Aside from being the world's most notable fortified wine, Port generously offers a remarkable history and much-needed geography lesson, all in a single glass. To understand Port, it's mission critical to know a bit of its compelling history, along with what it is and how it's fortified.
Snagging a basic knowledge of the various types of Port (i.e. Ruby, Vintage, LBV) and best bets for serving and pairing it with food only add to a stellar Port experience.
Add in a few consistent and trustworthy Port producers to the knowledge base and you are armed and ready to tackle a bottle of the world's most famous fortified wine, one delicious sip at a time.
The History of Port
Made for centuries in the rugged region of northwest Portugal's Douro Valley, Port is a fortified wine that leans heavily on the sweeter spectrum and comes in a variety of styles ranging from youthful Ruby Port to aged Tawnies, and Late-Bottled Vintage Ports down to the distinguished character (and pricing) of Vintage Port.
Port wine, though typically associated with Portugal, really owes at least part of its invention to England as a direct (and delicious) by-product of the Brits battling France through the 17th and 18th centuries. Essentially, the English boycotted French wine in the late 17th century as a result of continuous conflict and began sourcing their red wine from Portugal, just around the bend from Bordeaux (the esteemed producer of England's first love, Claret).
They started adding a wee bit of brandy to the still wine to help sustain it during the voyage back to England. This brandy addition served to give the fragile still wine the fortitude to make the long trip on a rocking boat without spoiling, but it also made the wine considerably sweeter when it was added early enough to halt fermentation and leave residual sugar levels on the higher end.
As a result, Ports have a reputation for being higher in alcohol, noticeably sweeter, with more body and palate density than other still wines. Fans of rich cheese and decadent desserts appreciate Ports pairing versatility and uncanny ability to even function as dessert itself.
What Is Port
Portugal's Douro Valley, situated in the country's northwest corner, is the key viticultural region for growing more than 50 different local red and white grapes used for making Port. The most common local grapes making their way into bottles of Port are Touriga Nacional (offering consistent structure), Touriga Franca (adds a softer edge with velvety tannins), and Touriga Roriz (same delicious grape as Spain's Tempranillo). While the majority of Port is made from red wine grapes, there is a lesser-known category known as "White Port," that as the name implies, is made from white wine grapes. The name “Port” is derived from the coastal city of Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city, strategically located at the mouth of the Douro River, where for centuries merchant ships loaded with casks of Port began their journey back up the coastline to England.
How Is Port Made
Port starts off similar to other still wines as far as the production process goes.
Grapes are harvested in the fall after a season of significant struggle in low nutrient, dry schist soil conditions in the patchwork of Douro Valley vineyards.
Next, the grapes are pressed to extract the juice and initiate fermentation. Many Port producers still embrace traditional foot-treading,"I love Lucy-style" in open air Lagares (large stone or cement tanks) for pressing the fruit, though recent years have seen the advent of mechanical treaders, fashioned after the human foot, gaining significant ground. After treading, the grape must, which contains all of the fresh-pressed grape juice that still has the seeds, stems, and grape skins ferment for several days until alcohol levels reach around 7%.
At this point, the young wine is fortified with brandy to bring the fermentation process to a sudden stop, while capturing the new wine's youthful fruit nuances, and preventing the grape sugars from continuing their classic conversion to alcohol.
This fortification will leave the residual sugar levels considerably higher than most still wines, typically in the 100 g/L range.
Finally, the batch of baby Port is pumped into large oak casks typically for 18 months or so of aging. At the year and a half mark, these young Port wines are blended with other lots of Port wine to find complementary components that will ultimately deliver a delicious wine with well-defined fruit, friendly palate appeal, and over-arching balance. At this point, the young Port may be transferred to bottles for further aging or continue time in a cask depending on the style and range of Port production in the process.
Types of Port
In broad terms, Port can be split into two distinct categories: Wood Aged or Bottle Aged. Wood-aged Ports are typically ready for early enjoyment, designed to be consumed while still relatively young. The bottle-aged beauties, like Vintage Port, are built to go the distance, often requiring another decade or two to reach full maturity.
Ruby Ports, so named for their distinct ruby color, are young, approachable wines with fresh, fruit-filled aromas and an equally nimble palate presence. These wines are wallet-friendly, entry-level Ports, made from a mix of both grapes and vintages, aged for a total of 3 years and are quite popular in U.S. markets. Ruby Ports are intended to be consumed young and enjoy a remarkable food-pairing versatility.
Foods to Pair with a Ruby Port: Blue cheese, milk chocolate, and berry-based desserts.
A Tawny Port is a blend of older vintage wines, displaying a rich amber color. Tawnies typically lie on the slightly sweeter side of the spectrum. As a tawny port spends more time in oak, its color starts to fade from ruby red to more ruby-orange or a "brick red," often reaching a deep amber or mahogany color by the time it's matured. As the aging process continues, a Tawny's taste will become nuttier and the flavors develop the rich flavors of caramelized figs, dates and prunes compared to the fresh fruit factors found in a Ruby Port.
On the label, the age is most commonly designated as 10, 20, or 30 years. These year designations are the average compilation of various vintages used in the Tawny Port blend, not the exact years the wine has been aged as a whole. Tawny Ports come in three different styles: Colheita, Crusted or Indicated Age. A Colheita Port is considered a Tawny Port that is made from grapes that all share the same vintage year. While a Crusted Port is an unfiltered tawny that develops visible sediment, “crust,” and needs decanting before serving. Tawny Ports that are made from grape blends that are older in average age are referred to as Indicated Age Tawny Port.
Foods to Pair with a Tawny Port: Aged cheddar cheese, caramel apples or apple pie, dried fruit, milk or dark chocolate, cheesecake, tiramisu, pumpkin or pecan pie.
Tawny Port Producers: Cockburn's 20 years, Dow's 10 Year, Graham's 20 Year, Taylor Fladgate's 10 Year, Warre's Otima 10 Year
A Vintage Port is a Port that is made of blended grapes, usually from various vineyards, which are all from the same vintage year. Historically, Vintage Ports are only declared every three out of ten years on average. The best grapes, from the best vineyards in the best years, come together to create a quality Vintage Port. These Ports typically spend about 6 months in oak and then go unfiltered into a bottle for further aging. This extended aging is typical to the tune of another 20 years or more! As a direct result of long-term aging, a pretty heavy layer of sediment forms that require decanting and a good bit of aeration to take place prior to consumption. If Ruby Ports are the entry-level Port, then Vintage Ports represent the upper echelon both in style and cost. A classification that is common to mistake with the "Vintage Port" designation is the "Late Bottled Vintage" Port (LBV). This particular style of Port is made with grapes from a single vintage, but it has only aged 4 to 6 years in oak before it is bottled and released. Late Bottled Vintage Port is exceedingly popular in the UK today.
Foods to Pair with a Vintage Port: Blue and Stilton cheese, almonds and walnuts, chocolate and chocolate-based desserts and puffed-pastries.
Vintage Port Producers: Cockburn, Churchill, Dow, Fonseca, Graham, Sandeman, Taylor Fladgate, Warres
As the name implies, White Port is derived from white grape varietals and can be made in both the very dry to semi-sweet styles. White Port is typically fruitier on the palate and a bit fuller-bodied than other fortified white wines. Often served as an aperitif, this particular Port has found favor as a “gin” replacement when served as a “Port and Tonic” on the rocks.
Storing and Serving Port
Vintage Ports should be stored on their sides, in a dark, cool environment like their still wine counterparts. Ruby and Tawny Ports are ready to drink once released and can either be stored upright or on their sides. Once opened Ports can last from a day (Vintage Port) to several weeks for Ruby Ports and several months for a Tawny Port. When serving Port, try to keep the serving temperature right around 60-65 degrees. Serving Port wine with a slight chill will lift the aromatics and focus the innate fruit and flavor components.
Today, various renditions of Port are made outside of Portugal in several wine-producing countries. However, these Ports are typically made from raisined grapes and often lack the depth and remarkable acidity that comes with the original. Authentic Portuguese Port is designated as “Porto” on the bottle’s label.