We have a 17th-century trade war between the British and the French to thank for popularizing the port wine we enjoy today. As the tariffs on French wine grew, the British wine merchants began looking around for alternatives. Relations with Portugal were good, so they began importing thin, acidic wine from the north coast – the wine we now know as Vinho Verde. It was decidedly unpopular so they moved inland along the Douro River and discovered some red wines with inky black intensity – these might go over better. To make sure the wines survived the voyage home, they added a bit of brandy as a sort of preservative or stabilizer. That was the first step.
A little later, one of these merchants visited a hillside monastery and noticed that the monks were adding brandy during the fermentation instead of waiting until the wine was dry. Now that was good! And, so, port wine was born. Since then, port-like wines have been produced all over the world. To this day, many Portuguese brands have British names that go back to these original merchants and shippers such as Symington, Grahams or Dow. And, you can easily find a bottle of California Port at the grocery store.
In recent years, the Portuguese vintners have differentiated their wine from port-style wines from outside of the region by calling them Porto. This is for Oporto, Portugal’s second largest city, which sits at the mouth of the 560-mile Douro River. In the European Union they may only use the name, port, when the wine is from the Douro Valley, but the regulations don’t apply to countries outside of the EU.
Grape Varieties and production
The traditional varieties used to make port are unfamiliar to most of us with one exception. The grape the Portuguese call Tinta Roriz is the same as Tempranillo or Valdepenas. Over 80 varieties are permitted in the production of Porto, but the majority of the plantings are to Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Franca and Tinto Cao. A small amount of white port is made and the only white varieties that are likely to sound familiar are Muscat and Malvasia. The Muscat is also used to make a small amount of fortified, sweet wine called Moscatel. The port varieties aren’t often found outside of Portugal. In the US, Zinfandel Port is popular and port-style wines are also made of Grenache, Carignane, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Alicante Bouschet.
Since the fermentation is cut short it’s important to get as much color and flavor out of the skins as possible in the first few days. This means that frequent “punch downs”, to keep the skins and wine mixed up, are desirable, as is the heat, which builds naturally, to aid in extraction. When the wine has reached the desired degree of sweetness, grape spirits are introduced to kill the yeast, leaving a sweet wine enriched with alcohol. The sweetness is variable, but is often around 10% sugar and the alcohol generally runs between 18-22%. At this point the port is extremely potent, and somewhat harsh, so some sort of aging is necessary. The choice of aging vessel can include wooden casks, cement tanks or even stainless steel. And, as in Champagne production, blending different vintages together is more common than vintage dating the wine.
Port wines fall into one of two main categories: Most ports are called wood port, which is aged at the winery and ready to drink upon release. Vintage ports are far more rare and, therefore, more costly. They’re aged in wood relatively briefly and are meant for extensive bottle aging. The wine develops very differently in the bottle vs. the cask – the wine loses color and quite a bit of its fruit and intensity with long cask aging, so the wood ports are relatively light and mellow compared to the concentrated, complex vintage port.
Most of us reach for the wood port, that’s aged at the winery, for the sake of cost and convenience, but vintage port is a great selection to put away for that 21st birthday celebration or 50th wedding anniversary. But, as you’ll see, there are variations on a theme, when it comes to port. Here are some of the most common styles you’ll see on the shelves:
Ruby port is a ubiquitous wood port and the name refers to its deep, ruby color. This is a blend of different vintages, aged in large volume for 2-3 years, and bottled when it’s still relatively young. The larger the container, the slower the aging, so this is a fruity example and the heat of the alcohol may be evident. The wine is much lighter than the vintage port, from the beginning, so it’s completely drinkable upon release is the least expensive option. The ones called reserve or “premium ruby” may offer a little more intensity. It’s delicious with fruity desserts, bittersweet chocolate or berry-filled truffles.
Tawny port is named for the tawny, brownish color that comes with age. Time puts its mark on the flavors by way of rich vanilla/nutty/caramelized character. The best of them are called “aged tawny port”. Aged tawnies are made of very good lots from different vintages and are cask aged extensively – anywhere from six to as long as forty years, in some cases. Often the aging vessel is smaller than the casks used for the Ruby port in order to accelerate the aging. The label should say how long the wine was aged, which is an approximation, because of the different vintages in the blend. It will also indicate the bottling date because this wine does not improve in the bottle – it will only get tired.
A very rare wine, called colheita, is a single-vintage, aged tawny that’s aged a minimum of seven years and makes up less that 1% of all port wine. In reality, the wines are often well over ten years old, in some cases even fifty years old, when they’re released!
When the bottle says only tawny, rather than aged tawny, it’s hard to say exactly what’s inside. The pale color isn’t necessarily due to longer aging. It may be made of wines that were lighter in the first place and, in some cases, white port is blended in to lighten up the color. The wine may have been baked, like Madeira, which is called the Douro Bake, to speed up the aging and the browning. A true, aged tawny is noticeably richer and nuttier than the ruby port. It’s not as fruity, but should show lovely dried-fruit character.
This is pricey, but very rewarding, territory. As in the Champagne region, not every vintage makes the cut. So, a vintage may be declared when the grapes from the best vineyards are carefully harvested after an excellent growing season. But, the wine still has to pass muster with the local regulatory body, the Douro Port Wine Institute, a year later. These are very dark, tannic, robust wines in the beginning and after two to three years in wood the wine is still meant for extensive bottle aging. Many collectors don’t like to touch their vintage port for at least ten years after the purchase. The wine throws a great deal of sediment, or crust, over the years and it should be decanted, carefully, before serving. Why go to all this trouble? I can be amazingly rich with tremendous fruit extraction and spice, with a haunting leathery character.
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)
The port called Late Bottled Vintage is a vintage port from a good, but not great, year. It’s wood aged at least twice as long as vintage port, for four to six years. So, it begins with nearly the intensity of a vintage port, but is ready for consumption upon release because of the additional wood aging. The label must say “Late Bottled Vintage”, or LBV, to distinguish it from vintage port, and the vintage date and the bottling date must both appear on the label. These days, the LBVs are, most often, fined and filtered, which lightens the wine up a bit, so it may not have the intensity or complexity of the vintage port. Once in awhile, you’ll run across an LBV that says “traditional”. In that case the wine is aged four years, so it’s ready to drink, but it may also improve with further bottle age. It needs to be decanted at serving time because it’s not filtered. The traditional wines may be called “bottle matured” if they’ve been bottle aged at least three years in addition to the cask aging. The best, traditional, LBVs are very much like vintage port, with a little less intensity due to the prolonged barrel time.
Single Quinta Port
Single quinta port is the Portuguese response to the increased interest in single- vineyard wines. These are the single-vineyard equivalent of vintage port – they’re vintage dated, cask aged for just a few years, and throw sediment because they aren’t, usually, filtered. Aside from the lone vineyard source, the difference is that the vintages for single quintas may not be quite the equal of the declared vintages. On the best years, these vineyard sources are needed for the vintage port blend. Some producers have said that with improved viticultural practices, some vineyard sites produce excellent quality virtually every year and they’re the candidates for the best single quinta wines. Another distinction is that some producers hold their single quintas back until they’re ready to drink. You may also, occasionally, find a single quinta tawny port.
This evocatively-named wine is relatively new on the scene and is sometimes called the “common man’s vintage port”. But, it’s not vintage dated. The reference comes from the hearty, full-bodied style of the wine and the name refers to the crusty sediment that forms, with bottle age, because the wine isn’t filtered. The wine is cask aged a bit and must be bottle aged at least three years before release. These can be good-value alternatives to vintage port.
So many options! Any of these wines can be served alone as a deliciously warming end to a wonderful meal. For a simple, but memorable, treat pair them with some good-quality blue cheese and a selection of roasted nuts. If you plan on serving a dessert with your port, such as a nut tart with the nutty tawnies, the usual guideline applies: It tastes best if the food is no sweeter that the wine. Cheers!