Wine Insights: Demystifying Port

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Often Port is seen as a drink for older British men sitting in high-back leather chairs with a cigar in hand. But, Port is a fortified wine that comes in a vast range of styles (and prices), making it something that we all can enjoy.

Port is produced in the Duoro Valley in Northern Portugal. Port, whose name comes from the city of Oporto, can only be produced in Portugal, just like “Champagne” can only be from Champagne, France. But, anything produced outside of the Duoro Valley is considered a “port-style” wine. Port has been produced for centuries; it is the third oldest wine area in the world and is one of the first specifically designated geographic wine producing regions.

The names of the Port Houses come from families of European decent, predominantly English. These families came to Portugal as merchants, exporting textiles and other products back to England beginning in the late 1600s. They were introduced to the wines of the region and began importing them as well, making the UK a major Port market. The German Kokpe family was the first house founded in 1638, followed by the Warre family, the first English family, in 1670. More European families opened their Port companies between the 1600s and 1800s and still exist today: Taylor Fladgate in 1692, Croft in 1678, Sandeman in 1790, Dow in 1798, Quinta do Noval in 1813, Cockburn in 1815, Grahamn in 1820, Fonseca in 1822. Port Groups who own one or more Port Houses also formed. Two of the biggest groups are Taylor, Fladgate & Fonseca, started in 1838, and the Symington Family, started in the 1880s and today run by five members who are 13th generation in the Symington family.

What is Port?

There are more than 80 different grapes (red and white) that can be used in port production, however, the five key grapes most commonly used are: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão.

Port starts out like all wine. The grapes are picked and then crushed. While today most of the crushing is done by machine, some of the best ports are still crushed by foot, which can gently crush the skin without crushing the seed. The grapes are left in the tank (either stone tanks (lagar) or stainless steel tanks) for 1-4 days to ferment. When fermentation is half way through and approximately half of the sugar has converted to alcohol, a neutral grain spirit (ie. Brandy) is added to stop fermentation. The result is that the alcohol content increases to 19-21% ABV (alcohol by volume) while residual sugar remains as well. The Port is then transferred to large stainless steel or wooden casks and aged according to the final style of Port desired.

Styles of Port

There are almost a dozen different styles of Port: Ruby, Reserve Ruby, Late Bottled Vintage Port, Crusted, Single Quinta Vintage Port, Vintage Port, White Port, Colheita, Garrafeira, Tawny and Aged Tawny. Sounds simple but this is where Port can get overwhelming. To keep it easy, there are two distinct categories – Bottle Aged or Wood Aged.

Ruby Port

Ruby Port is the simplest style. Named for its ruby color, it is a blend of several vintages and generally ages for 3 years. The style is fruit forward and is meant to be drunk young and fresh. Ruby Ports are affordable and easy to find and once opened, they will last 3-4 weeks.

Suggested Ruby Port Pairings: Enjoy lightly chilled and pair with blue cheese, berry fruit desserts and milk chocolate.

Reserve Ruby Port

Like Ruby Port, Reserve Port is fruit forward. It is a blend of vintages, averaging 5-7 years and spends more time in cask, resulting in a more structured wine.

Late Bottled Vintage Port

Also called LBV, Late Bottled Vintage Ports are made with grapes from a single vintage and is aged 4-6 years in oak before being bottled and released. The vintage will be written on the label. LBV Ports can be Unfiltered (which will be written on the label) or Filtered. Unfiltered LBV Ports can be aged up to 10 years before opening and should be decanted when opened as there will be sediment in the wine. Unfiltered LBV Ports can last 1-2 weeks after opening. Filtered (which is not typically noted on the label) LBV Ports are not meant to be aged and can last for 7-10 days after being opened.

Single Quinta Vintage Port

Known as SQVPs, this style of Port uses grapes from one estate (quinta) and comes from a single vintage. SVQPs can produce a vintage any year and tend to be less expensive than Vintage Ports. These Ports can be aged 4-5 years before drinking.

Vintage Port

Vintage Ports are only produced three times per decade in what are considered the very best years and are considered the best of the best. Port Declarations happen only when they believe that there are enough of the best grapes to bottle from the single harvest. By law, Vintage Ports must be bottled between the second and third year after harvest. Vintage Ports are stored in neutral oaks before bottling and are then bottled unfined and unfiltered. Declared Vintage Ports can age thirty or more years (some say, up to 100 years.)

2011 vintage was recently declared, making it the first declared Vintage Port for this decade. Previous declared vintages are 2007, 2003, 2000, 1997 and 1994. It is believed that the 2011 vintage is the best one in the last twenty years resulting in beautifully balanced, elegant wines with great acidity. While the 2011 Vintage Port will cost anywhere from $100 and higher, they have great aging potential and are just starting to appear at your local retailer.

Suggested Vintage Port Pairings: Nuts (almonds, walnuts), Stinky Cheeses (Blue and Stilton), dark chocolate and creamy desserts.

Graham's 1966 Vintage Port | Foodable WebTV Network

Tawny Port

Tawny Port is Ruby Port that spends time in large oak casks to soften the flavors. While aging, oxygen gets into the casks. As a result, the Port oxidizes and the color changes to a “tawny” (reddish-orange) color. Slightly sweeter in taste, Tawny ports have notes of nuttiness, caramelized figs, dates and prunes. Tawny Ports are ready to drink when purchased and once open, Tawny Ports can last up to a month.

There are three styles of Tawny Ports:

Colheita Port

Colheita, pronounced Col-yate-a, means “harvest”. Colheitas are Tawny Ports made from grapes from the same vintage and are aged in small used oak barrels.

Crusted Port

Crusted Port is an unfiltered tawny that needs to be decanted due to the sediment, or “crust”, that forms.

Indicated Age Tawny Port

Aged Tawny Ports are 10 years old, 20 years old, 30 years old or over 40 years old. These ports are blends of many years. Each producer has a “house style” (like Non-Vintage Champagne), so that no matter when you open a bottle, you will have the same flavor profile.

Suggested Tawny Port Pairings: Aged cheddar cheese, chocolate, apple or pear pie, cheesecake, tiramisu, crème caramel, dried fruit (apricots), pumpkin or pecan pie.

There is so much to explore when it comes to Port. From the styles to the Port Houses, it is a vast category that can overwhelm at times.  Best suggestion is to start with a simple Ruby Port and a piece of dark chocolate. Then, try a Tawny Port with some nuts, dried fruits and cheeses. Once you understand the differences of these two styles, the intricacies within each category will be much more approachable.