Port falls in the classification of fortified wines, which means that it is wine that has had hard alcohol added to it. True port must be made in the Douro Valley of Portugal, though many wines are made in the style of port in countries all over the world. The US generally has more lax labeling laws with such things (as in the case of champagne,) and any wine made in the style of port may be labeled “port.” Ports actually from Portugal will likely be labeled as “porto,” “Oporto,” or “Vinho de Porto.”
Though made in Portugal, the “inventors” and early manufacturers of port were actually British. Importers of Portuguese wine ran into quality issues as the wine often didn't hold up very well in its maritime journey back to Britain. In order to combat the weird spoilage issues they were having, they began adding brandy to the wine and port was born. Through history, it has traditionally been an elite, male consumed drink (think about movies and TV shows with proper British ladies retiring to their own parlor after dinner while men sat around and smoked cigars and drank port. That ain’t so far from the truth.)
In the production of port, grapes are fermented as usual, but neutral alcohol is added relatively early in fermentation (traditionally this was brandy, but it isn't the same as today’s commercial brandy.) Generally about one part alcohol is added to four parts wine. The alcohol stops fermentation and leaves a product with about 10% residual sugar and 20% alcohol. (For comparison, most dry table wines have somewhere between 0.02%-0.04% residual sugar and between 11 and 15% alcohol.) Now, the special part of port comes into play- the aging process. Wood aged ports are drinkable pretty soon after bottling (1-2 years.) Bottle aged ports are aged on wood only briefly, and then are aged for many years in the bottle. It is therefore recommended that they be decanted, to remove heavy sediment.
It is generally these different aging nuances that allow port takes on the following different styles (sorry if the list is a little exhaustive, I'm trying to break it down as a reference guide if you decide you want to shop for some ports yourself):
1. White Port: Only a small production of port is made this way. It is made from obscure white grapes and the less expensive ones are aged only in tanks before bottling. Slightly better quality white ports will be aged in oak for a short time, giving a toasty nutty flavor. The majority are not exceptionally sweet, but a few are. Those called "lagrima" are very sweet, whereas "leve seco" white ports are extremely dry. White port is usually served chilled and often will be mixed with soda. Once you’ve opened a white port, you should refrigerate it and drink it within a few months, tops.
2. Ruby Port: This is the simplest of the red ports and is usually pretty affordable. It will be fruity and is seldom bottle aged at all. It is made from a blend of red wines from varying vintages (it’s actually kind of cool- They schedule and rotate the amount taken from each year’s batch, keeping the bottled port very consistent from year to year, and ensuring that the newer wines can continue to age in barrels, while the older wines get used little by little till they're gone.) Once opened, ruby ports should be consumed within 3 months.
3. Young Tawny Port: Like ruby port, young tawny is pretty basic. Its grapes often yield light colored wine (this can be manipulated depending on the time the juice is allowed contact with the skins- much like regular wine.) They’re often sipped on their own. Any port that is just referred to as “tawny” is probably a young tawny (aged tawny ports tend to specify.) Like ruby port, young tawnies should be consumed within 3 months once opened.
4. Aged Tawny Port: These are usually between 10-40 years old and the vintage will be specified on the label. They are blends of ports that have been allowed to age in barrels for several years. The oak gives, a nutty, caramel, vanilla flavor and mellows out the texture and bite of the alcohol. Aging changes the color from a ruby red to a nice tawny brown. They’re the most prized (and expensive) of the ports. They can be consumed both as an aperitif before a meal, and as a dessert wine at the end of a meal. Very special aged tawnies are referred to as “colheita” and are aged a minimum of 7 years. Though they can be aged up to 50 years. They’re rare and account for less than 1% of port production. Once opened, an aged tawny should be consumed within a year.
5. Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBVs): These are ports that are from a single vintage (as opposed to blends) that are aged in barrel for 4-6 years. They don’t usually age well much beyond that and should be consumed pretty much right away. They’re made every year and are typically pretty cheap. They’re common in restaurants because they don’t require decanting. They should be consumed within 2 months of opening.
6. Traditional Late Bottled Vintage Port: Only a few of these are still made. They’re made like vintage ports, but come from better vintages and are aged for a few years longer. Unlike LBVs, they’ll continue to age well for decades. However, once they’re opened, they should be consumed right away- within a maximum of 2 weeks.
7. Vintage Ports: These are the most expensive, most desired of all. Only ports from very, very good years will be declared a vintage. All grapes in the blend will be from that year and they will come from only the best vineyards in the region. They’re first aged for 2 years in barrel, and then are often aged for a long time in bottle before consumption. Once opened, they generally should be consumed right away. The older the vintage, the more quickly they should be consumed (within a day for really old vintages- just go for it once you pop that sucker open!)
In enjoying port, remember that only older ones need to be decanted (they’ll have sediment) and in that case, they should be decanted 3-12 hours before serving. Older wines should be decanted for shorter amounts of time, and younger ones can go a little longer. You can drink them out of a regular wine glass (get one you can swirl, just like with table wine) but pours are usually only 2-3 ounces.
If you have any ports you love, or if you find any gems, please post them in the comments!
Did you know?
Vintage isn’t just for sweet used clothing! The vintage of a wine can affect its quality and its price. Some years are awesome years for grapes, whereas some years, there might be a horrible freeze, or not enough sunshine or there might be some damaging disease infestation that wipes the fruit of a region out altogether. Wine from certain years will fetch a really high price, or sell very quickly because those in the know will associate quality with the year it was produced. Stay tuned for a full post on this subject!