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Port – The Fortified Wine Starter Kit

last updated: 24 May 2024
read time: 3 minutes

Vineyards in the Douro Valley

The very last section we cover in our WSET Level 2 Award in Wines course is fortifieds. We only look at two wines in this section – Sherry and Port. We cover them at a pretty high level, which is a good thing – as while they’re styles of wine that many students have heard of before, they’re not styles with which students are familiar.

Australia’s wine making history really rests on the production of fortified wines. Up until the influx of European migrants after WW2, our winemaking (and consumption) was all about locally produced ‘Port’ and ‘Sherry’. We can’t use those names any more but many many wineries continue to produce Port-style wines.

So what is Port? And why don’t we call it ‘Port’ when it’s made here?

The second question is easier to answer so let’s leave that and take an introductory look at the real deal.

As mentioned, Port is a fortified wine – this means it’s a wine that has been strengthened (fortified) by the addition of extra alcohol (clear grape spirit). So while you’re average table wine will hover between 12 and 15% abv, a Port will likely be around 20% abv. The key thing with Port production is that the wines are fortified during the fermentation process. The addition of the extra alcohol kills the yeast and stops fermentation so any sugar which hasn’t yet been fermented stays in the wine. This means that, as a rule, Ports will be sweet.

Once the wine has been fortified, the ageing process comes into play and this really determines what style of Port you end up with. Very broadly there are ruby Ports and tawny Ports.

What Grapes are Used?

There are a LOT of grapes that are technically permitted when it comes to Port production – rated from “very good” through to “mediocre” and “bad”. Unsurprisingly, the grapes at the lower end of the quality scale don’t get too much of a look in! And while there are 30 recommended grape varieties, in practice there are six which are most widely used. They are Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão and Tinta Amarela. Ports are typically a blend of some or all of these grape varieties.

Ruby Ports

Ruby Ports typically spend their time in larger barrels. This means that the influence of the oxygen (an oak barrel allows oxygen to interact with the wine) is less noticeable – so the wines are reddish in colour, with flavours of red and black fruits and spice. Not all ruby Ports are labelled as such – a vintage Port (the only Port which is designed for extended bottle ageing) and late bottled vintage (LBV) are both ruby Ports (as are Ruby Port and Reserve Ruby Port – but the clue’s in the name there!).

Tawny Ports

Tawny Ports spend their time in smaller barrels, so the influence of oxygen is more noticeable. The wines are (you guessed it!) tawny in colour and the flavours are more aligned with things like caramel, coffee and toasted nuts.

Aussie Ports?

Why is there no Australian Port?

Port has to be made in Portugal, with the wineries in the Douro Valley and the Port lodges in the coastal city of Porto. Waaaay back in 1994 a trade agreement between Australia and the European Community (EC) saw us agree phase out the use of terms such as Sherry and Port. A further agreement in 2008 saw a timeline put in place and by 2010 ‘Port’ was out. As a side note – this wasn’t a one way street – over 100 of our GIs are protected terms in Europe.

Want to learn more? Check out the official site of the IVDP!