The six leading grapes of Port

Although they are little-known in the wider world of wine, six key grapes make up the majority of Port production – and we look at what they bring to the blend.

dourovalley

Six grapes make up the majority of plantings in the Douro valley. Picture credit: Taylor’s

In a world where varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah are deemed necessary to sell red wines, it is interesting to note that Vintage Port doesn’t employ any so called ‘noble’ or ‘international grapes’, and is always made as a blend.

While the drinks business has recently promoted the ‘lesser’ grapes of Port country, which covers the mountainous region of Portugal’s Douro river valley, there are in fact six varieties that make up the majority of Port, and a handful, dubbed ‘the big five’ among the region’s viticulturists, that have been recommended for Port production since the 1970s.

David Guimaraens, head winemaker at The Fladgate Partnership, explained during a tour of the Douro last month, “Due to a desire to start mechanising vineyards [during the latter third of the last century], extensive replanting took place in the Douro, leading producers to single out what we believed were the most important grapes – which were the ones that gave the most body and colour – and we started planting in blocks so we could pick each variety at the optimal ripeness and create wine in batches; it seemed very logical.”

Although some of the greatest Vintage Ports come from mixed plantings from the 1900s that contain a wide range of grapes, along with the recommended varieties, the rationalised vineyards from the 1970s onwards meant that winemakers were able to achieve “greater consistency”, according to Guimaraens, “So we pulled the bottom up.”

So, having previously considered some of the more niche varieties that are planted in the Douro, over the following pages we look at the key characteristics of ‘the big five’, and a sixth grape that also plays a major part in Port production.

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