Following on from the last two posts, let’s now look at the last major category of fortified wines: Port.
The most obvious difference between port and the previously covered fortified wine styles is that port is red. (There is a small quantity of white and even pink port made, but these are generally less significant.) This comes from various techniques purposely chosen to extract as much colour and tannin from the grapes as possible, usually within a period of 48 hours. Contrast this to regular winemaking, which may see the juice stay with the skins for up to two weeks.
This highly extracted wine is then fortified before all of the grape sugars are fermented into alcohol, creating a deeply coloured and sweet product.
So what do we need to know first?
Port is a Blended Wine
There are actually so many things one can learn about port wine and it’s production. I could write lengthy paragraphs on:
- Soil types
- Vineyard Classifications
- Weather and Climate
- Pruning and Training Systems
To the regular consumer, I’m sorry to say that most of these points are simply… irrelevant.
I do not say this lightly or out of any disrespect. But the fact is port is largely a blended wine. Port can be blended across multiple vintages, varieties and sites. Under such circumstances, is there much point in singing the praises of a particular varietal if it will only end up being lost in a mix (especially when it is not permitted to print varieties on the label)? Or discussing which years were better or worse? Or if a particular site’s soil produced better quality fruit? (There are some exceptions, which you will find below).
Again, I stress that the above viewpoint is for that of the regular consumer. Rather than bombard the newcomer with facts and figures that might scare them and turn them away from even trying such a diverse category of wine, I would rather focus on the most important points. If they personally find port to be interesting and rewarding, I hope they will discover the details for themselves.
So what is the most important aspect of port wine?
Style is King
Bottles of Port will usually have the name of the style printed on the label. When producers blend across vintages, varieties and sites, they do this with the aim of creating a very specific style of wine with a recognisable flavour and character profile. Check the label very closely for one of the following designators.
Port wine styles are divided into two very broad categories:
- Wood-matured port: Wines are left to age in barrel for many years before finally being bottles
- Bottle-matured port: Wines are blended and bottled when relatively young, and will improve with further ageing in bottle.
- Ruby Port: The most basic style, and the bread-and-butter of most Port producers. Fresh and medium-bodied, showing a deep ruby colour with straightforward fruit, some body and structure, with a moderate tannic grip. Typically a blend of young wines (2-3 years old).
- Tawny Port: A diverse category with lots of possible expressions –
- Basic: Pink rather than brown, can be achieved by blending Ruby and White Port
- Matured in Douro Valley: hotter climate ages wines faster compared to the coastal Villa Nova de Gaia
- Premium Tawny: aged longer to promote oxidative ageing-
- Tawny ports with a vintage date (Colheita)
- Tawny ports with Indicated Age (e.g. “20 Year Old Tawny”)
- Other aged tawnies: Can be over 8 years old, marketed as “Old Tawny” or sold under brand with no indication (e.g. Sandeman’s “Imperial Aged Reserve Tawny” is around 8 years old)
It’s not uncommon to see cheap Ruby and Tawny Ports together at the same price. Cheaper Tawny is often made from lighter wines blended with white port to make it pink. Many wines will spend the summer in the Douro Valley to “cook” the wine in ambient heat (similar to Madeira). Wines like this will show a brown tinge but lack the freshness and vibrancy of young port.
- Premium (Reserve) Ruby: Blended with components from better-rated vineyards. Matured longer (4-6 years). Usually fuller-bodied and more complex. Marketed by brands differently:
- Old Ruby
- Special Reserve (Cockburns)
- First Estate (Taylors)
- Fonseca Bin 27
- Graham’s Six Grapes
- Warre’s Warrior
- Late Bottled Vintage (LBV): From a single vintage, with components sourced from better vineyards. Matured in large containers (to prevent over-oxidation) for 4-6 years before bottling, which gives this style it’s name. Fined, filtered and cold-stabilised before bottling (so decanting is not required). This was a highly successful category in the 1960’s-1970’s.
- Ports with Indicated Age: These are blended wines with increasing complexity. Components are selected from the finest parts that remain after producing Vintage or Single Quinta blends (coming up below). The style is very similar to Tawny, even though it is not labelled as such (similar to Tawny with Indicated Age, above). Long cask ageing and frequent racking causes a big change in colour. When shown, it is the average age of the blends that is indicated. The following indications are authorised-
- 10 Years Old
- 20 Years Old
- 30 Years Old
- More than 40 Years Old
- Colheita (Port with a date of harvest): From a single vintage, matured in cask, not bottled until at least 8 years later (can be exceeded). This is effectively a vintage Tawny, although it can legally be bottled younger than a 10 Year Old Tawny with Indicated Age. These do not improve after bottling, but because of the lengthy oxidative ageing it is not as quick to deteriorate in the glass. This is a Portuguese speciality that has only recently been exported to the UK.
Thankfully there are fewer categories of bottle-matured ports to trawl through than wood-matured styles. As the name suggests, most of the maturation happens in bottle, although the process begins in cask, as will all categories of port.
- Vintage Port: This will be the flagship style of any port producer. Made only in the best years, which is up to the individual shippers to declare (typically 3-4 vintages declared every decade). Has tremendous ageing potential, up to 30 years or longer, developing aromas of toast (chocolate, cocoa, coffee, cigar box) and spices (cinnamon, pepper). Vintage port will throw a heavy deposit when mature, so decanting prior to serving is a must. In the UK, it was customary to buy and put aside an amount of Vintage port when a child is born, to be drunk when both they and the wine reach adulthood.
- Single Quinta Vintage: Can be considered a sub-category of Vintage Port. In years where no vintage is declared, the fruit from a shipper’s top-class vineyards (quintas) may be judged to be of high enough quality to stand as a wine of their own, whereas a Vintage Port will be a blend across all of a shipper’s vineyard holdings. In years where a full vintage is declared, these top-class quintas would serve as a backbone to blends for Vintage Ports.
- Traditional Late-Bottled Vintage: a rare category, these wines are made from good (but undeclared) vintages. While they fit under the category of bottle-matured port, they must spend at least 4 years in wood (longer than Vintage Port) before being bottled. This is done without filtration or treatment, so decanting will be necessary as it ages (usually good for another 4-6 years). Some differences between Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV) and Traditional Late-Bottled Vintage (TLBV):
- LBV made in lesser years, ready for immediate consumption
- TLBV made in better years, required some ageing before drinking
- TLBV usually less full-bodied than LBV
- Crusted Port: This is usually blended across several vintages, the oldest being 4 years old. Essentially this will be a high-quality Ruby Port. It is not stabilised or filtered, so can age a little (3-4 years), with decanting required as sediment is formed. The style is closer to Vintage Port than LBV or Ruby, so can be excellent value, expressing a pure and concentrated wine. These wines are released after 3 years in the bottle, by which time it is already approachable.
As you can see, there are many different styles and expressions of Port to cater to every taste and preference. With so much focus on still wine in our popular and mainstream culture, Port (as well as Sherry and Madeira) may prove to be a source of value, given it’s diversity and expressiveness.
This article will serve as a checkpoint to my foray into fortified wines. I will be forever grateful for being enlightened about this category, and am looking forward to exploring more of them in the future.
I am happy to report that I received a passing grade on my fortified wine examination. Since then I have also learned about spirits (earning a passing grade here also) and sparkling wines (results pending).
I have now embarked upon the monumental task of learning about still wines, which of course this blog has been focussing on since day one. I can no longer approach wine in a general, blasé manner; regions, climate, grapes, laws… every single detail will have to studied and internalised over the rest of this year. It’s an intimidating yet exciting challenge.
As a bonus, I will have much more material to write about in future articles. I hope you will learn as much as I do as I share my experiences here with you.