What Is Port Wine?

A Guide to Buying and Drinking Port Wine

pouring port wine
In This Article

Port is a popular fortified wine from Portugal with a rich history. The sweet wine is served the world over as a digestif and dessert wine and is made using a variety of grapes in two major styles: ruby and tawny. Port can exhibit flavors of caramel, berries, chocolate, and spice and is high in alcohol thanks to the addition of brandy. The name “port” is derived from the coastal city of Porto, and authentic port is only produced in the Douro Valley.

Fast Facts

  • Regions: Douro Valley
  • Origin: Douro Valley, Portugal
  • Sweetness: Very sweet to sweet
  • Color: Gold to deep red
  • ABV: 20% 

Taste and Flavor Profile

Port is a sweet wine, full-bodied, and typically lacking in acidity, although lighter-hued ports have some bright acidity to balance the sweetness. You'll find aromas of dried fruit, dark fruits like plum, spice, and wood. It is typically served with or as dessert and the flavors and tannins can vary depending on the type of port:

  • Tawny: A barrel-aged red wine port with flavors of caramel, spice, hazelnuts, and dried fruit, tawny ports are also classified based on their vintage, typically 10, 20, 30, and 40 years.
  • White: White port is made with white wine grapes and exhibits brighter flavors like stone fruit, apple, citrus peel, and toasted nuts. Reserve white port is aged for at least seven years for a bolder, nutty taste.
  • Ruby: Ruby is a red wine port that presents flavors of berries, spice, and chocolate. Most vintages are best when aged 20 to 40 years, while more affordable options like "reserve" are meant to be enjoyed sooner.
  • Rosé: A port made with red wine grapes with flavors of red berries, rosé is sweetened with cranberry and brown sugar.
  • Vintage: A single-vintage red wine port made in the best production years, vintage port is often considered to be some of the best port and is barrel-aged aged two to four years before bottle aging. Single-quinta ports come from a single estate.
  • Colheita: Single-year vintage ports that are barrel-aged for seven years before bottling are called Colheita.
what is port
The Spruce Eats / Emilie Dunphy 

Grapes and Wine Regions

Portugal's Douro Valley is the key viticultural region for growing the more than 50 red and white wine 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). These indigenous grapes favor the dry climate and rocky soils of the Douro Valley and grow on terraced hillsides. The growing season extends through the summer with harvest typically falling in mid-September.

Port production starts off similar to other still wines. Once harvested, the grapes are pressed (often still by foot) to extract the juice and initiate fermentation. The grapes must ferment for several days until alcohol levels reach around 7 percent. The young wine is then 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, producing a sweet wine.

Frequently, the batch of young port is pumped into large oak casks, typically for 18 months or so of aging (some port is bottle-aged, skipping the barrels). At the year and a half mark, these young port wines are blended with other batches 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.

Food Pairings

Fans of rich cheese and decadent desserts appreciate port's pairing versatility and uncanny ability to even function as dessert itself. Exact pairings will vary depending on the variety of port. Tawny port pairs well with soft cheeses like brie as well as desserts like pecan pie, cheesecake, or milk chocolate. Ruby port's rich berry and chocolate flavors pair well with the same types of desserts: dark chocolate truffles, fresh raspberries, fruit cake, and aged cheeses. White port can be used as a replacement for gin to make a "port and tonic" or a "portini."

Serve three-ounce pours of port in small tulip glasses (also known as port glasses). Rosé port should be served ice cold, white port cold, tawny port cool (50–58 degrees Fahrenheit), and ruby port at cellar temperature (or about 60 degrees).

Key Producers, Brands, and Buying Tips

Port can be commonly found in wine shops, liquor stores, and even grocery stores. The quality will range greatly, with higher quality vintages available in wine shops, specialty purveyors, and online. Various renditions of port are made outside of Portugal—look for authentic Portuguese port with “Porto” on the bottle’s label. If you can't find port, look for a similar quality and vintage sweet sherry.

Vintage ports should be stored on their sides, in a dark, cool environment like a cellar. Let the bottle sit upright for 24 hours before serving and, if possible, decant. Once opened, young ports will last a few days while aged, vintage ruby or tawny ports will last for weeks.

When shopping for port, look for these quality producers:

  • Quinta das Carvalhas
  • Van Zellers
  • Warre's
  • W. & J. Graham's
  • Smith Woodhouse
  • Cockburn
  • Dow's
  • Cockburn