Port wine simplified

A selection of Ports from Churchill's

If the greatest wines in the world are made to age using the most expensive production methods, have a long history of quality control and are so recognizable by style that they can only be a single wine from a singular place, then Port is such a wine.

Port is a sweet, fortified wine made since the 17th century from grapes grown in the Douro River Valley in Portugal.  They are aged, traditionally, downriver in the cooler port city of Vila Nova de Gaia across the river from Porto.  In the European Union and in countries that honor appellation of origin under wine trade agreements, only wines originating from the demarcated region of Douro can be labelled “Port” or “Porto.”

Fermentation is arrested early with grape spirits, leaving residual sugar of about 100 grams per liter (think Sauternes levels) and 19-20% alcohol. Because fermentation is arrested early, winemakers need to accelerate extraction of color, structural and flavor components as fast as they can, using techniques unique to Port – such as foot treading in wide and low stone pits called lagares that maximize skin to juice contact.  Foot, or increasingly robotic, treading is considered the finest method to achieve intensity of fruit and fine structure vs. pumping over in stainless steel tanks.

The most common Ports are made with a blend of mostly indigenous red grape varieties in two basic styles:  ruby and tawny.

Ruby Ports

Ruby styles are aged to minimize oxidation, resulting in fruit-driven, deep ruby-colored Port.  This can be achieved by aging in larger vats called balseiro with greater wine-to-wood contact ratio, and by shorter overall aging.  Basic commercial Rubys are aged 2-3 years while Reserve Rubys are made with higher quality fruit and aged a little longer.

The best Rubys are Vintage Ports, Ports made in exceptional years from the highest quality vineyards, usually tread in lagares, and approved as a declared Vintage Port by the Port Wine Institute.   They age in cask for two years, then are bottled young to capture the intense fruit.  These unfiltered wines are meant to age in bottle and will continue to evolve in bottle for several years.

Vintage Ports are big, powerful and fruit-driven wines that may taste drier than they actually are if the fruit dominates, as in a young Vintage Port.  When serving, younger vintages could benefit from decanting to “open it up” while vintages older than 15 years may need decanting to remove accumulated sediment.  Serve at room temperature and consume within a few days of opening.

Recent Vintage Ports available in the market include 1994, 1997, 2000, 2003 and 2007.

Another major category of Rubys are Late Bottled Vintage or LBV Ports.  These wines are single vintage Port but not “declared” vintages for LBV.  They are bottled after 4-6 years of aging in wood cask so show a little more evolution than a Vintage Port, and are ready to drink upon opening.

Tawny Ports

Tawny styles are aged with more oxidation, for example through aging in smaller wood casks such as 550 liter “pipes” or 700 liter cascos, or through longer aging, resulting in rich, mellow and complex wines with colors ranging from amber to brown.  Port producers say that Vintage Ports reflect specific vintage conditions while Tawnys reflect an individual Port House’s style since Tawnys are complex blends of different lots of wine from different vintages.  House styles can range from fruitier to complex and drier vs. sweeter.

Tawny Ports can be aged for a short time in cask, such as basic Tawny, or a really long time, such as Tawnys with Indication of Age of 10-year, 20-year, 30-year or 40-year.  The “Indication” of age is the average age of the blend, conferring a typical taste for the age as verified by the Port Wine Institute.

Colheita are the Tawny version of Vintage Port, but more rare, although more producers are thankfully producing them.  Colheita age for a minimum of 7 years in cask, but usually much, much longer.

These aged and blended Tawnys are rich and mellow, with flavors that develop with age into dried fruit, citrus, nuts, honey and toffee.   Tawnys can be chilled (as in France as aperitif) and should be served cooler than a Ruby, about 55 degrees.  Pedro Pocas Pintao of Pocas told us that for them, Tawnys go in the fridge with the whites.

Since Tawnys are already long-aged and naturally clarified, there is no need to decant and they are ready to drink upon opening.  After opening, the wines will keep for a long time.