Port is a fortified wine from the Douro valley in North Portugal and is renowned for being the greatest of all fortified wines. Ports tend to be rich, round and smooth on the palate whilst warm, spicy and powerful on the nose. The Douro valley is the oldest appellation in the world dating back to 1756 and European regulations state that port, or Porto as it is sometimes known, must come from this region. Porto, an area in the Douro valley, is the most strictly regulated wine region in the world with rules for every stage of the production and rigorous quality checks.
The process of producing port or a fortified wine is similar in many aspects to that of regular wine. The grapes are de-stemmed and crushed, traditionally by foot in stone vats, and moved to containers to ferment. Here the juice and skins are stirred and mixed in order to draw out as much colour and flavour as possible in a short period of time. What differentiates port production from wine production is that the fermentation process is stopped by the addition of aguardiente, a grape liqueur, sometimes called the brandy, which brings the alcohol content up to 18-20% and leaves unconverted natural sugars in the wine. The juice is now a sweet and dark-coloured wine called port. The sweetness of the port will depend on how much sugar remains.
The port is then matured, the process where the liquid is left to clarify and for the flavours to develop, in big wooden containers usually for at least 7 years. The best port producers move it to cool underground cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, away from the heat of the Douro valley, to mature in perfect conditions.
Port is usually served towards the end of a meal with the cheese or dessert although it does make a lovely aperitif. It also makes a great match for dark chocolate and even the perfect accompaniment to a nice cigar. In Britain tradition dictates that port must be passed to the left around the table and must not touch the table whilst going round, but rest assured this is hardly enforced nowadays. Port is known as a very sociable drink and has made a name for itself in making any occasion a special one.
The most renowned port producers include Dow, Taylor Fladgate, Warre, Niepoort, Fonseca and Graham. They produce majestic ports which will age for up to 50 years.