The region of Bordeaux in Aquitaine lies around the confluence of the Rivers Garonne and Dordogne. This confluence gives rise to the Gironde estuary, the largest estuary in Europe, which flows northwest for some 65km (40m) before merging into the Bay of Biscay.

The Romans first carried the vine to Bordeaux, as attested by the 1st century naturalist Pliny the Elder and the 4th century rhetorician Ausonius, who is still remembered by Château Ausone in Saint- Emilion. In 1152, Henry II of England married the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine: the region came under English rule and ‘claret’ (Bordeaux red wine) under great demand. By the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453, France had regained control of the Bordelais; but, despite heavy export duties, the British Isles remained an important market for claret.

In the course of the 17th century, Dutch traders drained the marshland around the Médoc, which soon outclassed the Graves as the pre-eminent viticultural area of the Bordelais. Pierre de Rauzan, a grand bourgeois and manager of Château Latour until his death in 1692, accumulated the land that later became Châteaux Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Pichon Longueville Baron, Rauzan-Ségla, and Rauzan-Gassies. Later, Nicolas Alexandre, marquis de Ségur acquired the epithet Prince des Vignes after coming into possession of the Médoc properties of Châteaux Lafite, Latour, Mouton, and Calon-Ségur. He turned some pebbles of Pauillac into buttons for his coat, which Louis XV once mistook for diamonds.

In 1855, Napoleon III ordered a classification of the top châteaux of Bordeaux for the Exposition Universelle de Paris. Bordeaux brokers ranked 61 châteaux into five crus or ‘growths’ based on a savant mélange of price and reputation. All of the 61 châteaux that made it into their classification are in the Haut Médoc, bar one—Haut Brion in the Graves.

Starting in the late 19th century, the Bordelais began to suffer from a succession of American imports, first oidium (powdery mildew) and then phylloxera. In the wake of phylloxera, the vineyards had to be replanted onto American rootstock, and the grape varieties that tolerated this best such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot became dominant. But then came downy mildew and black rot, followed by war, economic depression, more war, the severe frost of 1956, and an oil crisis. In the late 20th century, many châteaux found themselves in a state of utter disrepair and in dire need of the restoration and regeneration that is still under way.

Adapted from the newly published Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Port can be matured either oxidatively in wood or reductively in bottles. The four principal styles of reductive port are ruby, late bottled vintage (LBV), crusted, and vintage. Ruby is the most ubiquitous style of port. It is a blend of the most recent harvests matured for no more than 1-3 years. Before bottling, it is fined and cold filtered and so does not require decanting. It is deep red in colour (whence its name), fresh and fruit-driven with a medium body and lesser tannins than a vintage port. It is ready to drink immediately upon release and does not tend to improve with age. Port labelled with ‘Reserve’ is essentially premium ruby, sourced from better vineyards and matured for a longer period of 4-6 years. Compared to simple ruby, it is richer, denser, and more complex.

LBV is a single vintage port that is sourced from better vineyards and that spends 4-6 years in wood (considerably longer than vintage port, whence LBV). It used to be made only in non-vintage years from grapes that would otherwise have gone into the vintage port; today the main idea is to speed up the ageing of a quality port by exposing it to oxygen for several years longer than a vintage port. LBV is commonly fined and filtered prior to bottling, in which case it does not need decanting. However, the process of filtering does strip the wine of some of its substance, for which reason unfiltered LBVs benefit more from bottle age. These unfiltered, so-called Traditional LBV, ports tend to be made in better years and must spend a further 3 years in bottle prior to release. Rather than a stoppered cork, they are capped with a conventional cork that is more conducive to bottle ageing.

Though the standard-bearer for the Douro, vintage port accounts for no more than 2% of total port production. Needless to say, it must be made entirely from grapes of a declared vintage year. The decision to declare a year as a full vintage is made by each individual port house in the spring of the second year following the harvest. Historically, port houses have declared a full vintage about three times a decade. If a port house does not declare a year as a full vintage, it may still declare a top-quality single quinta. In many cases, a single quinta vintage port is only made in non-vintage years to prevent the grapes from the best vineyards from going into a lesser port. This is the case, for example, with Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos and Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas. Vintage port is matured in wood for up to two and a half years, and often requires another 10-30 years in bottle before being ready to drink (although it is drunk much younger in France and the USA). Old vintage port is extremely rich, balanced, and complex with aromas of cocoa, coffee, cedar and spice, and even—for example on the 1977 Graham’s—fennel and liquorice.

Crusted port is a blend of several recent vintages, with the date on the label referring to the year of bottling rather than to the year of the vintage. It spends at least 3 years in bottle and is ready to drink right from release, making it an affordable and undemanding alternative to vintage port. At the same time, it is also capable of improving further in bottle. As it has not been filtered, it deposits a great deal of sediment or ‘crust’ and needs careful decanting. It is, in effect, a super-premium unfiltered ruby port that resembles vintage port in both style and substance.

The three styles of oxidative port are tawny, colheita, and garrafeira. ‘Tawny’ refers to the oxidized, golden-brown hue that quality port acquires from long maturation in small casks with frequent racking. So as to accelerate the ageing process, some tawnies are aged in the baking hot Douro rather than in the more temperate climes of Vila Nova de Gaia. Inexpensive tawny port is a blend of lighter ruby port and white port, and tends to be pink rather than tawny in colour. Premium tawny port is made from high quality grapes not included in vintage and single quinta vintage ports. It may be sold either with an indicated age (10, 20, 30, or ‘more than 40’ years) or simply as ‘Old Tawny’ that is typically about 8 years old. Older tawnies in particular can be incredibly complex and balanced, dominated by aromas of burnt toast, nuts, dried fruit, coffee, and the ethyl ester and acetal products of esterification. Colheita is essentially tawny from a single vintage. Garrafeira, which is an uncommon style, is port from a single vintage that has been matured oxidatively in wood (for about 3-6 years) and then reductively in large glass demijohns (for at least a further 8 years).

Port is not invariably red. White port is made from white grapes, and ranges in style from dry to very sweet. White port darkens with age, such that a very old white port can be difficult if not impossible to distinguish from a very old red port.

I find it difficult if not impossible to write about port without having some. Saude!

Neel Burton runs the Oxford Summer School on the Appreciation of Fine Wine.

Port is a fortified, typically red and sweet, wine that comes in a number of styles. It is produced in a demarcated region in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal, inland from the eponymous city of Porto.

Non-fortified wine has been made in the Douro Valley since Roman times, and became an important export following the establishment of the Kingdom of Portugal in 1143. The 1386 Treaty of Windsor established close trading and diplomatic links between England and Portugal, with many English merchants settling in Portugal and exporting wines back to England from Viana do Castelo on the broad estuary of the Lima River. These light and astringent wines came from the nearby Minho region, and compared poorly to the more expensive wines of Bordeaux.

In 1667, Colbert, first minister to Louis XIV, restricted the import of English goods into France, provoking Charles II to prohibit the import of French wines. The English merchants at Viana do Castelo stepped in to fill the supply gap. To satisfy English tastes, they began sourcing more robust, full-bodied wines from the then remote upper Douro Valley. These wines could not be transported over land to Viana do Castelo, compelling the merchants to relocate a few miles south to Oporto near the mouth of the Douro River.

The trade in the wines of Oporto or ‘port wines’ received a further fillip from the Methuen Treaty of 1703, which led, amongst others, to a fall in the duty on Portuguese wines exported to England. Port wines soon became a victim of their own success, with some producers and shippers adding sugar or elderberry in a bid to improve their often thin, overstretched offerings. In 1756 (just one year after the catastrophic Lisbon earthquake) these problems together with a resulting fall in demand impelled the then prime minister of Portugal the Marquês de Pombal to regulate production. This led to the demarcation of the Douro vineyard area by 335 stone pillars or marcos pombalinos, and, in the following year, to the classification of the vineyards according to quality.

Shippers sometimes added a small amount of brandy or grape spirit to stabilize the wine on its voyage to England. Over time, it became common practice to add the brandy before the wine had finished fermenting since this resulted in a fresher, sweeter, and more appealing wine. And it soon became apparent that these fortified wines also had a vastly superior ageing potential. As bottles became progressively more elongated in shape, it became possible to store them on their side and thus to cellar single vintage wines. 1820 produced such an exceptional vintage that subsequent vintages had to be fortified to even hold comparison, and by 1850 the practice of fortification had become near universal.

During the occupation of Oporto by Napoleon’s army from 1809 to 1811 the port trade came to virtual standstill. Trading also suffered in the 1820s and early 1830s from political turmoil culminating in the Portuguese Civil War over the royal succession and the 1832 siege of Oporto. Having withstood these early setbacks, the port trade flourished in the latter part of the 19th century, and it is in this period that it became customary to ‘declare’ the finest vintages. These Halcyon days came to an abrupt end in 1868 with the arrival of the Phylloxera louse from North America via the Southern Rhone, which resulted in such severe damage as to ruin several long established producers. The port trade did not fully recover until the 1890s, by which time the majority of vines had been grafted onto Phylloxera-resistant American rootstock.

Until well into the 20th century, port was carried downriver to the cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia (just across the river from Porto) on flat-bottomed vessels called barcos rabelos. So as to best navigate through treacherous rapids, the barcos rabelos were equipped with a long steering oar operated from the top of a raised platform. A broad sail enabled them to make the return journey upriver, although in certain parts they required further assistance from oxen straining on a towpath. Until the end of the 18th century, a waterfall in a narrow gorge had obstructed passage into the remote Upper Douro (Douro Superior). The opening of this gorge to river traffic in the 1780s greatly facilitated the emergence of some of today’s finest Douro estates. The Duoro of today has been dammed and is comparatively easy to navigate, but port is sent to the sea by road and rail rather than by the river. The last commercial voyage of a barco rabelo took place in about 1961.

Barcos rabelos