine estate where it was made) until the first spring after the harvest. Early spring is the time when the Port is racked, meaning the process of drawing wine off its sediment. One can also say moved off its lees, the residue or organic matter of yeast and the grapes that was formed during the winter months.
After racking the developing wine was traditionally shipped down the Douro river in boats called “barcos rabelos” to the cooler sea port Oporto for further ageing. There were two types of rabelo boats. Boats that could carry over 40 pipes were called barcos (boats), the smaller ones were called barquinhos (small boats). Barquinhos could transport no more than 20 to 40 pipes. In spring, when the river water is high, it was much easier to navigate the treacherous Douro river to Vila Nova do Gaia (on the opposite side of Oporto), where the Port storage houses called lodges are located. In these Port Lodges the fortified wine could age quietly for another 2 to 40 plus years, depending on the style of wine. You have to imagine that the Douro for long was an isolated region cut off from the rest of the country. There were no good roads, no electricity. Transportation was difficult and mostly done via the river. In time the Douro river has been dammed several times and most of the wine is now transported in large tanker trucks, or sent by rail.
Due to the change in the Shipping Laws of 1986, shipping has ceased to be compulsory in 1986. The wineries or quintas can choose to age their wines in Vila Nova do Gaia or at their facilities next to their vineyards and then decide when to ship or to bottle their wines, as long as they have a minimum of 300 pipes of Port. A pipe is a large, lengthy barrel with tapered ends of varying sizes.* The average pipe of Port is 550 liters (about 145 gallons), but they can go up to 620 litres (163 gallons) as well. If the producers are “engarrafadores”or bottlers too and/or make estate Ports, the restriction of a minimum of 300 pipes is loosened, though they have to abide to the rule that they can only ship one third of their stock each year.
Most ageing still takes place in the large Port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia, filled with wooden storage vessels and stacked vintage bottles. Ports can be broken down into two broad categories of storing vessels: Ports aged in wood, in cask or vat, and bottle aged Ports, Ports maturing in bottle. Some of the larger wineries store their young wines in stainless steel or fibreglass resin vats, but also use the typical storage vessels, the pipes or “pipas”. The oak generally comes from US or France. I have been told that, besides the iron bands, the traditional construction method of glue made from water and flour is still used to bond the wood panels together, but couldn’t verify if this is still true. Since it ceased to be compulsory in 1986 many smaller Port houses choose to age their wines in air-conditioned or underground facilities next to their vineyards in the Douro Valley. In the lodge the winemakers rotate their wines to achieve their ideal balance of depth and character. Ageing Port in large oak “balseiros” or steel containers maintains the initial wine (grapey fruit) flavour of Port.
When stored in oak barrels a young wine will lose its fruity flavours. Ageing in ‘pipas’ diminishes the wine’s fruit qualities gradually and in time more nutty, caramel and vanilla flavours come forward due to the increasing amount of oxygen exposure. Over a forty year period about 30 to 40% of the contents of a ‘pipa’ evaporates through the oak pores. When tawny ports age they throw their deposit in the cask rather than in the bottle and their colour will change from red or purple to a lighter tawny or amber-maroon. At some stage in their development wines are drawn from the extensive reserve of available aged ports to blend them to acquire the right balance to maintain the style of the Port House.
Bottled aged Ports are divided into two subcategories: Vintage Port and a smaller category called Crusted Port. Vintage Port is port made from grapes in a single outstanding year. It remains in vat for only about two years and then ages in bottle. The bottled vintages are stored horizontally on a dark shelves where they are not touched until they are labelled for retail. Contrary to vintage ports, Crusted port is not made from wines of a single year, but a blend of full bodied wines which spend four years ageing in large wooden vats, the wines are then bottled with no filtration and cellared for another three years before being released for sale.
Port wines have different denominations according to the type of ageing. There are two basic types of Port, wood-aged and bottle-aged.
Wood-aged port includes:
- Ruby, full bodied, fruity red Ports age for 2 or 3 years in large oak vats to give them smoothness and complexity while retaining their intense and vibrant fruit character and protect the wine from oxidation.
- Ruby reserve are generally of higher quality and age for about 3- 4 years.
- White Port, are usually aged for 2 or 3 years in large vats and are available in sweeter or drier styles.
- Tawny Port wine obtained from blends, usually aged for 3 years in wine seasoned casks.
- LBV Late Bottled Vintage Ports remain in vat for between 4 and 6 years.
- Tawny Reserve can be red or brownish. Tawny Reserve is obtained from a blend of 5 to 7 year old Port wines.
- Colheita is a tawny Port from one single harvest. The wine goes through an ageing period of at least 7 years in oak before being bottled. A Colheita Port will always bear two dates: the year of harvest and the year of bottling.
- White Reserve is a higher quality white Port made from a blend with an ageing period in wood of at least 7 years.
- White Port with an age designation, age can bear the designation ‘Reserve’ or ‘Indication of Age’, meaning 10, 20, 30 or more than 40-years-old, on the label, although these are hardly seen on the market.
- Tawny ports with an age designation age for longer periods in oak casks. These include the 10, 20, 30 and 40 year old tawny Ports with a delicious nuttiness, aromas of butterscotch and fine oak wood. The longer the time spend in wood the more intense the aromas and flavours.
- Vintage Port, the very best produce of a single outstanding year remains in vat for about 2 years and then ages in bottle. Vintage Port is only made in exceptional years, generally about 3 times per decade.
- Single Quinta or single estate Port is bottled after 2-2½ years in oak. They usually need 10-15 years of bottle ageing before drinking; though can go up to 50 years. Single estate Ports are made in years when a vintage is not declared.
- Crusted Ports are not made from wines of a single year, they age about 3 years in a vat. Crusted Ports are not filtered before bottling and will form a ‘crust’ or natural sediment in the bottle as they age or mature for another 5-50 years.
Rosé Port is a ruby Port created following the traditional wine making method used for rosé wines. To avoid prolonged contact with the grape skins, where the colour concentrates, there is only light contact giving the wine its pink colour. Rosé port evolves in stainless steel vats in order to maintain its initial freshness and avoid oxidation.
*Port wine was exported in various types of vats, the smallest were the oitavos (67 litres), then quartos (135 litres), meias (267 litres), cartolas (500 litres), pipas (550 litres), up to the bigger cascos (more than 550 litres) and the biggest which were called bombos (600 to 650 litres).