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Port Wine

Port Wine (Vinho do Porto) is a sweet fortified wine from the Douro Region in Portugal, usually drank as a digestif. The name comes from the city of Oporto (Porto as it is said in Portuguese) where the wine was aged and stored.

The basic colours are red and white. The red can, nevertheless, be found in a range running the gamut from deep red to light tawny. The whites can range from pale white to straw white to golden white, depending on the production techniques. The sweetness can be controlled from the moment the fermentation is stopped. There are very sweet, sweet, half dry and dry Port wines. All white Port wine, even dry white Port wine, always keeps some of its original sweetness. If a white Port wine is aged in wood, it tends over time to acquire an amber colour, because of the natural oxidation. Very old reds, on the contrary, will become lighter in colour.

The alcoholic content of Port wine varies between 19 and 22 per cent by volume.

The origins of port, as of all fortified wines, lie in the need to stabilise and protect light table wines from spoilage during long sea voyages. When the English merchants found themselves having to pay punitive tariffs to import French wines, as a result of the 17th-century wars with France they turned to Portugal as their next best source. The thin white wines of northern Portugal (the modern Vinho Verde DOC) were not much to anyone's taste but; venturing into the Douro valley, the importers chanced upon the fiery red brews of what was to become port country.

Imported in barrel, the wines had inevitably spoiled by the time they reached England, and so the shippers learned to add a little brandy to them in order to preserve them. At this point, therefore, port would have been a potent but dry wine. It wasn't until some while later that the English systematically began adding the brandy before the red wine had finished fermenting. That stopped the yeasts dead in their tracks before all of the grape sugars had been consumed, and so port became naturally sweet as well as strong.

Today, the fortifying agent is a more neutral, colourless grape spirit rather than actual brandy, but the production process is otherwise not much changed since the 1600s. In the mid-18th century, in a drive to protect port from poor imitations from other regions, the Douro valley was demarcated as the only area that could produce genuine port wine. It was thus the first denominated appellation, predating the French system by about 180 years. Of all the European fortified wines, port is the most confusing to the unsuspecting due to its many types.


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