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A spirited debate: the tale of Port’s 20%

Port is much more than just wine. “Brandy” or aguardente makes up 20% of every bottle – and some argue that a shift in the quality of this spirit is key to the wines’ superiority in the last two decades. Sophie Thorpe spoke to the region’s leading producers to find out more about the firewater that defines the Douro’s age-old fortified wines 

Looking across the dramatic slopes of the Douro Valley, it’s easy to imagine that time has stood still here. While Port is steeped in tradition, however, recent decades have seen it leap into the modern era – with no shortage of diverging opinions about the “right” way to produce Port. Just put a handful of the region’s finest in a room and ask about co-planted or monovarietal vineyards, granite or stainless steel, de-stemmed or whole-bunch fruit, trodden by foot or machine, and feel the temperature rise as the debate unfurls. 

There is, however, one element that gets surprisingly little press – the all-important fortification, an element that arguably defines Port, and until relatively recently was out of winemakers’ control. Originally spirit was added to harden the wines for long journeys in ships’ bows, preparing them for long voyages, and only became standard in the 19th century.  

Once the fruit has been picked, trodden and starts fermenting, producers add spirit – or aguardente, often colloquially (and erroneously) referred to as “brandy” – to halt fermentation, thereby retaining the natural grape sugars that give Port its signature sweetness. The wine is a mere 5-6% alcohol at this stage, and the fortification brings it up to between 19 and 22%. Given the strength that the wine needs to reach, this spirit represents a massive 20% of the final product. Legally, aguardente must be a grape spirit of 77% – significantly lower in strength than the spirits used for other fortified wines (such as Madeira or Vins Doux Naturels, which use a highly rectified grape spirit of 95-96%). This lower alcoholic strength is key; meaning the spirit is less neutral, and therefore has even more of an impact on the final wine. 

This spirit has a rocky history which isn’t free from scandal. After a local shortage, 1904 became known as the “Schnapps vintage” – having been fortified largely with a German spirit made from potato and grain. The 1972, ’73 and ’74 vintages saw industrial alcohol used instead of grape distillate. (Responsibility for this latter fraud fell to a French supplier who duped the unknowing Casa do Douro into buying Yugoslavian spirit.) Besides these occasional lapses, the spirit was mainly made from excess wine in the Douro during 19th and early 20th century, but in 1907 the Portuguese Prime Minister João Franco banned the distillation of wine from the Douro, meaning aguardente had to be found elsewhere. Despite presenting 20% of the wine, the spirit used today is far from local, sourced from far beyond Portuguese borders (often Spain and France). 

The key date – however – is 1991. Under the authoritarian Estado Novo regime in the early 1930s, a monopoly on the spirit was established, with its supply state-controlled. This continued for over half a century, via the Casa do Douro, and then from 1976 via the Instituto do Vinho do Porto e Douro or IVDP. The freedom to choose which spirit used was only granted to shippers in 1991 – something that David Guimaraens (Head Winemaker at Taylor Fladgate) argues is one of the most significant changes in Port. 

“We had no choice, the spirit quality was very average,” Guimaraens laments of the old days. He returned to Portugal, fresh from studying at Australia’s leading winemaking school Roseworthy, in 1990 – just before the shippers gained the freedom to choose their own spirit. “When you use a very clean, fine spirit, when it is young, your fruitiness comes out much more – making it more appealing in youth, almost entirely because of the quality of the spirit,” he explains. He cites two examples – Taylor’s Vargellas Vinha Velha and Croft’s Sērikos – both wines which are made from 100-year-old vineyards, made as they always have been in granite lagares. It is, he argues, only the spirit that has changed in these Ports.  

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The cellar at Taylor's

For Guimaraens, the quality of spirit is most apparent in a vintage Port’s “teenage” phase – between 14 and 19 years of age, when it is starting to lose its fruit but not yet fully developed bottle maturity. This transitional phase is, in his view “much more attractive than it used to be in the past”, meaning Port drinkers are safer opening a bottle at any stage of its life. He points to 2000 as a pivotal vintage, when the quality of spirit started to really improve and produce, in his view, some of the region’s finest wines. 

“Spirit has been crucial,” Richard Mayson – writer and author specializing in the wines of Portugal – agrees. “When vinification techniques were experimental – the late 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s – you can certainly taste the poor quality spirit in the thinner-quality wines.” He explains that this period saw massive emigration and a resulting shortage of feet to tread the region’s harvests. The early autovinifiers used in lieu of the traditional foot-treading simply didn’t result in the same level of extraction – and therefore have, over time, revealed the underlying spirit quality. There are, of course, exceptions – with some great wines made. He, however, like Guimaraens, feels the 2000 vintage marked a real shift in the class of spirit used. 

The uptick in the quality of spirit is one of the reasons – along with the quality of the fruit, viticulture and more – that Carlos Agrellos of Quinta do Noval feels the property has been able to declare every vintage since 2011. “It’s extremely important to choose the right one,” Carlos Agrellos of Quinta do Noval explains of the spirit. He is one of a group of 20 companies – including Niepoort – who have, over the past five years, clubbed together to buy spirit. As smaller operatives, grouping together gives them more clout, enabling them to secure higher-quality spirit for their wines – and fair prices. Each May they meet in Gaia, tasting through a selection of spirits sent over by three or four different producers – all of which are scored blind. In 2020, they tasted 20 different spirits that were approved.  

The results of the tasting are shared with everyone, then each company will decide which they wish to buy for their wines. The spirits come from southern France, Spain or Portugal. There are two categories of spirit –

those distilled from wine and those from wine lees. The two are very different: the former is favoured by most – having more delicate, fruit and floral aromatics; while the latter was only approved for use in 2014, and is usually stronger in flavour. While in general “wine” spirits are generally the best, the spirits from lees can offer additional complexity. “At Noval,” Agrellos explains, “we tend to blend these two and use them for different types of wine, from white Port to Tawny to Vintage Ports.” There’s no fixed blend, and it varies from year to year, but he tends to use both – with higher-grade spirits for Vintage Ports.  

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Harvest in the Symington vineyards

Symington and Fladgate – the giants of the Port trade – purchase such large volumes that they buy their spirit independently. Tom Symington – fifth-generation family member and part of the winemaking team – explains that the spirit used to be a wider cut, and today it’s narrower, resulting in a purer spirit. “We focus on the neutrality, the aromas and the way it reacts with the wine,” he says.  

Talking to producers about the style of spirit they look for, there is a general consensus that neutrality is desirable – to what extent, however, varies significantly. Agrellos aims for a more neutral, but slightly floral spirit. The most important thing for him, however, is the volume on the palate: he believes that it is this volume and texture of spirit that is most important for vintage Port. “It’s what will hold the wines for years to come,” he says. He values this above and beyond aromatics, while of course looking for something very pure. It’s this texture that leads him to use some wine-lees distillate – which has much more to offer in that regard, as well as its stronger flavour. The wine distillate by contrast tends to be purer in terms of aromatics, and is sometimes even double-distilled. 

While Symington uses the same spirit across all their Ports, David Guimaraens looks to use a different style of spirit depending on the style of Port in question. He is clear, however, that it shouldn’t be part of the house style – but a “neutral oenological product”. He chooses to use one batch of spirit across each style for all the houses, not wanting it to be a differentiating factor, or dominate the quality of the fruit. For example, the spirit used for his vintage wines costs twice as much as that for the most entry-level wines – “And you get your return,” he notes. 

He blends his own “master spirit”, combining batches sourced mostly from Portugal and France. “In the early days, it wasn’t as simple as using a clean spirit. To get spirit we wanted, we had to get the wines fermented in a particular way,” Guimaraens explains. With an overly neutral spirit, you risk ending up with a lighter Port; but too high a component of higher alcohol and it interferes with the wine’s organoleptic character, subduing the fruit. Too many spirits are made with excess bulk wine – rather than wine that has been fermented with the express purpose of producing spirit. 

Dirk Niepoort favours quality and a little bit of character. “The purest, the best, the most harmonious – but not necessarily the most neutral one” is what he looks for, he explains. At the group tastings, his tastes are reportedly well known, with many of his colleagues able to identify the aguardente he will choose. His preferred spirits are finer, lighter, with more precision, but – importantly – also character. He finds that they tend to come from France, often from Cognac, from vineyards specifically planted with the idea of producing a distillate – not just excess wine. “Our grapes are too good for distillation,” Niepoort explains – the best spirits, in his view, are made with grapes from cool climates, with high yields and high acidity. He normally chooses three different spirits, depending on availability and price, with the very best spirit reserved for his top wines. For any organic wines, of course, they require an organic distillate.  

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Dirk Niepoort

While Niepoort admits the quality of spirit has improved, he doesn’t believe that the quality was nearly as bad as some – such as Guimaraens – imply, telling me people are unnecessarily “ferocious” about it. “I think the Port Wine Institute did a fantastic job in selecting huge amounts of spirit. Considering the huge quantity needed, the average quality was extremely high.” It certainly isn’t stopping him drinking fine vintage Ports – such as a bottle of 1963 Noval he had the pleasure of uncorking recently. Nevertheless, he doesn’t deny that it was a significant step not having to buy a mass product, and it has really opened the market. 

It’s not as simple as winemakers having total autonomy, however, with a strict approval system via the IVDP to ensure the quality of spirit being used meets their standards. “It’s not only complicated – it’s expensive,” Niepoort says of the process. He’s found it a struggle to get some spirits approved, with, for example, double-distilled spirits harder to get sign-off than column-distilled liquids – a clear source of frustration. While the process is clearly there to control quality, producers aren’t abusing this independence; in general they are spending more money than ever before – making the whole thing, in Niepoort’s view, futile. “We should have some freedom to do what we want,” he says. 

Tom Symington feels that it’s more than just the quality of spirit that has improved the quality of Port. He believes other developments have been more significant, particularly emphasising advancements in winemaking (highlighting the introduction of stainless steel as well as robotic lagares) and viticulture, especially monovarietal vineyards which – he considers – allow them to achieve perfect phenolic ripeness, with no green or raisined fruit. It is more than just the equipment, he notes – it’s the know-how gained over time, and most importantly balancing that with tradition. 

“Of course the modern young people will tell you that viticulture is much better today,” says Niepoort dismissively. He prefers to work with old-fashioned growers. Over 90% of his vineyards are over 60 years in age and traditional field blends. He feels that the shift to monovarietal vineyards – dedicated only to five of the region’s many indigenous varieties – is, along with a move toward de-stemmed fruit rather than foot-trodden whole bunches, responsible for changing the style of Port. “The wines became fruitier and darker, but at the same time, thinner,” he explains. Niepoort historically didn’t make any Port themselves, and the 1994 vintage was the first they produced in-house. For him, this shift – from the 1970s and ‘80s – for shippers to own vineyards, rather than merely buying wine in, is the greatest advancement in the region. 

The Douro Valley has seen a run of top-rated vintages – with universal declarations in 2011, 2016 and 2017, and some shippers declaring 2018 and now 2019 (including Niepoort). The general rule of three declarations per decade looks set to become a thing of the past. How much can this be attributed to aguardente? Relatively little, perhaps, however it’s hard to argue that this liquid – making up a fifth of the final wine – doesn’t have a role – and depending on who you talk to, the heart – to producing the very best Port.  

Read more about Port or browse our range here 

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