Port wine, wine of the heart, is almost mythical in its flavor and history. Vintage port is a miraculous paradoxical mixture of strength and delicacy, sweetness and flavor.
Originally called Red Portugal, the wine is made from grapes grown in the unspoiled, rugged countryside of northern Portugal's Douro Valley. The 1,000 square miles of vineyards in the city of Oporto are still some of the most remote areas of Western Europe. To visit Oporto is to go back in time.
As the philosopher Ovid said, "Wine prepares the heart for love, unless you take too much."
Britain turned to Portugal's port wine in the 17th century when war cut off their French Bordeaux supply. The 1703 Methuen Treaty promised trade without duty, with British woolen cloth bartered for Portugal's special wine. By 1720, British wholesalers shipped 25,000 large casks (pipes) of Portuguese wine down the Douro River.
True Portuguese port is aged in wood and labeled "Porto." As it ages, vintage porto creates a heavy "crust" or deposit. Traditionally, to make the wine, 12 men smashed the port grapes for 12 hours while the women danced. Vintners added brandy to the wine, a process called fortification, to slow down fermentation and preserve the wine's sweetness and flavor.
Britain consumed vast quantities of the dark red wine in the 18th and 19th century. The custom was to "pass the port" around the table after a meal, left, clockwise, with the guests guessing the vintage, never leaving the table until the last drop of sweetness was done.
"From wine," said poet John Gay, "what sudden friendship springs!"