A Beginner's Guide to Port Wine

The world's most famous fortified wine

pouring port wine
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Aside from being the world's most notable fortified wine, Port generously offers an interesting history and a much-needed geography lesson, all in a single glass. And there's much more to learn about this remarkable drink: the various types (i.e. Ruby, Vintage, LBV), the best bets for serving and pairing it with food, and the names of some consistent and trustworthy Port producers. You'll soon be ready to tackle your first bottle, 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, meaning it's a wine that's been blended with a small amount of a distilled spirit, usually brandy. It's often rather sweet and comes in a variety of styles ranging from youthful Ruby Port to aged Tawnies and Late-Bottled Vintage Ports and, ultimately, 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 by-product of the Brits battling France throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Essentially, the English boycotted French wine during the late 17th century as a result of continuous conflict and began sourcing their red wine from Portugal instead of France's Bordeaux, the esteemed location of England's first love, Claret.

The Brits started adding a wee bit of brandy to the Port to help sustain it during the voyage back to England. The brandy 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, and with more body and palate density than other wines. Fans of rich cheese and decadent desserts appreciate Port's pairing versatility and uncanny ability to even function as dessert itself.

What Is Port?

Portugal's Douro Valley is the key viticultural region for growing the more than 50 red and white grapes used to make Port. The most common local grapes making their way into bottles of Port are Touriga Nacional (which offers consistent structure), Touriga Franca (which adds a softer edge, with velvety tannins), and Tinta Roriz (same delicious grape as Spain's Tempranillo). The name “Port” is derived from the coastal city of Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city. Porto is strategically located at the mouth of the Douro River, where, for centuries, merchant ships loaded with casks of Port began their journey up the coastline to England.

How Port Is 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 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 in open air lagares (large stone or cement tanks) for pressing the fruit, though there is increasing use of mechanical treaders, which are fashioned after the human foot. After treading, the grape must—the fresh-pressed juice along with the seeds, stems, and skins—ferments for several days, until alcohol levels reach around 7 percent.

At this point, the young wine is fortified with brandy to bring the fermentation process to a sudden stop and to capture the new wine's youthful fruit nuances. 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 overarching balance. The young Port may then be transferred to bottles for further aging or receive additional time in a cask.

Types of Port

In broad terms, Port can be split into two distinct categories: wood aged or bottle aged. Wood-aged Ports are typically 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 Port

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. They're aged for a total of three 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

Ruby Port Producers: Cockburn, Croft, Graham's Six Grapes, Niepoort, Taylor Fladgate, Warre's

Tawny Port

A Tawny Port is a blend of older-vintage wines and displays a rich amber color. Tawnies typically fall 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 will taste nuttier and will develop the rich flavors of caramelized figs, dates, and prunes, compared with the fresh-fruit character of Ruby Port.

On the label, the age is most commonly designated as 10, 20, or 30 years. These year designations represent the average age of the 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:

  • A Colheita Port is made from grapes that were all harvested in the same year.
  • A Crusted Port is an unfiltered tawny that develops visible sediment, “crust,” and needs decanting before serving.
  • Indicated Age Tawny Ports are designated as being 10, 20, 30, or 40 years old; the number indicates the minimum average age of the wines used in the bottle.

Foods to Pair With a Tawny Port: Aged cheddar cheese, caramel apples or apple pie, dried fruit, milk or dark chocolate, cheesecake, tiramisu, and pumpkin or pecan pie

Tawny Port Producers: Cockburn, Dow, Graham's, Taylor Fladgate, Warre's

Vintage Port

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 10 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 typically to the tune of another 20 years or more! As a direct result of long-term aging, a pretty heavy layer of sediment forms, and Vintage Ports require decanting and a good bit of aeration before they're consumed.

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 (LBV) Port. This particular style of Port is made with grapes from a single vintage, but it has aged in oak only four to six years before it is bottled and released. Late-Bottled Vintage Port is exceedingly popular in the U.K.

Foods to Pair With a Vintage Port: Stilton and other blue cheeses, almonds and walnuts, chocolate and chocolate-based desserts, and puffed pastries

Vintage Port Producers: Churchill's, Cockburn, Dow, Fonseca, Graham's, Sandeman, Taylor Fladgate, Warre's

White Port

As the name implies, White Port is derived from white grape varietals and can be made in both very dry to semisweet 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 to 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 fortified wines 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.