When port comes to mind, most people think of the great Vintage Ports from the top houses such as Graham’s, Warre’s, Fonseca and Taylors. These superb wines are certainly some of the finest produced especially in great years. But Vintage Port is not inexpensive, it takes decades to evolve and reach its prime and represents only a small fraction of Port made. The good news is that there are a number of more affordable, ready to drink styles that can offer as much or more pleasure than drinking a great Vintage when it is far too young.
Wine has been made in the Douro Valley for nearly two millennia, but it was the arrival of the English in the 1700’s, smarting from their troubles on the Continent with the French that resulted in a lack of access to their preferred wines such as Bordeaux, that had a major impact on the Port trade. The treaty of Methuen in 1703 created a favorable trading relationship and low import duties between England and Portugal, setting the stage for the expansion of wine exports. In order to improve the fierce wines they found and to increase its stability for shipping, the practice of adding alcohol to the wines began, and Port as we know it today was born. Today the British still largely own the Port trade with Taylor Fladgate, Cockburns, Croft, Dow, Graham, Gould, Osborne, Taylor and Warre’s all English owned.
Port takes its name form the seaport city of Oporto, which lies at the mouth of the Douro River where it meets the Atlantic. Port is a fortified wine, made by stopping the fermentation process with an addition of a neutral grape spirit (called aguardente) before the yeasts have converted all of the sugars to alcohol. This has the dual effect of retaining sweetness in the wine and bringing the alcohol level up to about 21% by volume. All Port is made virtually the same way up to this point: grapes harvested and crushed, still by foot in some cases, in large trough like vats called Lagars, and then the spirits added to stop fermentation part way through. The variations that create the different styles of Port occur mainly during the maturation process.
While many countries produce fortified wines called Port, the real deal can only come from Portugal, made from grapes grown in the Douro River Valley. It is the third oldest protected wine appellation in the world, having been legally established in 1756 in effect to regulate and improve the quality and reputation of its product. The region begins about 40 miles upriver from the city of Porto on the Atlantic and extends east almost to the Spanish Border. The Serra do Marao mountains form a barrier than protects the region from maritime climate along the coast. There are several sub-regions as one travels upstream towards Spain, with the climate cooler and wetter in the west and becoming drier and warmer as one gets further east. The climate plays a role in the quality of grapes and the style of wines they produce. Grapes grown the western most (cooler, wetter) are mainly used for cheaper Ruby and Tawny Ports. The Cima Corgo which is higher, drier, and warmer produces Vintage and the higher quality Ports. While dozens of grapes can be used by law, the main varieties used are Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Cão, and Touriga Nacional for reds. White Port is made from mainly Esgana-Cão, Folgasão, Donzelinho Branco, Gouveio, Rabigato, Malvasia Fina, and Viosinho, but is also a fortified wine.
All Port begins essentially with the same process of fermentation. It is in their maturation where many of the differences in style have their origins and there are basically two large families of Port styles. The first are the cask-matured wines. These wines are aged in large barrels until they are ready for consumption and include Tawny, Colheita, and the rarely seen Garrafiera. Ports in this category can range from ordinary Tawny, generally inexpensive without a long period of age, to wines that are aged 10, 20, 30 and even 40 years in cask. The aging process in large barrels allows oxygen to interact with the wine, and they take their name from the color they achieve as the oxygen and aging process slowly changes their hue from deep ruby/purple to their namesake amber brown. They are typically a blend of multiple vintages, and are off dry to sweet in style, with a caramel, nutty elegance to them. Colheitas are similar to Tawny Ports but are from a single vintage and also aged in cask for many years. Cask matured Ports, since they have done their maturation in an oxidative environment, sometimes for years, have thrown most of their sediments in cask before bottling, or have been filtered before bottling and thus do not need decanting. They don’t improve with bottle age, are corked with a stopper cork that can be removed without a corkscrew, and once opened can last for weeks and longer. While many seem to focus on Vintage and Ruby styles, I personally love old Tawny – and would prefer them to drinking a great vintage Port too young. Best value/quality seems to be the 20 or 30 years olds as they have the character of age, but are not as expensive as 40 year.
The second group are the bottle matured Ports which are often referred to as Ruby Ports. They are only mature a short time in casks, with the best spending years maturing in bottle instead. This group includes Vintage, Reserve, Late Bottled and Crusted Port. Simple Ruby Ports are inexpensive, fermented in stainless steel to keep them from oxidizing like Tawny Port, and are known for deep color and juicy sweet, sometimes candied fruit. Vintage Ports are often seen as the premier category of Port and are made from the best grapes grown in the best vineyards and are from a single year. Vintages are declared only when the Port Houses feel the conditions are right, and it is up to the individual shipper to decide whether to declare, with the decision made in the spring of the second year after harvest. Vintage Ports are only aged about two years in cask and then complete their maturation in the bottle over many years. They are deeper, darker and concentrated, black purple when young. They have the ability to age and improve for decades and often only truly come into their own after 20 years or more. When young, they can be fierce and sometimes peppery, tannic and spirity, albeit still sweet, evolving towards ruby and garnet in color as they reach maturity, softening and becoming fine, elegant and complex with time. Vintage Port has true cork, requiring a cork screw to remove. As they have aged primarily in the bottle, they can have quite a heavy deposit of sediment and need decanting. While they stay fresh a bit longer than most unfortified wines, they should be consumed within several days of opening. Single Quinta Ports are Vintage Ports from one single property or estate, whereas a Vintage Port may be a blend of many Quintas. They are often made when a Vintage is not declared, and while they have the same characteristics of Vintage, they sometimes are earlier maturing. They are usually a little less expensive than Vintage, and these include Graham’s Quinta do Malvedos for example, and have the name of the Shipper and the Quinta on the label.
Late Bottled Vintage are Ruby Ports that have been in cask longer than Vintage and shorter than most Tawny, between two and four years. Somewhat of a hybrid, they come in two styles, filtered and unfiltered. They fill a need for Ports with the characteristics of a Vintage Port but without the need for many years of aging in bottle. The filtered LBV’s are similar to Tawny as they are ready to drink on release, have stopper corks and do not throw sediment. The unfiltered LBV’s, called “Traditional Late Bottled” until the laws changed in 2002 are now referred to as “Bottle Matured” or “Unfiltered” to distinguish them. This style is closer to Vintage in style, throws sediment, will age in bottle, needs a corkscrew to open and should be drunk within several days of opening. These are often the best value in Ruby style and can be very similar to a good, mature Vintage at a fraction of the price.
Crusted Ports, not often seen in the US and are more common in Great Britain, are akin to a Late Bottled Unfiltered but are from several vintages. They have true cork closure, throw sediment and do age in the bottle, and need decanting like Vintage Port, however the shipper often holds them until they’re ready to drink.
Cask aged Ports are pretty much ready to drink on release and since they have a stopper do not need to be stored on their side. Bottle aged Ports and Vintage Ports are stored like any other wine, on their side to keep the cork moist, cool, dark and no vibration or temperature fluctuations. Port is typically served after dinner with a selection of cheeses, Stilton or similar blue one of the best options, some crusty French bread, fresh pears and apples, dried fruits and an assortment of nuts are perfect matches. Chocolate is a great match too, and of course Port is perfect post dessert with a great cigar.
Tradition has it that Port is always passed to the left, with the host first serving the guest on the right and then passing to his left (his port-side in nautical jargon), with the process continuing in turn until everyone has been served, without the Port being set down on the way around. In one version if the Port stops, it is seen as impolite to ask for it, rather one asks the person closest to the decanter if he knows the Bishop of Canterbury (any town in England will do). This is obviously not done to get an answer, but as a gentle reminder to pass the Port. If the reply is “no”, then the next comment is “well the Bishop is certainly a very good fellow, but he never passes the Port” which in turn prods the person who is holding thing up to realize they have hogged the Port.
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