The Major Styles of Port
Port is a sweet red wine from Portugal with high alcohol content, resulting from the addition of brandy during the fermentation process. The grapes used for Port wine are grown inland from the coastal city of Porto, along the banks of the Douro River. The further inland you go, the warmer the weather gets, and the styles of wines produced become richer and richer. Most Port is made from a blend of indigenous grapes, the most common of which are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz (Spain’s Tempranillo), and Tinto Cão.
When grape juice is fermented, sugar is converted into alcohol by yeast. In most wines, the yeast dies when all the sugar is gone. With Port, however, winemakers add brandy part-way through fermentation, which kills the yeast before all the sugar is consumed. The result is a wine with leftover sugar and high alcohol from the brandy.
History of Port
In centuries past, Port was important to the English, who had a tendency to go to war with France every few years, and couldn’t count on a steady supply of French wine. English relations with Portugal have historically been friendly, and British traders built a solid relationship with wine producers in Porto, thereby establishing many of the famous companies which still make Port, like Graham’s and Taylor’s. Brandy was added to the wines because alcohol acts as a preservative, and helped protect quality through the harsh conditions of shipment back to England. The act of ‘fortifying’ the wine became a defining character of Port, and has influenced its flavor and style up to the present.
Ruby Port is not aged in oak, thus retaining its bright red color and fresh fruit flavors of berries and cherries, with some spice. It’s sweet and delicious with desserts - especially those that feature fruit, like cherry pie. Ruby Port is made from a blend of different vintages, which allows the winery to release a consistent product year after year, free from the influence of the variations in an individual growing season.
Aged Tawny Port is matured in oak barrels, and takes on a brownish color and flavors of dried and stewed fruit, along with notes of toasted almonds, caramel, chocolate, and sometimes espresso. Drink tawny port with desserts that feature chocolate, nuts, or dried fruit, like pecan pie, or chocolate cake. As with Ruby Port, Tawnys are blended from multiple vintages.
Vintage Port comes from a single harvest season, unlike Ruby or Tawny styles, which are blended from multiple vintages. Vintage Port only comes from excellent years, and has exceptional depth and complexity, with incredible aging potential. Vintage Ports can be enjoyed many decades after being purchased. Vintage ports are similar to high quality Ruby Ports when young, and take on mature characteristics similar to Tawnys as they age in oak barrels. Drink Vintage Port for special occasions, or pair with special desserts or cigars. Vintage Ports often contain a lot of sediment and need to be decanted before drinking.
LBV or ‘Late Bottle Vintage’ Port is Vintage Port that is re-released after additional oak aging by the producer. They are usually filtered to prevent the sediment that builds up in Vintage bottles. This makes them enjoyable younger, but they don’t have the aging potential or complexity of a true Vintage Port.
Port is only beginning to gain a following in the United States, where most people put themselves into one of two groups: dry wine drinkers or sweet wine drinkers. Why not drink both? Have dry wine with the entree, and Port with dessert. Your meal will be more varied, and your experience will be richer.