All About Port Wine

British Port Wine Styles
Elaine Lemm

Though not produced in the UK, Port is regarded historically as a thoroughly British drink. Many of the leading brands were initially British owned, and some major producers still are. Surprising for a country that has embraced drinking Port since the 17th century, is that most Brits still only buy one or two bottles a year–usually at Christmas.

facts about port wine
Illustration: Elnora Turner. © The Spruce, 2019

Where Port Comes From

The wine comes from the spectacular terraced hillsides of the Douro Valley in Portugal and takes its name from Oporto which lies at the mouth of the Douro river. The bustling suburb of Vila Nova de Gaia lies opposite Oporto on the steep south bank of the river and is the real home to Port. Gaia is dominated by the Port wine lodges, with over fifty wine companies based in its narrow, twisting streets. Here, the aging and blending of most of the world's supply of Port wine take place.

History of Port Wine

No one knows precisely when the Port, as we know it, appeared. One story is a wine merchant in Liverpool, in 1678, sent his sons to Portugal to find a wine source. In the Douro Valley, they came to a monastery in Lamego. The abbot was adding brandy to the wine during rather than after fermentation producing a port-type wine. In any event, sometime during the end of the 1600's or beginning of the 1700's, someone came up with the idea of stopping the fermentation with brandy while the wine was still sweet, fruity, and strong.

Port and Food

  • Port is traditionally consumed as an accompaniment to cheeses, with desserts or as a digestif. It is, however, much more versatile. Consider it like any other wine when matching with food.
  • A Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV) or a 10-year Tawny with ‘gamey’ dishes, such as venison, buffalo, pheasant, and partridge. Chill down a 20-Year Old Tawny Porto with Foie Gras and are also good with any desserts containing nuts and dried fruits. A heavenly match is LBV with chocolate and desserts based on strawberries, raspberries, cherries, and currants, with Christmas cake, or with a mince pie, it is delicious.
  • The best and most classic combination is Vintage Port served with a good, quality Stilton but also consider blue cheese or a Cheddar, Gloucester or aged crumbly Parmesan. No Christmas cheeseboard will ever work without a bottle of Port beside it. Walnuts, chestnuts, cashews, and hazelnuts all bring out the best in port.
  • Port can also be a dessert on its own with a small bowl of nuts or as a digestif after dinner. It is not, however, a wine for fast drinking. It demands a leisurely pace, contemplative sips and the company of good friends.

Styles of Port Wine

  • White: Lovely served in a tall glass with crushed ice, tonic water, a sprig of fresh mint and a twist of lemon.
  • Ruby: Simple, young and fruity best used in cocktails, mixers or for cooking.
  • Tawny: Barrel/cask-aged ruby port. The aging causes the color to change from purple to tawny brown. Aged tawny Can be aged for 10, 20, 30 or 40 years.
  • Colheita: Aged tawny from a single vintage.
  • LBV- Late Bottled Vintage: From a single year, bottled four to six years after harvest. Designed to be in a vintage port style but consumed much earlier because of the late bottling process.
  • Single Quinta: Made from a single estate (Quinta). Single Quinta is made the same way as a vintage port but comes from grapes originating from only one farm.
  • Crusted: A blend of different years, bottled young and developing like a vintage port.
  • Vintage: The best wine, made with the best grapes from a single harvest. Aged for only two years in wood before bottling, these wines develop slowly over an extended period (20 to 60 years) and develop heavy sediments or "crusts" that should always be decanted.

Serving Port

Treat Port as any other fine wine. Store at 55 to 65 F, laid on the side, so the cork does not dry out. Both wood aged and bottle aged port wines are most often served at cool room temperature (64 to 68 F). Special Reserve, Fine Tawny, and Aged Tawny Port may also be served slightly chilled in warmer weather. Place the bottle in the refrigerator for about 45 minutes to one hour to chill slightly.

Decanting Port

A vintage port needs decanting. Before opening, the port should be stood upright for at least 24 hours to allow time for the sediment to settle on the bottom. Remove the cork carefully; old corks inevitably break up. If this should happen, strain the wine while decanting. Decanting the port is not difficult. It just needs a steady hand and a good eye. Pour the wine in one continuous stream into a decanter. When the sediment begins to appear in the neck of the bottle, stop pouring and discard the rest of the port.

The Ideal Glass for Port

The ideal glass to taste and indeed serve Port wines in needs to maximize the tasting and drinking experience. Glasses with large openings at the top allow too much air into the glass and, like the original Port flute, heighten the alcohol and lose the fruit components. Glasses with narrow rims don't allow enough air into the glass and need much swirling and shaking to get any bouquet. The traditional port glass is slightly smaller than a standard white wine glass, holding about 5 or 6 ounces. It is best to use a tulip-shaped glass with a U-shaped bowl for proper tasting and appreciation of the wine.