Madeira–The World’s Most Masculine Wine


Necessity, it is said, is the Mother of Invention.  What is not said, though, is that Accident is her Surrogate. And in the case of Madeira, one of the three great fortified wines of the world, it was Accident that gave birth—upon the high seas—to the luxurious wine.

In the 15th century, during the Age of Exploration as the Portuguese were pursuing a sea route to Asia by sailing down the west coast of the vast and seemingly bottomless African continent, then sailing up its opposite coast towards the fabled “East,” and the Spaniards, at the bidding of Columbus, were attempting to reach the same Eastern lands by sailing westward into the mighty Atlantic, the island of Madeira, situated in the north Atlantic Ocean off the northwest coast of Africa, served as a major port of call for the resupplying of Portuguese and Spanish ships prior to their long journeys of exploration. And where there are mariners, there is wine. So it became only fitting that the island of Madeira would engage itself in business of winemaking.

The island of Madeira was claimed by Portuguese sailors in 1419 for Prince Henry the Navigator and was settled sometime after 1420. The island, with its subtropical climate, is considered the first Portuguese territorial discovery during what would come to be known as the Portuguese Age of Discovery, 1415 to 1542.  The word “madeira” means “wood” in Portuguese. And it is said that when the Portuguese first encountered the African island, it was so heavily forested that the most fitting name for their new discovery was simply “Madeira.” In order to clear the lush, 309 square-mile island of its primordial vegetation so as to make way for the cultivation of sugarcane, the island was set ablaze. And burn it did—unquenchable for seven long years. In the process, the vegetation that had been robbing the soil of its rich nutrients from time immemorial released those precious nutrients back into the island’s soil, Madeira thereby becoming one of the world’s most fertile places.  And for as long as the enchanted isle has hosted human populations, wine has been produced there. So when mariners called on Madeira’s ports in order to supply their ships for extended journeys, wine was one of the items loaded onboard.

But wine is a delicate beverage, exceedingly susceptible to temperature fluctuations, heat, the ravages of exposure to oxygen, and excessive movement—all of which are part and parcel to extended seafaring voyages, especially to the warmest regions of the world. So to prevent spoilage, the wine producers of Madeira drew upon the knowledge—from the mainland Portugal Port producers, and from their neighboring Spanish Sherry producers—of fortifying wine with distilled spirit in order to extend the wine’s shelf life. While Port and Sherry are fortified with a neutral, wine-derived, brandy-like spirit, in the early days of Madeira winemaking, a spirit distilled from sugarcane juice was used because of the island’s history of sugarcane production and the availability of sugarcane-derived spirits. [Since the 18th century, Madeira has been fortified with a neutral, wine-derived spirit like its Port and Sherry counterparts].  And had Madeira wine ended there, it probably would have today evolved into a wine very similar to Port and/or Sherry, and the island of Madeira might have come to be regarded as just another island off the coast of West Africa—not as an island with a wine so famous that the wine is arguably even more famous than the island after which it is named.

But such, fortunately, was not to be the fate of the wines of Madeira.  Enter: Accident.  When a shipment of fortified Madeira wine did not find a buyer in some faraway destination and was therefore shipped back to the island, the disappointed merchant was met with both surprise and delight when he tasted his sea-aged wine and discovered that it had been deliciously transformed while traveling halfway around the world and back, exposed to extreme heat and excessive movement in the hold of the ship.  The ship-aged fortified wine had acquired a flavor distinct from and superior to that of when it was first produced! And other people agreed with the merchant’s assessment—so much so that thereafter, wines that had been shipped across the seas but came back unsold came to be known as “vinha da roda” (“roundtrip wine”) and were highly sought-after.  In fact, the vinha da roda wines were so prized that Madeira winemakers went about the expensive proposition of stocking seafaring vessels with casks of wine—not for sale in distant lands, but as ballast in the warm holds of ships such that the wine could return years later to the island of Madeira, unsold and ship-aged. But when it became evident that sea-aging wine was not only expensive, but also unpredictable—on account of storms, pirates, war, and thirsty sailors—Madeira winemakers began figuring out ways of imparting the same ship-aged characteristics to their wines, but on terra firma.


The Making of Madeira

Madeira begins its life like most other wines:  Grapes are harvested in the early fall; pressed; then allowed to ferment in concrete or stainless steel vats or in wooden casks. (The grape varieties that are typically used to produce the sweeter Madeiras—Bual, Malvasia, and Negra Mole—are oftentimes fermented on their skins so as to leach more phenols [chemical compounds, including tannins, that affect color, taste, and mouthfeel of the wine] from the grapes, those phenols serving as a natural balance to the sweetness of the wine).  The dry wines—typically made from Sercial, Verdelho, and Negra Mole varieties—are separated from their skins prior to the fermentation process). Depending of the desired level of sweetness of the final product, fermentation—the process whereby the natural sugars in the grape juice are consumed by yeasts that then emit alcohol (and carbon dioxide) as the waste product—may be halted by the addition of a neutral, grape-derived spirit that kills the yeasts before they are able to consume all the sugars in the grape juice, thus producing a sweet wine. The added-alcohol also fortifies the wine, extending its shelf life and making it more durable. (The less expensive Madeiras tend to be fully fermented—thereby becoming fully dry—before the grape-derived spirit is added).


The Estufagem Aging Process

Where Madeira makes a major departure from the other fortified wines is in its “estufagem” aging process—a process meant to replicate the abuse to which a wine is subjected when barrel-aged onboard ships on the high seas destined for tropical climates then back home again. In essence, the wine is put through the proverbial gauntlet. But when the precious liquid emerges on the other end, it is filled with character, flavor, color, texture, and longevity—so much so that properly stored Madeira has been known to remain in perfect drinking condition for hundreds of years.

The estufagem process involves deliberately heating the wine (or exposing it to the elements such that it will become naturally heated). The heating of the wine hastens its mellowing and tends to discourage any secondary fermentation during the aging process. In addition, the heating-process serves as a mild pasteurizer. And as the wine in the casks naturally evaporates, the evaporated portions are not replenished, thereby allowing oxygen to occupy the vacant space within each cask.  And that exposure to oxygen causes the wine to oxidize, obtaining its characteristic amber color, similar to Tawny Port.


There are three primary methods for heating the wine:

Cuba de Calor:  Typically used for inexpensive Madeiras, this popular method of heating the wine entails heating large quantities of wine in either concrete or stainless steel tanks that have been surrounded by heat-coils or piping that allows for hot water to circulate the container, heating the wine contained therein in the process. Per Madeira Wine Institute regulations, the wine is heated to temperatures as high as 130 ºF (55 ºC) for a minimum of 90 days.

Armazém de Calor:  The “sauna approach” to heating the wine, this method, used only by the Madeira Wine Company, entails storing the wine in large wooden casks in a specially designed room equipped with steam-producing tanks or pipes that heat the room. Regarded as a gentler method of heating than the Cuba de Calor method, the wine in the Armazém de Calor system is steam-heated for at least six months and usually for more than one year.

Canteiro:  In the canteiro method, the wines are aged without the use of any artificial heat; the wine is stored in casks in the winery’s warmest rooms, or outdoors, warmed only by the heat of the sun, from as few as 20 to as many as 100 years. This method is used to produce the highest-quality Madeiras.

Wine that has been “cooked” in the estufagem method is sometimes described “madeirized” wine.


Grape Varieties

Most of the grapes used in the production of Madeira are white grapes, the four most famous ones, from sweetest to driest, being:  Malvasia (also known as Malmsey or Malvazia); Bual; Verdelho; and Sercial. Madeiras made exclusively from those varieties are referred to by the name of the grape. (See “Styles of Madeira” below).  But these four varieties account for only about 10% of all the Madeira produced.  And only occasionally—on account of their relative scarcity—are the other white grapes, namely Terrantez (very rare), Bastardo, and Moscatel, used.

But the go-to, “work horse” grape variety found in many blends and vintage Madeiras is the red grape Negra Mole (formerly called “Tinta Negra Mole”). It alone accounts for approximately 85% of all production of Madeira. It is the consummate “blendable,” “mixable,” “adaptable” grape, hence its ubiquity.  Triunfo and Complexa, both red grapes, are less known. Efforts are underway, on the part of Madeira producers and the Madeira authorities, to have Negra Mole take its rightful place, along with the “famous four,” in the pantheon of Madeira grapes.  And efforts are also underway to create regulations such that the Negra Mole name can appear on labels as a bona-fide style of Madeira.

European Union regulations specify that a Madeira that identifies itself as a specific grape (for example, “Bual” or “Verdelho”) must be comprised of at least 85% of the stated grape.  (Old Madeiras—those dating from before the late 19th century—used a similar rule. And since enactment of the rule in the late 20th century, grape varieties are specified. Wines dating from the beginning of the 1900s up to the early 1990s are also varietally labeled, but not always accurately or verifiably so.  And most modern Madeiras that are not varietally labeled are generally made of Negra Mole). The “problem” is that traditionally, the names of the four most famous, highly regarded Madeira grapes—Malvasia, Bual, Verdelho, and Sercial—are also used to broadly to describe the style of wines derived from those grapes:  sweet, medium-sweet, medium-dry, and dry.  So when a gentleman orders a glass of “Malvasia,” he may be getting a sweet Madeira, but not necessarily a Madeira made from at least 85% of the Malvasia grape.


Grape Cultivation

Because of the island of Madeira’s mountainous, volcanic terrain, it is difficult to cultivate. But with ingenuity and a characteristic tenacity, the native people have traditionally constructed terraces, called “poios” (similar to the terraces in Portugal’s Douro Valley where Port is produced), in the island’s red and basaltic bedrock. Mechanical harvesting is therefore near impossible, thus making wine-grape growing a costly endeavor on the island. Then, to complicate matters, the island is of an oceanic climate with tropical influences. And because of its abundant rainfall and average mean temperature of around 66 ºF (19 ºC), fungal grape diseases and botrytis are constant threats. So to combat those threats, the island’s vineyards are often planted on trellises known as “latada” that raise the canopy of the vine off the ground, thereby sparing the vines of such earthborn vinicultural hazards.


The History of Madeira

The wine mentioned in the vivid descriptions of the lavish, fabulously wealthy, 18th-century sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean is almost always Madeira.  Besides being a luxurious, delicious wine, before the era of artificial refrigeration, Madeira was one of the few wines that could survive the long sea journeys to the tropics then remain in perfect condition for years in the equatorial heat.

By the 1500s, a bona-fide wine industry had been established on the island of Madeira, the Dutch East India Company being a major purchaser of wine when en route to India. But it was in the 1700s that the wine that came to be called “Madeira” was met with international demand:  in Russia, North Africa, Great Britain, Brazil, the American colonies, and the Caribbean islands.

Because no wine-quality grapes could be grown in the first 13 colonies of North America, wines had to be imported, Madeira being the most popular.  And when the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776, Madeira was used for the celebratory toast.

The Phylloxera Epidemic that decimated Europe’s wine industry in the middle of the 19th century also visited upon Madeira’s vineyards.  And by the end of the 19th century, most of the island’s vineyards had been uprooted and converted to sugarcane production. Things started to look up for the island’s wine industry in the early 20th century, but then came the Russian Revolution in 1917, followed by Prohibition in the United States (1920 – 1933), thereby drying up two of Madeira’s premier wine markets. The result was that for much of the 20th century, the wines of Madeira were most associated with “cooking wine.”

But the end of the 20th century saw a resurgence in the prominence of Madeira:  The five classic Madeira grapes (including Negra Mole) were replanted, and hybrid grapes were banned in 1979. And in the 21st century, Madeira wine is again becoming popular in the Benelux countries (Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg), France, and Germany, with rapidly emerging markets in Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.


Styles of Madeira

Unblended Madeiras Made from (at least 85% of) the Four Classic Grape Varieties

Some of the most esteemed Madeiras are made not from blends, but primarily from one grape variety.  And the four “noble” varieties are used for such wines, the name of the grape variety also being the name of the Madeira:

Sercial is fermented to almost completely dry. The wine is characterized by high acidity, hints of almonds, and high-toned colors. Sercials are categorized as “seco” (“dry”).

Verdelho has its fermentation halted a little earlier than Sercial. Thus, Verdelho is a little sweeter. Verdelho is characterized as somewhat smoky, with high acidity. Verdelhos are categorized as “meio-seco” (“medium-dry).

Bual (also called “Boal”) is a medium-sweet Madeira, the result of fermentation that was halted early, thus preserving much of the natural sugars from being converted to alcohol.  Bual is characterized by its dark color, medium-rich texture and raisin-like flavor. Bual is categorized as “meio-doce” (“medium-sweet”).

Malvasia (also known as “Malmsey” or “Malvazia”) has its fermentation halted early, thus preserving much of the natural sweetness of the grape must. The result is a sweet wine characterized by its dark color, rich texture, and coffee-caramel flavors. Malvasia is categorized as “doce” (“sweet”). The four classic Madeira grapes are endowed with naturally high levels of acidity, partly derived from the volcanic soil in which they grow, and the lack of ripening in the case of grapes grown at high altitudes. As such, in the case of the sweet Madeiras, the natural acidity serves as a balance to the natural sweetness of the wine, thereby producing a wine with a distinctly understated, rather than imposing, sweetness.



 Madeiras Made of Blends

When a Madeira is made of a blend of wines, the grapes that account for at least 85% of blend must be specified on the label.

Other Labeling

-Reserve:  Wines aged for at least five (5) years.  [Wines labeled as “Sercial,” “Verdelho,” “Bual,” and “Malvasia” must be aged at least five years and thus are always at least of “Reserve” classification].

-Special Reserve:  Wines aged for at least ten (10) years.  Most wines labeled as “Special Reserve” will have undergone canteiro aging—without any artificial heating system.

-Extra Reserve:  Wines aged for more than fifteen (15) years. Richer in style than Special Reserve, Extra Reserve is rarely produced today, most producers opting instead to wait an additional five years in order to qualify as “Vintage Madeira” or even “Colheita Madeira.”

-Colheita (or “Harvest”):  Made of wines from a single harvest (vintage), but aged for a period of at least five (5) years, but shorter than a true vintage Madeira, which must be aged for a period not less than 20 years.  Colheita may be labeled with its vintage date, but it must include the word “Colheita.”

-Vintage (or “Frasqueira”): The wine must derive from grapes from the same year’s harvest.  Vintage wine must be aged for at least 20 years, and the vintage year is declared on the bottle. But because in Portugal the designation “Vintage” is a trademarked term reserved for the producers of Port, vintage Madeira is never labeled as “Vintage Madeira.” Its vintage status is instead indicated by a specified vintage year that calculates to the wine being at least 20 years old.  And whenever the term “vintage” is used to describe Madeira, a common “v” rather than its capital counterpart is used—unless at the beginning of a sentence.

-[Wine labeled “Finest” may prove misleading for the novice.  In actuality, “Finest” Madeira is a modest-grade Madeira, aged for at least three (3) years, and typically used for cooking.

The terms “pale,” “dark,” and “rich” may be used to describe a Madeira’s color. Since 1993, Madeira made purely of the Negra Mole grape is restricted to using only the “dry,” “semi-dry,” “semi-sweet,” and “sweet” classifications.

Wines labeled with the term “Solera” were made in the solera method traditionally used for the production of Sherry]. But the solera system of Madeira allows for a maximum of 5% of a cask’s overall contents to be added to/extracted from for a maximum of 10 cycles. As such, by the time a solera-aged Madeira is bottled, the bottle contains a minimum of 50% of the stated vintage. [Whereas, for example, with the solera system of Sherry, because there is no maximum allowable number of additions and extractions per cask, the actual percentage of 1880 wine in a cask established in 1880 may be negligible in 1990]. (See “Sherry” below).

-The style of Madeira called “Rainwater” is popular in the United States, China, and Canada. Many of the major Madeira producers bottle a “Rainwater” style wine. How the style came to be called “Rainwater” remains a mystery.  One account claims that the style derives its name from wine made of grapes grown on the steep hillsides, where irrigation is difficult, thereby requiring the grapes to rely solely on rainfall for their survival. Another popular theory is that wine shipped to Savannah, Georgia in the then-American colonies was accidentally diluted by rainwater while awaiting collection on the city’s docks. And rather than discarding the adulterated wine, the merchants passed it off to the unsuspecting colonists as “a new style of wine.” When the colonists found it to their delight, “Rainwater Madeira” was born.

“Rainwater Madeira” is a comparatively mild Madeira, somewhat similar to Verdelho and typically made from the Negra Mole variety. It must be aged at least three (3) years before release.  It is usually served chilled as an apéritif.

Traditionally, Madeira is labeled by stenciling white paint directly onto the dark glass bottles, not with paper labels as is the case with most other wines.  The stenciling tradition emerged out of necessity:  In the olden days, Madeira would be stored in attics where the humidity would compromise paper labels.  Stenciling was seen as the most practical solution. And thus it has remained, so much so that the boldly stenciled bottle is part and parcel to the wine.  Today, though, so as to be able to legibly fit more information onto the bottle, paper labels are being increasingly used. But truth be told, on a bar’s back-shelf stacked chock-full with bottles from all over the world, a white-stenciled bottle of Madeira immediately sets itself apart from other bottles.


Shelf Life and Storage

Madeira is arguably the world’s most durable wine. Because during its production it is deliberately subjected to the conditions that normally destroy wines—exposure to heat and oxygen—the wine emerges practically immune to such conditions by the time it is bottled.

When a young gentleman romantically thinks of expensive wines, he thinks of cool, dark cellars with stacks of dust-encrusted bottles containing wines from some distant past. But the fact is that most white and red wines—even those of the finest quality—are created to be drunk within a handful of years after bottling. But for Madeira, as one of the world’s great fortified wines, longevity is its hallmark. To date, the oldest Madeira that has come to market is a 300-year-old Terrantez dated from 1715.  And Madeiras are routinely known to survive over 150 years in excellent condition. Before the invention of artificial refrigeration, Madeira was the wine-of-choice for shipments to distant lands and for consumption in the world’s warm regions such as the Caribbean, the East Indies, tropical South America, and the warm, southern regions of the United States.

Traditionally, Madeira is corked with driven-corks.  But increasingly, since a bottle of the precious wine is oftentimes not finished in one sitting, the wine is stoppered with “T-top corks” so that a bottle can be easily recorked between uses.  And as such, so as to prevent the leakage that can sometimes occur when bottles are stoppered, Madeira is best stored upright as opposed to lying on its side. But in actuality, Madeira is so durable a wine that once opened, it need not be recorked in order to maintain its palatability.  Except for dust and fruit flies, an opened bottle of Madeira can sit uncorked indefinitely without compromising the precious wine.

Wine cellars are also not necessary for storing Madeira. To the contrary, the wine has historically been popular in locales where wine cellars do not exist. Madeira can be stored anywhere at room temperature—with all its fluctuations—and survive unscathed for centuries.  Frankly, no harm will come to a bottle of Madeira even if kept in the trunk of a car all summer long!

Madeiras may be drunk once released onto the market.  Once bottled, young Madeiras undergo no measurable improvement; however, vintage Madeira, over the course of a hundred years or so in the bottle, will intensify in richness and flavor. And for the few people who live long enough to certify the improvement, it is worth the wait!


Uses of Madeira

Very low-grade Madeiras are oftentimes flavored with pepper and/or salt and used for cooking.

Dry Madeira is typically served chilled and used as an apéritif.  Medium-dry Madeira is a classic complement to foie gras. The sweeter Madeiras are served at room temperature and drunk as dessert wines or after-dinner drinks.



The Pageantry and Panache of Portuguese Port–One of the World’s Great Fortified Wines


The notion that wines improve with age is as untrue as it is true. The vast majority of wines—99% or all wines—are not meant for “cellaring” or storing for extended periods. Instead, they are meant to be drunk while fresh and young in the bottle. Most white wines are best if drunk within a year or two after being bottled, and most bottled reds sediment, begin losing their bright claret color, and start turning vinegary after five or six years in the bottle. The ability to improve with age, however, is true for one of the world’s great fortified wines:  Port.  Port, it is said, is bought by a grandfather so that it may be drunk by his grandsons. And it is not uncommon for families to purchase a quantity of Port in celebration of the birth of a child so that the child may be presented with the Port upon his marriage, thereafter drinking the bottles of his liquid dowry for the rest of his life.

 Many countries—from Australia to Argentina to South Africa and the United States—produce port-style wines, sometimes called “pseudo-ports,” those wines legally labeled “port” in those jurisdictions. But true Port is made exclusively in the Douro Valley (“Valley of Gold”) in the northeastern regions of Portugal, where a micro-climate exists that is optimum for the cultivation of almonds, olives, and especially the types of grapes used in the production of Port.

 The Terroir

The Douro Valley became a Protected Designation of Origin in 1756, making it the third-oldest protected wine region in the world, after the Tokaj-Hegyalja in Hungary (1730), and Chianti in the Tuscan region of Italy (1716).  [In 1756, during the rule of the Marquês de Pombal, the Douro Wine Company, officially known as the Companhia Geral da Agricultara da Vinhas do Alto Douro (C.G.A.V.A.D.), was founded to guarantee the quality of the product and its pricing for end-consumers. In addition to managing the protected geographic designation, the company was also responsible for determining which Port wines would be used for export and for domestic consumption.]  Encompassing some 618,000 acres, only approximately 82,000 acres are cultivated with grapes.  The region is considered one of the world’s most difficult wine-growing regions, vines having to eke out sustenance from the harsh, otherwise-barren, rocky mountains that rise up from the Douro River and its tributaries. Some grapes are grown as high up as 1,800 feet, but it is said that the best Port comes from grapes that “can hear the river’s flow.”  The region, referred to simply as “the Douro,” begins at the Serra do Marão, a mountain range situated 40 miles inland and extending eastward for almost 100 miles to the Spanish border.  The region, at its widest point (measuring north-south), is a mere 16 miles.  The Serra do Marão mountains serve as a weather barrier, significantly reducing the amount of rain that falls to the east of them. As such, the weather of the Douro is one of extremes:  exceedingly hot and dry in the summer months, with temperatures reaching 110°F, and very cold winters, some days visited by below-0°F.  The Serra do Marão mountains also render the region a remote one—even to this day, communication and transportation daunting tasks.

Interestingly, there is very little soil on the mountains; and what does exist is a hard schist that retains little water and offers few nutrients. It is also very acidic on account of its high potassium and low calcium and magnesium content. Then, to make matters worse, the sparse soil his high in aluminum content, which is toxic to the vines’ roots. But with the ingenuity and tenacity of the Portuguese people, what would otherwise appear a barren, or even lunar, landscape is today a premier wine-growing region:  Over a period of about 300 years, the region’s inhabitants created a gritty soil by crushing the schistose rocks to a depth of approximately three feet—earlier generations using simple, hand-held iron tools, and then in the 20th century, dynamite.  Thus, the mountainsides have been transformed into agricultural terraces. The grapevines cling to the terraces, following the contours of the mountains, and in their desperate pursuit of  precious, life-sustaining water, send their roots to depths of 65 feet through the fissures in the schist.  And it is said that vines that flourish under the most adverse conditions produce wines of the greatest character. That truism proves true in the case of the great Ports of the noble Douro Valley.

 The Douro is divided into three sub-zones, as determined by natural conditions:  the Baixo (lower) Corgo; the Cima (higher) Corgo; and the Douro Superior.  The smallest sub-region, the Baixo, is situated westernmost. And because of its closest proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, it receives the most rainfall, is the most fertile, and provides the highest yields, accounting for approximately 50% of all Ports made.  The sub-region tends to produce the “lightest” wi such as the ruby and tawny Ports. Upstream from the Baixo is the Cima (from where the Corgo River intersects the Douro River, to the Cachão de Valeira Gorge), about twice size nes, of the Baixo and containing approximately 235,000 acres, 14% of which are planted in grapes. The zone’s most famous vineyards, called “quintas,” surround the town of Pinhão.  With only about 28 inches of rainfall per annum, the sub-zone is renowned for its high-quality Tawny, Late-Bottled Vintage, and Vintage Ports, accounting for about 36% of all Ports. Douro Superior, the largest of the three sub-zones, extends all the way to the Spanish border and encompasses 271,700 acres. But because it is the most arid and least cultivated, only 13% of Ports are produced in the Douro Superior.

The Wine

Typically, Port is a sweet red wine, usually served with the cheese or dessert course or as a dessert in its own right.  But Port is also available in dry and semi-dry varieties, and there are also white Ports. Port is produced only from grapes grown in the demarcated Douro region.

 After the grapes have been crushed [In some quintas, grapes are still crushed the old-fashioned way:  trodden by feet in large, shallow, trough-like stone vats called “lagars.”] and the naturally occurring yeasts of the region begin consuming the natural sugars in the grape must, emitting alcohol [and carbon dioxide] as the waste product in the process, added-alcohol—in the form of a neutral, brandy-like spirit called “aguardente” [meaning “fiery water” and being 77% alcohol by volume]—is added to the grape must. The added-alcohol serves to kill the yeast, thereby interrupting the further conversion of the sugars in the grape must into alcohol. And it is that remaining natural sugar content in the grape must that accounts for the characteristic sweetness of most Ports.  The added-alcohol (Most Ports have an alcohol content of 19 – 23%, whereas most unfortified wines have alcohol content of approximately 8 – 11%) also serves to fortify the wine, considerably extending its shelf life, thereby enabling Port to age and improve across decades and into centuries.

 Port received its name during the second half of the 17th century. The name “Port” (also called “Oporto,” “Porto,” “Port wine,” and “Vinho do Porto,” derives from the seaport city of Porto (also called “Oporto,” meaning “The Port”), today Portugal’s second-largest city, situated at the mouth of the 560-mile-long Douro River, where much of the wine is brought to market and for export to other countries.

 The History

It is widely believed that Port was invented in the middle of the 17th century when British sailors would allegedly spike Portuguese wines with brandy so as to preserve them for their long ship journeys north to the British Isles. But truth be told, what the British could correctly be credited for is realizing that the already-fortified wines of Portugal, unlike most other wines, would survive the long journey to London. The Portuguese, like their Spanish neighbors to the east and their French neighbors to the north, had been making wine for hundreds of years—since the Romans introduced wine-making to the Iberian Peninsula in the first century B.C.E.  [Other evidence suggests that wine-making was introduced to the peninsula one thousand years earlier by the Phoenicians].  And by the beginning of the 1600s, they were shipping large quantities of wine down the Douro River to Oporto each year.  In 1678, a Liverpool wine merchant dispatched two of his representatives to Viana do Castelo, just north of Oporto, to learn the wine trade. While on vacation in the Douro Valley, the two representatives visited the Abbot of Lamengo, who, it is said, served them a “very agreeable, sweetish, and extremely smooth” wine that had been fortified with a distilled spirit. Exceedingly pleased with the wine, the two British representatives purchased the Abbot’s complete inventory and shipped it home to Britain.  But it was war that made the wine called “Port” a household name in Britain:  The signing in 1703 of the Treaty of Methuen, a military and commercial agreement between Portugal and England as part of the Spanish War of Succession, permitted English merchants to import Port with insignificant duties. And England, at war with France and thus deprived of French wines, delighted in the delicious Portuguese alternative.  (From as early as 1373, Portugal and England had become allies and trading-partners, as evidenced by a signed agreement pledging “perpetual friendship.”  By the early 1700s, a considerable amount of British Port merchants had already established companies in Oporto. So to meet demand, by the 1730s, there was an unprecedented expansion of wine-making in the Douro Valley:  The rocky mountainsides were converted into vineyards [called “quintas” in Portuguese]; the Portuguese would trade resin-treated goat skins for wooden barrels; a system of transporting the wine-filled barrels down the river onboard flat-bottom boats called “barcos rabelos” was organized and improved; and exporters built “lodges” in the riverside town of Vila Nova de Gaia (until 1986, the only port from which Port could be exported), situated on the south side of the Douro River, across from Oporto, to warehouse and age their Port. [Today, the wine is transported on tanker trucks]. In 1727 British Port traders in Oporto established an organization called “Factory House” for the purpose of gaining bargaining power with the Portuguese growers—but by 1814 Factory House had abandoned its original mission and become an exclusive private club, its membership open only to British  principals in the Port trade. The club exists, with its exclusive character, to this day. Its official membership consists of about 25 traders).  And the English taste for Port would endure long after the war, as evidenced even today by the many renowned shippers of Port bearing British names:  Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Forrester, Gould, Graham, Kopke, Offley, Osborne, Sandeman, Taylor, and Warre.

The Grapes

More than 100 varieties of grapes are permissible for the production of Port; but only five are widely cultivated and used in the production of red Ports:  Tinta Barroca; Tinta Cão; Tinta Roriz (“Tempranillo”); Touriga Francesca; and Touriga Nacional.  While Touriga Nacional is widely considered the absolute most desirable grape for the production of Port, it is difficult to grow, and its yields are small. But the other Touriga—Touriga Francesca—is the most widely planted Port grape.  White Ports are made exactly as their red counterparts, except that white grapes are used:  Donzelinho Branco; Esgana-Cão; Folgasão;  Gouveio; Malvasia Fina; Rabigato; and Viosinho.  While it is possible to produce Port with only one variety of grape, most commercially available Ports are the made from a blend of at least three types of grapes. (Some producers of White Port, however, are known for using only one grape variety in their production). The various grapes used for Port are typically small and dense, with concentrated, prolonged flavors—qualities conducive extensive aging.

Styles of Port

Port comes in various styles but are divided into two broad categories:  Ports that are matured in sealed glass bottles; and Ports that are matured in sealed wooden barrels. Bottle-matured Ports, exposed to no air, undergo what is called “reductive” aging, the result of which is a smooth, less tannic wine that retains most of its original color. Barrel-matured Ports, on the other hand, because barrels tend to be somewhat porous, thereby exposing their contents to small amounts of oxygen, undergo “oxidative” aging, whereby the wine (in the case of red wine) loses some of its original claret color, taking on tones of amber, and reduces in volume due to natural evaporation (the evaporated portion romantically referred to as “the angels’ share”), the result being a slightly more viscous wine.  [The IVDP (Instituto dos Vinhos do Duoro e Porto) further divides the wines into two subcategories:  “Normal Ports”—Rubies, Tawnies, and White Ports; and “Categorias Especiais” (Special Categories), which includes Vintage and LBV Ports].

 Ruby Port

Ruby Port is the least expensive and most commercially available style of Port. After fermentation, it is stored in tanks made of concrete or stainless steel in order to prevent oxidative aging and to preserve its claret color. It is then aged in large wooden casks for two to three years. After “fining” (the process whereby wine is clarified and stabilized by removing the insoluble matter that is suspended in the wine) and cold-filtering, the wine is bottled. Once bottled, Ruby Ports do not improve with age. And because they are filtered, they are not decanted; instead, they are poured directly from the bottle.

Ruby Reserve Port

Ruby Port Reserve is a premium Ruby Port that has been approved by the IVDP’s tasting panel, Câmara de Provadores. It is like Ruby Port, but made from a blend of higher-quality red wine. Most Port blends contain at least three wines.  [Grape varieties and their respective percentages in the blends are never reported on Port bottle labels].

Tawny Port

Tawny Ports are made from red grapes and aged in wooden barrels for at least two years. Because of the oxidation and evaporation that occurs while maturing in the barrels, the wines attain a golden-brown color and a slightly “nutty” flavor. Sweet or medium-dry, Tawny Port is typically consumed as a dessert wine.  A Port labeled as “Tawny” but without any indication of age is a Port that has aged at least two years “in wood.”  Then there are the Tawny Ports labeled with a year specified on the bottle, the official age-categories being 10, 20, 30, and over 40.  But such numerical declarations, unbeknownst to many a gentleman, are nominal—meaning in name only—not mathematical. The number stated on the bottle, therefore, is not to be read as the age of the Port or the average or minimum age of the Ports blended therein. Instead, the number represents a target-profile of the Port.

Port made of white grapes may also be aged in wooden barrels and produced like Tawny Ports. And when such is the case, they attain a golden-yellow color that is almost indistinguishable from their red-grape-derived counterparts.

 Colheita Port

A Colheita Port is a single-vintage Port that has been aged, tawny-style at least seven years—in barrels. A Colheita Port is in effect a Tawny Port with a specific year of bottling stated on the label. Instead of an indication of age (i.e., 10, 20, 30, etc.) as is the case with Tawny Ports, the age indicated on the label of Colheita Ports is the actual vintage year (e.g., 1961, 1967, 2004, etc.). And Colheita Ports must be declared and approved by the IVDP.

But a Colheita Port should not be confused with what is categorized as a Vintage Port (See below).  Unlike a Vintage Port, which typically is aged in wood only for about 18 months (but may be wood-aged for a maximum of 30 months) before being transferred to bottles for maturation, Colheita Ports may be aged in wooden barrels for 20 years or more before being bottled and sold. [There are also white Colheitas].

Garrafeira Port

Garrafeira Port is a peculiar Port for several reasons:  Unlike other Ports, which are usually a blend of wines from various harvests of different years, Garrafeira is made from the grapes of a single harvest; and Garrafeira is aged extensively first in wood, thereby undergoing an oxidative maturation, then in large (approximately 3-gallon), dark-green glass demijohns called “bon-bons,” thereby undergoing a reductive maturation, before bottling. The IVDP requires that Garrafeira wines spend from three to six years in wood, then at least eight years in the glass demijohns. But in practice, the time spent in the demijohns far exceeds the eight-year minimum.

White Port

The various styles of White Port are made exactly like red Ports, except with white grapes, and range from dry to very sweet. Ordinary White Ports—the equivalents of Ruby Ports—are most common, and are oftentimes used as the foundation of a cocktail, the “Portonic,” that includes a few cubes of ice, half Port, half tonic water, and a sprig of fresh mint or a fresh basil leaf. White Ports of a higher quality are chilled and served as any other white wine. When White Ports are matured for extended periods in wooden barrels, they darken, oftentimes to the extent that they are indistinguishable in appearance from their wood-aged red counterparts.

 Rosé Port

First introduced to the market in 2008, Rosé Ports are essentially Ruby Ports that, during the fermentation period, like other rosé wines, are allowed only limited contact with the red-color-imparting skins of the grapes. To date, Rosé Ports have enjoyed little critical or commercial acclaim.

 Vintage Port

Vintage Port is the ne plus ultra of all Ports, even if from a volume/revenue standpoint it accounts only for a small percentage of the Port trade. [Vintage and LBV Ports combined account for about 3-5% of all Port production in the Douro]. Vintage Port is made entirely from the grapes of a declared vintage year, and not all years are declared as such in the Douro, a decision made by each Port house in the second spring following the year of the harvest [Wine made of grapes harvested in September/October of 2016 would not be declared until the spring of 2018], based on the quality of the harvest. On average, “vintage” years are declared about thrice in a decade. Reputations are of paramount importance in the Port industry; no bona-fide Port house would declare a “vintage year” without justification. Besides, once a vineyard has declared “vintage,” its wine selected for the designation must be submitted to the IVDP for approval.  [While the term “vintage” simply means the year in which a wine was made, the word “vintage” has a distinct meaning within the context of “Vintage Port”:  The individual Port house decides if the wine is of a quality sufficient to be bestowed with the honor; samples are sent to the IVDP for approval; and if the wine qualifies, the house may declare “vintage.”  In a year of an exceedingly good harvest, it is not uncommon for all Port houses to declare a vintage year. Improved wine-making technology has resulted in the increased frequency of vintage declarations; but rainfall and temperatures figure most significantly in the quality of grapes and therefore wines. The year 2011 was declared a vintage year by most producers.  Other widely declared years in recent history are: 2007, 2003, 2000, 1997, and 1994. Old vines—between 40 and 130 years old—contribute complexity and fruit-character to wines and are as such very important for the production of Vintage and LBV Ports].

 Vintage Ports may be aged in wooden barrels for a maximum of two-and-a-half years before bottling, then they generally require another 10 to 40 years of aging in the bottle prior to attaining what is described as “proper drinking-age.” But in the United States, very young Vintage Port is famously paired with chocolate desserts, so much so that America has emerged as the world’s number one market for Vintage Port.

Because of the short barrel-aging period, Vintage Ports retain their dark ruby color and fruity flavors. Especially fine Vintage Ports can improve and continue to gain complexity for many decades after they have been bottled.  Much of the complex character of aged Vintage Port derives from the sustained decomposition of grape-solids in each bottle. It is not uncommon for Vintage Port dating from the 1800s to still be in perfect drinking-condition. A customer who purchases Vintage Port before its proper drinking-age must be prepared to store it properly until the drinking-age is achieved. (See “Storage” below).

Single-Quinta Vintage Port

The Port that ends up in a particular bottle is typically the result of blends of wines, sometimes sourced from different estates. Single-Quinta Vintage Ports, however, are wines that that originate from a single estate.

 Two different sets of circumstances typically lead to the production of Single-Quinta Vintage Ports:

1)      When a large, reputable Port house elects not to declare a Vintage Port, it mayalternatively secure a superior wine from a single supplier-vineyard and bottle it under the name of the house, along with that of the particular quinta, typically selling it for a slightly cheaper price than the Port house’s regular Vintage Ports.

2)      When a small “boutique-like” quinta, which typically does not purchase wines from other suppliers, declares “vintage” and bottles, labels, and markets its wine as a Single-Quinta Vintage Port.  Such “boutique Ports” are typically priced as luxuriously as other Vintage Ports. And, increasingly, some large Port houses maintain separate estates under their umbrella organizations and bottle Single-Quinta Vintage Ports under the individualized names of those separate estates (rather than using the wines produced thereon merely as a supply-source for the house’s main bottling needs), pricing those Ports as luxury items. In such instances, the Port bears only the name of the supplier-quinta.

Crusted Port

Unlike Vintage Ports, which must be sourced from wines of a single vintage, Crusted Port is usually a blend of wines from different vintages (years), thereby allowing the Port-blender to capitalize upon the various characteristics of the different vintages. Because Crusted Port is bottled unfiltered and sealed with a driven-cork, like Vintage Port, it should be decanted before drinking. And although a Crusted Port will improve with age, the aim of the Port-blender is to mix a wine that will be at its optimum at an earlier age than that of Vintage Port. The year that appears on a Crusted Port refers to the year of the bottling, not the years of the harvesting of the grapes.

 Crusted Ports are required to be aged in the bottle for at least three years before it may be released to the market. But most producers keep the bottles for considerably longer so that they are ready to be drunk when sold. As such, Crusted Ports are a practical alternative for Port enthusiasts who do not have the luxury of wine cellars. For many customers, Crusted Ports serve as an affordable alternative to Vintage Ports.

Late-Bottled Vintage Port (LBV)

Oftentimes labeled by acronym only, Late-Bottled Vintage Port is Port that was originally destined to be bottled as Vintage Port but, because of lack of demand, was left in the barrel longer than permissible for Vintage Port.  And over time, two distinct styles of wine emerge, both of which are bottled between four and six years after vintage:  One style is “fined” and filtered before bottling; and the other is not. The fined, filtered Late-Bottled Vintage Ports are ready to be drunk without decanting and are bottled with a stoppered cork that allows for easy resealing and reopening. (However, many Port experts are of the opinion that filtering reduces the wine’s particular character.  And filtered Ports tend to improve only marginally with aging). The accidental origins of LBV has led to various claims to its invention. Taylor’s claims to have made LBV in the 1950s, and 1962 bottles of Warre’s LBV are known to still exist. Unfiltered LBV is bottled with conventional driven-corks and needs to be decanted before being drunk. Once decanted, a Port should be drunk within a few days. But filtered or unfiltered, LBV need not undergo additional cellaring once released to the market; they may be drunk immediately, even if the unfiltered style continues to improve in the bottle.

Now that LBV is an established style, its aim is decidedly to provide a Vintage Port-type experience without the need for lengthy in-bottle maturation, an aim which is only partially achieved—on account of the expedited aging that occurs due to the oxidation that takes place during the wine’s extended stay in wooden barrels. Since 2002, bottles that carry the description “bottle-matured” must contain wine aged in the bottle for at least three years prior to release.

 LBV Ports are typically ready to drink when released.  They tend to be lighter-bodied than Vintage Ports.


Port, like other wines, should be stored in a cool (but not cold), dark (light can damage Port) place with a steady temperature (such as a cellar), lying on its side if the bottle is sealed with a conventional driven-cork, and standing upright if stoppered.


With the exception of White Ports, which may be served chilled, Port should be served between 59 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit (15 to 20 degrees Celsius). Tawny Ports may be served at slightly cooler temperatures.

Unfiltered Ports—such as Vintage Port, Crusted Port, and some LBV Ports—sediment during the bottle-maturing process and must therefore be decanted. (Decanting also permits the precious wine to breathe). At least one day before the wine is to be served, it should be stood upright in its cool, dark, temperature-stable environs so that the sediment can accumulate at the bottle’s bottom.  But the sediment should not be disturbed as the bottle is being opened!  (In that unfortunate occurrence, the wine will have to be stood upright again for another day to allow for resettlement of the sediment—a time frame that might not correspond with the dinner at which the wine is slated to be served!).

Until the 1940s, and even into the 1950s, the typical Port bottle was designed with a neck that became bulbous midway down its length. As such, a driven-cork that extended into the bulbous portion would expand over time, resulting in it being impossible, years later, to pull, with the aid of a corkscrew, the expanded portion of the cork through the narrower upper portion of the bottle’s neck. Enter: the Port tong. (See below). But today, with uniformly straight bottle necks, even old, brittle corks may be uneventfully removed with the use of a corkscrew with a screw long enough to extend beyond the full length of the cork. (If the screw does not penetrate the full length of the cork, the unscrewed portion of an old, brittle cork is likely to separate from rest of the cork as it is being removed).

But when Port tongs are used, whether out of necessity or for dramatic effect, they should be employed with pageantry and panache. Placed into a flame until red-hot, the Port tongs are used to clamp the bottle neck of the Port, just below the bottom of the cork, as the bottle is held steadily with the other hand.  After the hot tongs have clamped the bottle’s neck for about 30 seconds, the tongs are unclamped and a bird’s plume, dipped into ice-cold water, is passed around the heated section of the bottle, the sudden temperature-drop causing the bottle neck to make a clean break.   The Port is then carefully poured into the decanter through a cheesecloth filter so as to assure guests that no shards of glass are contained in the luxurious liquid. [A gentleman inexperienced in the technique should practice the procedure beforehand on an empty wine bottle so that when he engages his skills at the dining table, he accomplishes his task without incident or accident, for ridding white damask of 100-year-old Port stains is no simple matter.  Besides, a Port is a terrible thing to waste….]

Because part of the beauty of the Port experience is its old, cellar-soiled bottle, Ports that may be poured without decanting—such as filtered Ports—should be poured directly from their bottles.  And Ports that must be decanted should be decanted—with requisite pomp and ceremony—at the table.  Evidence of the Port’s time in its cellar should not be removed.

Because Port is a fortified wine, it lasts longer than unfortified wines once opened, but it is still best if drunk within a few days.  Tawny and LBV Ports, for example, remain palatable for several weeks after opening—on account of their sustained exposure to oxygen during the barrel-aging process and, as such, developing a certain “immunity” to the havoc that oxygen generally exacts upon wines.  Vintage Ports, on the other hand, are aged primarily in oxygen-free bottle environments and are thus more susceptible to degradation from oxygen.  Vintage Ports, therefore, are at their absolute best if consumed within a day or two after opening but, because of the alcohol content, may be enjoyed even for several days after opening.

Much has been made over the years as to why Port is traditionally passed clockwise—to the left—around the table.  The age-old custom is for each guest at the table to pour his own Port—whether from a decanter of from the bottle. And since drinking-glasses are always situated to the upper-right side of the place-setting, it only makes sense for each guest to receive the bottle or decanter conveniently into his right hand as he receives the vessel transferred from the left side of the diner seated to the immediate right.  But practicality and logistics tend not to make for interesting table-tales. So many a myth has been offered to explain the tradition. Similarly, it is customary not to rest the vessel of Port onto the tabletop while being passed around the table. And despite fable, the real reason is the table—as in tablecloth:  With so many persons pouring, it is likely that droplets of Port will find themselves cascading down the outside of the vessel and onto the tablecloth if the bottle is permitted to rest atop the table.  But truth or tale, Port at the end of a meal is one of life’s great pleasures.

 Traditionally, Port is served towards the end of the meal as a complement to cheeses, as a dessert wine, or as an after-dinner drink. But some Ports, especially White, dry and semi-dry Ports, are sometimes drunk as apéritifs. And Tawny Ports serve as excellent complements to foie gras, cigars, and chocolate. Connoisseurs insist, however, that Vintage Ports should be savored without complement—but with compliments to the host.


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