Of all the great fortified wines the world has to offer, Port is one of the most recognisable. People tend to gravitate towards Port at Christmas time but we believe it is perfect at any time of the year. But what is Port? Here we will guide you through this luscious and hedonistic wine and hopefully you will discover that Port is for life, not just for Christmas.
Although there are many styles of Port they all start their life in much the same way. The grapes are grown high up in the Douro Valley in Portugal. There are around thirty grape varieties that can be used but only a handful are commonly used, they are : Touriga Nacional, Touriga, Francesa, Tinto Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão. Once the grapes arrive in the winery they are crushed, sometimes under foot, to release their juice, tannin and colour. Because colour and tannin are so important to the Port they are constantly crushed, even once fermentation has started. After a day or two of fermentation, only about half the sugar has turned alcohol. 77% abv grape spirit is added at this point which stops the fermentation. The result is a fortified wine which is sweet, strong in flavour and alcohol. From here, how it is aged will determine the style of port it will become.
Styles of Port
Generally speaking there are two important categories of Port; Ruby and Tawny. Ruby Ports are aged with very little or no influence from oxygen so flavours are kept fresh and bright. Tawny Ports on the other hand are aged with a degree of contact with the air so aged oxidatively. Within these categories there are varying styles but they all start off life the same.
The first and simplest style of Port in the Ruby Category is simply called Ruby. Although there is no legal definition for this style it is recognised that the wines must be youthful, fruity and powerful. Most Ruby Ports will be a blend of young wines from several vintages. They are aged in large tanks, usually made from steel or cement although old wooden tanks can also be used, for two to three years. During this time they will have little, if any contact with the air so no oxidation occurs. Once they are bottled they are ready to drink and will not improve over time in the bottle.
Ruby Ports are sweet with ripe primary fruit flavours like raspberries, cherries, some spice and a big hit of alcohol. They are great as an after dinner drink with cheese or chocolate desserts.
Once known as ‘Vintage Character’ Ports , these are made in much the same way as Ruby Ports except they are aged a bit longer, usually between three and five years. These can offer great value for money as they tend to be richer and have more complexity than standard Ruby but they are still fairly inexpensive. The simple fruit flavours of Ruby can begin to change to more baked and stewed flavours as will as a bit of caramel.
Like Ruby these once bottled they are ready to drink and will not improve over time.
Probably the most popular and best value style of Port on the market, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) is made from wines all from a single year. The Port is aged in large wooden barrels for four to six years, during this time it is barely influenced by oxygen due to the large size of the barrels used as only a fraction of the wine is exposed to the air. LBVs can be bottled either filtered or unfiltered. If it is filtered the wine can be popped and poured straight away. If it is unfiltered (sometimes called Traditional LBV on the label) there will be sediment and must be decanted before serving. The trade off is the unfiltered style tends to have richer, fuller flavours.
LBVs offer great value as they tend to share similar qualities of true Vintage Port but are a fraction of the cost. Expect rich red fruit flavours with caramel and chocolate.
The most expensive and rarest style of Port is Vintage Port. Vintage ports are only made from wines of an exceptional year which occurs only about three times a decade. A Port House will use fruit taken from a selection of their very best vineyards and after fortification the port will be aged in wooden barrels for only two to three years before being bottled, unfined and unfiltered. At this stage the port is still very young, tannic and rustic so it requires a long time slowly maturing and developing in the bottle before it is ready to drink. If you buy a bottle at this young stage, don’t even think about drinking it for at least another 10 to twenty years, depending on producer. Because of this long evolution in the bottle thick sediment will develop so when you eventually come to drink it, decanting for several hours is needed.
The reward for all this time and effort is a wine unlike anything else in the wine world. It will be rich and sweet with flavours of dried fruits, caramel, molasses, spice and chocolate. Great with rich fuit puddings, dark chocolate, or ripe cheese and a good cigar.
Single Quinta Vintage Port (SQVP)
This can be a bit of a confusing style for some people. Although it is made in much the same way as a true Vintage Port there are a few subtle differences. Like Vintage Port, a Single Quinta Vintage Port is made from fruit of a single year’s harvest but they will not be the exceptional ‘vintage declared’ years but only very good years. In order to create a wine that will stand the long ageing in bottle, they must still use only the very best fruit, for this reason they take the fruit from only the Port houses very best vineyard, or Quinta. The name of the Quinta and the vintage will be named on the label, so Krohn Quinta Retiro Novo Vintage 2005 would be an SQVP, and Krohn Vintage 2003 would be a true Vintage Port. As with Vintage Port it is aged for two to three years in wood before being bottled unfiltered and unfined. Unlike Vintage Port that is sold in this young state, producers will usually hold back their SQVP until it is ready to drink, usually eight to ten years. SQVPs tend to be much cheaper than true Vintage Ports offering the port drinker the chance to try this delicious style more affordably and also discover something that is a rarity in fortified wines… terroir!
Like basic Ruby Port, Tawny Port is a blend of wines from many vintages but the main difference is in its ageing. Tawny Ports tend to be aged for longer than Ruby, usually in smaller oak barrels rather than steel or cement, to allow the wines to develop oxidative flavours and aromas. This ageing process also means that the colour changes from the bright ruby to a brownier, tawny colour. Some cheaper tawny producers bypass this ageing process and blend in a touch of White Port to a Ruby to create this colour, but they lack the nutty complex flavours that true tawnies have.
Good Tawny Port will be sweet and rich with some nutty and savoury notes to them.
Aged tawny Ports can be some of the most rewarding Ports around. Made in the same way as regular tawny ports but, as the name suggest, aged for much longer. Aged Tawnies will be labelled as 10, 20, 30, or 40 years old. As Tawnies are blended fortified wines, these will be an average age of the Ports contents.
Aged Tawnies are sweet and luscious with complexities that you will not find with Ruby ports. Nuttiness and savoury flavour increase the older the port becomes yet holding on to the rich sweetness you get in all ports.
Colheita is effectively a Vintage Tawny Port, that being all the fruit must come from a single year’s harvest. By law they must have spent at least seven years ageing in wood but in reality most spend much longer, up to forty or fifty years. The vintage will always be declared on the label as well as the bottling year so you can easily see how long it has been ageing for.
Colheita can be richer and more complex than standard Tawny Ports with ripe red fruit flavours alongside nuts and spice.
Outside of the Ruby and Tawny categories there are couple of other styles of Port worth mentioning.
As you might expect, White Port is made using white grapes. Unlike Ruby and Tawny Ports, White ports will have very little, if any, contact with the grape skins after crushing. Like all Ports, fermentation is stopped after and day or two, although some styles of White Port are fermented a bit longer to get a slightly drier style. White Port is rarely aged for any length of time, but when it is it will be for no longer than 18 months in stainless steel or cement tanks to keep it fresh, fruity flavours. White Port has gained in popularity in recent years with bartenders increasingly using it in cocktails and long drinks mixed with soda or tonic water. If the word ‘Lagrima’ is on the label, expect a much sweeter style than standard White Port.
Rosé Port is a relatively new style which was introduced to the market around 2008. It is made similarly to Ruby Port from red grapes with the main difference being that, after crushing, the grapes spend very little time in contact with its juice so releasing very little colour in tannin. The result is a much lighter, pink version of Port with a very light fruity flavour. This style has yet to really catch on, with only a handful of producers making it.
So that’s our quick guide to Port. If you like rich, sweet and powerful fortified wines, it is worth trying the different styles Port has to offer. With so many variations why wait until Christmas to try them, get stuck in all year round.
You can find our full range of Ports online here!