All You Need to Know About Port – Part 2

Text and Photos by John Szabo MS

This feature was commissioned by the Port and Douro Wines Institute.

As we wind towards holiday season and the short days and long, cool nights of winter, thoughts turn to comfort. And one of the classic “comfort foods” of the wine world is surely Port, that inimitable fortified wine from Portugal’s Douro Valley, with centuries-old winemaking traditions and one of the world’s first great export successes. Together with the Port and Douro Wines Institute, we’ve put together a two-part guide to everything you ever wanted to know about this singular region and the glorious multiplicity of wine styles produced therein. Part I is a look at the region itself, the spectacular topography and vineyard architecture that’s really unlike anywhere else, and the physical conditions that make Port unique. Part II covers the basics of winemaking, and most importantly, provides a describes the various styles of Port, and practical advice on which should age, which can be drunk on release, and how to enjoy them and with which foods.  And for those who want to skip straight to the goods, jump to my Port Wine Buyer’s Guide, fruit of a recent tasting at WineAlign headquarters with the entire crü of over 40 wines, all currently in market. Need a heart-warming value, special holiday gift, or bottle to commemorate the birth of a child or celebrate a future marriage? We’ve got you covered.

Part II: Port Winemaking & Styles

The Douro Valley is home to a dazzling array of more than 115 grape varieties authorized for the production of Port. Portugal, was, after all, what’s called a refuge for vitis vinifera – wild grapevines – during the last ice age, so the Iberian Peninsula, and especially Portugal, is particularly rich in native varieties that are well-adapted to local conditions.

The oldest vineyards in the Douro on those ancient socalcos – and there are many pre-phylloxera vines still producing today – are planted to a mix of dozens of different varieties, one of the reasons why grape varieties almost never appear on a label of Port wine. I once asked Miguel Roquette of Quinta do Crasto which varieties his old vine port was composed of. He replied quite sincerely, “I don’t know. There are too many to count.” The vineyard, planted by his grandfather, reflects the prevailing wisdom of the time, which was to plant a huge mix of grapes to hedge bets against variable vintage conditions as well as to add complexity to the finished wines – a symphony rather than a solo performance. And while most modern vineyards are planted in mono-varietal fashion to a handful of grapes that have proven their individual worth over time, such as Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Amarela, and Sousão for reds, and Códega, Malvasia Fina, Rabigato, Moscatel Galego Branco, Gouveio, and Viozinho for whites, there is a movement from some producers to return to mixed plantings.

In any case, Port is always made from a blend of varieties, either a field blend or a blend made in the cellar from different varieties and parcels, each adding complementary and variable elements of aroma, structure, acidity, ageing potential and elegance.

Another old tradition that refuses to die, and indeed is experiencing a bit of a revival, is foot-treading grapes in shallow stone lagars (troughs) before and during the first stages of fermentation. This was once the only way to make port, and while robotic treading tanks have been developed and are in use, most winemakers will tell you that there’s nothing quite like human-powered treading to extract as much as possible in the short period of time that Port wine stays in contact with grapes skins, unusually only a matter of days as opposed to up to several weeks for certain types of red table wine. Advantages of the human foot over robotic ‘legs’ include the ability to crush grapes while leaving the seeds intact, which would otherwise lead to an overly astringent texture and bitter tastes in the finished wine, as well as the ability to sense pockets of cooler and warmer juice, and mix and homogenize the mass. It’s an integral feature of harvest time in the Douro Valley and is often accompanied by music or the rhythmic tapping of the cellarmaster.

Foot treading in a lagar or Douro harvest party? (Photo by John Szabo)

Wines are allowed to partially ferment until the desired amount of residual sugar is reached. This varies from house to house and brand to brand, with some drier and some sweeter, though all ports have some measure of sugar, usually between about 100 and 120 grams per liter. Fermentation is then brought to a halt with the addition of high-strength grape spirit, killing the yeasts and preventing any further conversion of sugar into alcohol. The most frequently used proportions for this are one-part grape spirit to four parts of wine, bring the total alcohol by volume to between 19% and 22%.

Families of Port

It’s what happens next that will determine the specific style of port that will be produced, and here’s where it gets a little complicated. The legacy of centuries of unregulated wine production, with each house following its own path, has led to a proliferation of ageing regimes and Port styles. The result is an array of wines with distinctly different profiles and names, aged for different lengths of time and in a wide array of vessels of various sizes and materials like concrete, stainless steel and wood (mostly oak). The current labelling laws are an attempt to codify these varying practices, retrofitted as it were in an attempt to sort out the incredible diversity. In 1880 Henry Vizetelly, the great nineteenth century wine writer and authority on Port wrote, ‘… it has been said that there are as many styles of Port wine as shades of ribbon in a haberdasher’s shop.’

Broadly speaking, however, and to keep things simple, all Ports fall in to one of two categories: Port that will spend most of its life developing in bottle, the so-called “bottle-aged Ports” and Ports that spend most of their lives developing in wooden casks called pipes, usually somewhere between 500 and 600l capacity, or lager wooden vats, the “wood-aged Ports”. Another even simpler way of looking at it is Port that is ready to drink on release (mostly the wood-aged ports), and those that would benefit from further cellaring (mostly bottle-aged Ports). An easy way to distinguish between the two main families is the closure used on the bottle: Ports intended for further cellaring will have a long natural cork that requires a corkscrew to remove, while those deemed ready to enjoy will be closed with a short bar cap removeable by hand.

Bar caps (Photo by Sarah Goddard)

Wood-Aged and Ready to Drink Port

Tawny

Historically, the majority of grapes grown in the Douro Valley were red, which is still the case today. Wines were invariably transported in wooden casks, a great many of which were exported by sea, (especially to England). Thus, Ports arrived at the end consumer after having spent long periods in cask. The exposure to oxygen that wine experiences in casks would cause the initially deep purple colour to turn garnet-reddish-brown, and the wine would develop accentuated nutty-oxidative flavours. The aromatic complexity and delicate flavours of these wines born of prolonged oxidation became greatly appreciated, and the first great family of Port was born – Tawny – although this is not what it was first called. The name of this category came later from the English “tawny”, a descriptive term for the rich golden brown colour of the wine.

In tawny Ports the vibrant red and black fruit of a young wine is slowly replaced by dried fruit character, toast and caramel, roasted nuts and baking spice. The texture becomes smoother, tannins soften and combine with colour pigments, eventually precipitating and forming a sediment. The wine becomes less deeply coloured and more golden, with a velvety mouthfeel. These inevitable reactions happen more quickly in an oxidative environment (wooden cask) than they do in a fully closed environment (i.e. a bottle), which makes wood-aged Ports appear to age more rapidly than bottle-aged Ports.

(Photo by Sarah Goddard)

There are various sub-categories of Tawny Port, depending on the specific origins of the grapes and, of course, on how long the wines are aged in wood. The most basic category is called simple Tawny; these are relatively young wines of approximately three years of ageing in wood before bottling. They are selected from wines already relatively pale in colour and light and smooth, ready to drink.

Moving up in terms of quality and age, the next category is Reserve Tawny. These wines are aged six or seven years in cask, are golden-brown in colour with a faint remaining glimmer of red, and deliver aromas of red fruits completed with dried fruits and spices. They are more full-bodied and persistent than standard Tawnies, without the obvious tannins that would make them astringent.

89 Niepoort Tawny Port ($17.95) Le Sommelier Inc.

88 Ferreira Dona Antonia Reserva Tawny Port ($19.75) Authentic Wines & Spirits

Aged-Indicated Tawnies

Next are Tawnies with an Indication of Age: 10 Years, 20 Years, 30 Years and 40 Years old. These are blended wines from multiple vintages whose characteristics correspond to what a wine of the indicated age would taste like. To be clear, the age indication is neither the actual age of the wine nor the average age, but rather that the wine “displays the characteristics of a wine that has been aged for the indicated period of time”. If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is, but again, we’re retrofitting official categories onto age-old practices.

In practice, the older the wine, the more golden and the less red in colour; some very old wines have greenish hues around the edge. The aromas are increasingly intense and concentrated as water evaporates during the ageing period, and grow progressively less fresh and fruity, and more towards the family of dried fruits (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts) with toast, caramel and spices. Very old Tawnies, wines over 30 years old, begin to develop a compound called sotolone, technically a lactone, which is an extremely powerful aromatic compound that gives wines a typical smell of maple syrup, caramel, and burnt sugar at lower concentration, and fenugreek or curry at high concentrations.

95 Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny Port ($69.95) Sylvestre Wines & Spirits

94 Taylor Fladgate 10 Year Old Tawny Port ($35.95) Sylvestre Wines & Spirits

94 Burmester 10 Year Old Tawny Port ($29.95) Eurovintage Wines & Spirits

93 C. Da Silva Dalva 10 Year Old Tawny Port ($39.95) The Case For Wine

91 Graham’s 10 Year Old Tawny Port ($30.00) Mark Anthony Wines & Spirits

91 Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny Port (500ml) ($40.00) Mark Anthony Wines & Spirits

90 Warre’s Otima 10 Year Old Port (500ml) ($19.00) Dionysus Wines & Spirits Ltd.

Colheita

When wine is produced from grapes of a single vintage, it is called Colheita (meaning literally “harvest”). Legally Colheita Ports must spend at least seven years ageing in wood, although in practice they are usually aged for much longer, some rare examples are bottled after up to a century.

93 Poças Colheita Port 2003 “Aged in Cask” ($45.95) MAJESTIC WINE CELLARS

93 Dalva Colheita Port 1995 ($51.95) The Case For Wine

Ruby

Now we come to a sort of hybrid family of Ports that are much deeper in colour, fruitier, fresher and generally more tannic than the Tawnies, aged in wood but for a relatively short period, and generally ready to drink on release, though some can improve with additional bottle age. The entry point is Ruby Port, blended from several lots of wine with intense (ruby) colour and exuberant fruity aromas. These are aged for a relatively short time in large oak vats, usually two or three years. They are full bodied, fruity and fiery, ready to be drunk as soon as they are bottled. Reserve Ruby is also a blended wine, but whose characteristics are more concentrated at every level and are aged in vat for slightly longer.

89 Taylor Fladgate First Estate Reserve Port ($17.55) Sylvestre Wines & Spirits

88 Fonseca Bin No. 27 Reserve Port ($16.95) Family Wine Merchants

Late-Bottled Vintage

Next up the ladder are the Late Bottle Vintage Ports or colloquially, “LBVs”. Unlike Ruby and Tawny ports, and like Colheitas, these are wines from a single harvest (vintage), but one that is not deemed suitable to be used for Vintage Port (see below). By law LBVs must be bottled between the fourth and sixth year after harvest. They are usually kept in larger wooden vats that limit oxidation and preserve the colour, fruits and tannins of young wines; some are even aged in stainless steel tanks until bottling to retain a maximum of fresh, fruity character.

Although LBVs come in a wide spectrum of complexity and sophistication, they share the general characteristics of a youthful, deep red colour and intense fruity flavours like cherry, blackberry and blackcurrant and floral notes (violets, roses). They’ll give you a sense of the character of Vintage Port, but at a more affordable price, and reflect the vintage conditions to a degree.

Most LBVs can be enjoyed on release, though many will also benefit from some additional time in bottle, up to 5 or 10 years or more. Check the closure on the bottle – if it’s a long natural cork, you can be sure the producer was confident of the wine’s ability to age. Another indication is whether the wine was bottle filtered or unfiltered; unfiltered wines usually state so on the label, and are intended for further bottle ageing. Like Vintage Port, they will need decanting to remove the sediment.

92 Warre’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 2007 ($36.95) Dionysus Wines & Spirits Ltd.

91 Dalva Late Bottled Vintage Porto “Bottle Matured” 2002 ($40.20) The Case For Wine

90 Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Vintage Port 2015 ($18.90) Sylvestre Wines & Spirits

White Ports

Though relatively rare compared to red Ports, White Ports (made from white grapes), nevertheless come in a broad range of styles and levels of sweetness. The more basic examples, like Rubies, are usually aged for two or three years in large vats or stainless steel and range from extra dry, to dry, semi-sweet, sweet, very sweet, and Lágrima, in increasing order of sweetness. These are fresh and fruity wines, the white equivalents of Ruby Ports.

The most complex white Ports are aged, like Tawnies, in wood for longer periods. The official categories, with increasing ageing in cask are: Reserve White, aged in wood for approximately seven years, and White Port with an Indication of Age: 10 Years, 20 Years, 30 Years and 40 Years old. White Colheita Ports also exist but are exceedingly rare. Contrary to red Ports which lighten in colour with age, oxidation of White Port deepens the colour turning golden-topaz, while flavours follow a similar pattern of development towards dried fruit and nuts.

Bottle-Aged and Cellar Worthy Ports

Vintage Port

And now to the bottled-aged Ports, beginning with surely the most famous of all Ports, Vintage Port, even though it represents a tiny percentage of total Port production. Vintage Ports are only produced in years when weather conditions yield fruit of exceptional quality that can be transformed into some of the longest-lived wines on the planet. 1765 was the first Vintage to appear in a Christie’s auction catalogue. Historically, Vintage Ports were only produced occasionally, 2-3 times per decade, but with advances in viticulture and in winemaking, the regularity of Vintage Port production has increased – including a recent string of vintages from 2015-2018.

Port Tasting (Photo by Sarah Goddard)

When a producer wishes to bottle a Vintage Port, announcing their intention to sell an exceptional quality Port from a single year (what’s known as “declaring a Vintage”), samples must be sent to the Port and Douro Wines Institute for approval via a tasting panel. If a sufficient score is achieved, the producer is permitted to declare the vintage and bottle the Port.  When more than half of the Port producers, who are members of the Confraria do Vinho do Porto (the “Brotherhood of Port Wine”, which includes the majority of the Douro’s producers), declare a Vintage, the Brotherhood declares the Confraria Vintage, or what’s known as a “generally declared vintage year” – a festive and merry occasion in the Douro.

No producer is obliged to produce a Vintage Port even in a generally declared year; it is up to each company individually. Similarly, if a producer manages to make an exceptional Port in a year in which most other producers were not able to do so, that producer may still declare and bottle a Vintage Port, though it won’t be listed among the Confraria’s generally declared vintages.

Powerful, young Vintage Port spends between two and three years in wood before bottling, where the majority of the wine’s development will take place. From the moment they are bottled, they’re deep ruby-purple-red in colour, with intense black fruit aromas and floral and herbal nuances, and massive structure. Although some enjoy drinking young Vintages, they often take many years, a decade or more, to reach an ideal level of complexity and more appealingly supple texture. A popular tradition is to lay down a bottle of Vintage Port to commemorate the year a child is born, storing it carefully until it is opened years later on a special occasion, like the child’s 21st birthday or marriage. The finest may improve and live for many decades, often outliving their creators. Vintage Port should be decanted to remove the sediment that forms after many years of ageing in bottle.

96 Dow’s Vintage Port 2017 ($129.00) Churchill Cellars Ltd.

96 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port 2018 (375ml) ($81.00) Sylvestre Wines & Spirits

96 Croft Vintage Port 2016 (375ml) ($79.00) Sylvestre Wines & Spirits

94 Fonseca Guimaraens Vintage Port 2018 (375ml) ($157.95) Family Wine Merchants

92 Delaforce Vintage Port 2007 ($53.75) BREAKTHRU BEVERAGE CANADA INC.

91 Quinta Das Carvalhas Vintage Port 2015 ($75.00) N/A

 

Crusted Ports and Single Quinta Vintage Ports

Lastly, there are two other bottle-aged styles to consider. Crusted Port is a blend of two or more vintages, but which shares many of the characteristics of a Vintage Port – namely power and intensity – and is built to age, often up to a few decades. These Ports will also throw sediment, like Vintage Port, hence the term “crusted”, and need to be decanted before serving.

And just to throw one more wrinkle into the fold, Single Quinta Ports are Ports from a single estate (“quinta” means estate or farm) and a single harvest. They are produced like a Vintage Port with a short, two-to-three year ageing period in wood before bottling, but are made in a year that has not been generally declared as a Vintage year. These are often of exceptional quality, from a producer’s best vineyard, and being generally less expensive than Vintage Port, also frequently superb value. The finest can age for several decades, though don’t need as long in the cellar as a proper Vintage Port. They need decanting.

92 Niepoort Crusted Port ($31.20) Le Sommelier


Enjoying Port

Which Port to keep and how to store it?

As discussed, not all Ports are suitable for keeping, nor need further ageing after release. The wood-aged ports are usually ready to drink on release; remember to check the cork. Bottles with a bar-top cork should be stood upright and enjoyed over the short term (though there’s no massive rush, either). Ports with a long natural cork, like all Vintage, Crusted, Single Quinta and some Late Bottled Vintage Ports, can and should be cellared; the latter for up to about 15 years, the former for many decades, and Crusted and Single Quinta somewhere in between. Like all cork-closed wines, they should be stored lying down in a cool, dark, cellar, with temperatures between 10ºC-13ºC.

Keeping Open bottles

As a rule, Port aged in wood will last considerably longer after opening than bottle-aged Ports – they are already ‘oxidized’, and therefore more stable and resistant to further oxygen exposure.

Generally speaking, Vintage port should be consumed 2 to 4 days after opening, LBVs and Crusted Ports after 5 to 10 days, Ruby/Ruby Reserve and fresh and fruity White Ports about 1 week, Tawny/Tawny Reserve and traditional (oxidative style) White Ports about 1 month, and Colheita and Tawny with an Indication of Age (10/20/30/40) up to 1 to 4 months – the older the wine, the longer it will last after opening.

Serving Temperature

Port is a fortified wine with high alcohol, so all styles are best served below room temperature to lessen the alcohol burn, but not too cold, which would suppress the amazing aromatics of a perfectly aged wine. Basic Rubies and Tawnies, for example, are best at about 12º-14º, or about 30 minutes in a refrigerator. White Ports are served slightly colder, around 6º-10º; the older the wine, the warmer the temperature. Tawny with an age indication, Colheita, LBV, Single Quinta, Crusted and Vintage Ports should be served just slightly cooler than room temperature, around 16º-18ºC or 15-20 minutes in the fridge, to allow their complex aromatics to shine.

Port and Food Pairings

Port isn’t just for fireside sipping or serving with the cheese course (though they are perfect for that). I find older Tawny ports with their highly savoury-umami character are quite amazing served with a well-aged roasted ribeye, game meats or long-simmered stews, or wild mushrooms dishes – umami + umami makes for a memorably savoury experience. The sweetness of Port does make it a perfect match with salty, blue-veined cheeses, especially bottle-aged Ports, though White Ports are also excellent with softer, bloomy rind cheeses and wood-aged ports with hard cheeses.

Sweets
With their residual sugar, Ports are also of course perfect with many sweets, just don’t go too high on the sweetness scale or the Port may taste bitter or astringent (basic idea: the wine should be as sweet, or sweeter than the dessert). Tawny and old White Port work beautifully with desserts made with sweet baking spices (i.e. cinnamon), caramel and dried fruits and nuts, such as almond tart, walnut cake, crème caramel or brulée, anything with caramelized oranges (blood orange or orange liqueur cake), or honey. Crèpes Suzette would be a classic, though any dessert with orange liqueur is usually foolproof.

The best pairings for Rubies and younger bottle aged Ports pick up on their fresher, red and black berry fruit flavours and chocolaty tones. Most desserts with, say, raspberry compote or blackberry jam work well, like a flourless chocolate cake with raspberry coulis, for example.

And lastly, a newly popular way to consume White Port is the “Portonic”, a simple combination of White Port and tonic water, with a slice of orange – it’s surprisingly refreshing on a summer afternoon!

John Szabo, MS

This feature was commissioned by the Port and Douro Wines Institute. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.