A brief history of port

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If Portugal is the mother of Port, Britain is certainly its father. The famous Port firms were, for the most part, begun by men with such properly British names as Sandeman, Croft, Graham, Cockburn, Dow, and Warre. British men, in fact, were not only Port’s founders but also its most ardent, if exclusionist, advocates. In fact, until recently Port might have been described as a rather sexist beverage. The quintessential man’s drink, it was historically brought out (with great celebration and obligatory cigars) only after the women had left the room. Needless to say, women don’t leave the room anymore (in fact, in some countries, including the United Kingdom, most Port today is purchased by women).

Although the ancient Romans prized the juicy red wines from the steep banks of the Douro River, in northeastern Portugal, centuries passed before the ingenious British transformed these wines from simple, tasty quaffs into Port, Britain’s early version of central heating. There is a fable about Port’s birth, even though in reality the wine’s “invention” was more like a series of discoveries than a single creative act. As the apocryphal story goes, two young English wine merchants were traveling through Portugal in the late 1670s, looking for wines that would be saleable in the British market. (At the time, escalating political rivalry between Britain and France meant that, in Britain, French wines were increasingly met with great disfavor.) The two merchants supposedly found themselves at a monastery outside the town of Lamego, near the Douro River. The abbot there served them a wine that was smoother, sweeter, and more interesting than any they’d tasted. When pressed to explain, the abbot confided that he’d added brandy to the wine as it had fermented.

What actually happened was far less fanciful. By the seventeenth century, wine was regularly being fortified with grape spirits simply to make it more stable during the voyage to England. At first the amount of spirits was small, about 3 percent. But then an incredible vintage in the year of 1820 caused Port shippers to rethink their product. That year the wine was remarkably rich, ripe, and naturally sweet. Sales soared. The next year, hoping to recreate their success, Port shippers added more brandy and added it sooner, in order to arrest fermentation earlier and leave more sweetness in the wine. The idea worked. Gradually, over the course of many decades, the amount of grape spirits was incrementally increased, producing a sweet wine that is substantially fortified at the same time.

From The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil, Workman Publishing Company, 2015.

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December 18th, 2015

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