All You Need to Know About Port – Part 1

by John Szabo MS

This feature was commissioned by the Port and Douro Wines Institute.

As we wind towards holiday season and the short days and long, cool nights of winter, thoughts turn to comfort. And one of the classic “comfort foods” of the wine world is surely Port, that inimitable fortified wine from Portugal’s Douro Valley, with centuries-old winemaking traditions and one of the world’s first great export successes. Together with the Port and Douro Wines Institute, we’ve put together a two-part guide to everything you ever wanted to know about this singular region and the glorious multiplicity of wine styles produced therein. Part I is a look at the region itself, the spectacular topography and vineyard architecture that’s really unlike anywhere else, and the physical conditions that make Port unique. Part II covers the basics of winemaking, and most importantly, provides a describes the various styles of Port, and practical advice on which should age, which can be drunk on release, and how to enjoy them and with which foods.  And for those who want to skip straight to the goods, jump to my Port Wine Buyer’s Guide, fruit of a recent tasting at WineAlign headquarters with the entire crü of over 35 wines, all currently in market. Need a heart-warming value, special holiday gift, or bottle to commemorate the birth of a child or celebrate a future marriage? We’ve got you covered.

Part II: Port Winemaking & Styles

Part I: Reading History Through the Vines

“Nine months of winter, and three months of hell”

Scarf-clad vine grower João slowly winds his way up the steep hillside. Millions of fractured pieces of schist rock glittering on the surface crunch underfoot with each deliberate, laborious step. He continues up the narrow stone steps connecting each of the slim terraces carved out of the side of this mountain by ancestors in the distant past. Each terrace harbours just a row or two of grapevines, whose roots struggle to find purchase between foliations in the rock in this otherwise inhospitable agricultural landscape. Great slabs of schist breach the ground everywhere, like ocean whitecaps, reflecting past earthly upheavals of geological proportions.

It hasn’t rained for weeks, and today, hot southerly winds are stirring up tear-jerking swirls of dust. João stops habitually to wipe his eyes every few steps. The sun beats down relentlessly; infrequent, small olive, almond and orange trees scattered here and there provide the only shady respite in this tumultuous sea of sun-drenched vineyards. The temperature today will top 40ºC, a common occurrence in the heart of summer. This is the Douro Valley.

“The Douro is nine months of winter, and three months of hell”, João tells me, a common saying in this part of Portugal. Yet he says it with a twinkle in his eye, without even a trace of bitterness or resentment. This extraordinary landscape is home, and for João, provider of the grapes for one of the world’s most singular wines: Port. Nothing worthwhile comes without effort and sacrifice. And besides, his misery has company. He’s one of no less than 20,000 grape growers in the demarcated Douro Valley wine region, farming some 44,000 hectares, an average of just 2.2ha each. Considering the few vines that can be planted per hectare on these steep slopes, and the water-starved, minuscule production of each, the effort per kilo is purposely left uncalculated.

Douro morning. (Photo by John Szabo)

History in the Vineyards

The magnificent landscape of the Douro Valley reads like a history book with different chapters – vineyards – telling the tale of different eras in the region’s centuries-old wine story. Two-thirds of planted vineyard area lies on slopes greater than 30 degrees, which required monumental effort to tame and make plant-able in centuries past. And the precise architecture of the countless rows of terraces buttressed by dry granite and schist stone walls, called socalcos, reflect the wisdom and means of the period in which they were built.

The oldest socalcos, or geios, are those with the lowest retaining walls, just a few feet high. They are narrow and irregularly shaped, signalling a time before the advent of heavy, earth-moving machinery. Some are so narrow that they have just a single row of vines. These are pre-phylloxera socalcos, built before the plague that devastated the Douro vineyards during the last third of the 19th century. Dynamite was often the only recourse to create a foothold on the rocky slopes or clear large rock outcrops. The walls were built by hand from the surrounding stones, and the space behind back-filled with a mixture of fine soil and fragments of schistose rock, dug out of the hillsides or more often brought up from the banks of the river.

In many places the vines grow in no more than half a metre of soil or less and have to push their roots down through crevices and fissures in the rock to reach the scant water lying deep below the surface.


Many of these terraces were abandoned and left fallow post-phylloxera, now overrun by weeds and wild shrubs just as phylloxera overran the vineyards they once held. These are the mortórios, a kind of vineyard mortuary, reminders of the past and a changing world.

Yet as the fortunes of the Douro revived in the 20th century, some of these ancient socalcos were restored and replanted, their schist retaining walls rebuilt, giving them life once again. Today they are perhaps the most outstanding feature of the Douro landscape, leading to inevitable reflection on the incalculable labour that went into their construction.

The socalcos supported by higher retaining walls, about the height of an average 19th century vigneron, whisper of a different era. They were mostly built between the end of the 19th century and the mid-1930s, when the majority of the vineyards in the region were reconstructed in a more modern image. The larger walls are able to support wider terraces, often with a slight incline, and are planted with four, five or even more rows of vines. They speak of a time when more efficient land use, and easier to farm vineyards became a necessity, lest the entire region fall into the obscurity of a quaint but unsustainable rural past.

Patamares (Photo by John Szabo)

Patamares & Vinha ao alto

The chapter of the late 20th century Douro is written by yet another form of terrace, the patamares.  Meaning “platforms”, patamares are terraces cut into the mountainsides not by hand or dynamite, but by modern heavy equipment. Instead of dry stone walls, they are supported by tall banks of packed earth. This vineyard landscaping method became widespread in the 1980s when a large area of the Douro vineyard was redeveloped for mechanized viticulture, including some of the mortórios.

On more gently inclined slopes, the latest chapters of the story are picked up by an altogether different form of vineyard design. Where the gradient allows, up to about 30%, vertical rows of vines run perpendicularly up the hillside, replacing the old parallel terraces hugging the contours of the hills, or opening virgin parcels, a technique perfected in recent years and known as vinha ao alto. Here, specialized tractors, able to travel up and down the vertical rows, replace much of the manual labour, lowering costs without sacrificing quality.

Thus the Douro winemaking landscape, with its time-stamped assortment of vineyard architecture looks like a puzzle made up of pieces from different drawings that, altogether, depict the inimitable Douro Wine Region. From across the expanse of the mighty Douro River, or from the bird’s eye view of a hot air balloon, the hundreds of kilometers of sinewy terraces that follow every topographic nuance, crevice and side valley, look like giant contour lines on a map drawn by a colossal cartographer.

In 2001, this unique countryside was recognized as a “living and evolutive landscape” by UNESCO, earning a World Heritage site designation. By keeping a prosperous and sustainable economy alive, winemaking in the Douro has forever changed the fortunes of the region since the very first walls were built and vines planted.

Wider, inclined patamares but with stone retaining walls. (Photo by John Szabo)

A Region of Infinite Nuance

In practical terms, such a varied landscape of myriad expositions and elevations, vineyard architecture and vine age, makes for a tremendous range of growing conditions and wine styles. Vineyards located closer to the river, for example, are warmer and more sheltered than those higher up the hillsides. These are preferred for Port, the fortified wine for which the Douro is famous worldwide. The cooler spots higher up are favoured for the increasing production of quality table wine (unfortified), both red and white, and occasionally rosé.

Which side of the river a vineyard is on is also a major factor. The north bank is influenced by the dry southerly winds, which, coupled with full southern exposure, lead to measurably higher air temperatures in vineyards than in those on the south bank. Here, exposed to the colder, wetter winds from the north and, logically, less sun exposure, vineyards are considerably cooler.

There are also significant temperature and precipitation differences as you move west to east along the Douro River, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Spanish border. From the westernmost point of the Douro wine region, around the town of Mesão Frio about 80 kilometers inland from Porto, to the village of Barca D’Alva near the Spanish border, a further 100km upriver (but a much longer drive), average temperatures gradually rise and rainfall decreases. The Atlantic influence felt in the west in the Baixo (Lower) Corgo diminishes as one travels inland; the climate in the central part of the region, the Cima (Upper) Corgo, is more Atlantic-Mediterranean, while in the easternmost part, the (Upper) Douro Superior, the climate is classified as Ibero-Mediterranean: hot, dry and extreme. Rainfall also increases at higher elevations. The puzzle is deliciously complex.

Douro Valley (Photo by John Szabo)

Classifying Douro Terroir & The Benefício

Though such terroir disparities between vineyards had been recognized and understood for centuries, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that Álvaro Moreira da Fonseca, a director of the Port Wine Institute, would develop a scientific system for officially classifying vineyards in the Douro that is still in use today. The main criteria for the classification are soil, climate and agricultural techniques, set to determine the vineyards with the greatest potential for producing Port. Each criterion is accorded a maximum point score, and total point scores for each vineyard are determined and tallied accordingly.  The score regulates the amount of grape must, or benefício, that each farmer is permitted to make into Port – the higher the score, the greater the benefício. His work is known as the Moreira da Fonseca’s Scoring System, unique in the world of wine.

But João, as he wipes his eyes and carries on up the hill, has no vineyard classification or point scores in his head today. This long time Douro grape grower is familiar with his vineyard in a far more intimate way. The daily growing season grind, up and down the hillside and across the narrow terraces, has taught him everything he needs to know about sun and wind, soil and stone, and how to coax the most from his vines. He’s thankful for those who came before him and the broke the ground, and confident that the next generation will continue the legacy, ensuring that port wine continues to relate fascinating tales of the Douro from across the ages on tables around the world, as it has now for centuries.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

John Szabo, MS

This feature was commissioned by the Port and Douro Wines Institute. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.