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A Port Primer
An incomplete guide to Port style wines
Perhaps the most misunderstood of all wines is Port. The origins of Port are routed in the almost nonstop series of wars Britain waged with France during the 17th and 18th centuries. Suffering from severe wine withdrawal, the British resorted to the rustic and inconsistent wines from the rugged Douro valley of Portugal. When the fragile wines failed to hold up during long sea voyages, brandy was added to stabilize them, and Port-style wines were born.
Port is a sweet, fortified wine that is created by the addition of a neutral spirit. After 2 or 3 days of fermentation, a dose of alcohol distilled from grapes is added to the wine. This kills the yeasts and stops the fermentation process, elevating the alcohol content to the 20% range and leaving the unfermented sugars that give the wine its sweetness. The resulting wine is then aged and blended to create one of many different styles of Port styles. For the sake of simplicity, I will just cover the 5 most common styles.
True Port is only made in Portugal from grapes grown in the Douro valley and will carry the name "Porto" on the bottle. However, Port-style wines are now made all over the world, including America, Australia and South Africa. In fact, some of the finest Tawny Ports in the world now come from Australia.
Bottle Aged Ports
Vintage Ports are bottle aged Ports that age briefly in wooden barrels and are bottled unfiltered and unfined. Vintage Ports are intended to be bottle aged for a minimum of 10 to 15 years, and 30 to 40 years of aging is not considered uncommon. Most Vintage Ports, however, are unfortunately consumed well before their prime, an insidious American trait that the British refer to as "Port Infanticide." True Vintage Port is only made in years when a Vintage is declared. Single Quinta Vintage Ports are made in years that the Port house feels that a single vineyard deserves to made into a bottle-aged Port.
True Vintage Port - The most expensive and most sought after of Port wines are only made in the best years when the great Port houses like Dow and Fonseca meet and "declare" a vintage. They are deep ruby colored, medium to full bodied wines of immense character that can range from lightly to frankly sweet. Vintage Ports are made from grapes blended from many vineyards in a single vintage and aged in oak barrels for 2 years. By law, they must be bottled before June 30th of the 3rd year following the vintage date. Since Vintage Ports are bottled unfiltered, they have a great deal of sediment and should always be decanted before serving. They also deteriorate quickly after opening so don't re-cork a bottle and expect it to hold up like a Ruby or LBV Port. James Suckling of Wine Spectator lists the great recent vintages as 1997, 1994, 1992, 1991, 1985, 1983, 1977, 1970, 1966, 1955, 1948, 1947, 1935, 1934 and 1927 and the great Vintage Port houses as Fonseca, Taylor Fladgate, Graham, Dow, Warre, Quinta do Noval, Neipoort, Croft, Cockburn and Sandeman.
Single Quinta Ports Vintage Port - Single Quinta Ports are Vintage Ports made from grapes from a single vineyard. They share the same characteristics of true Vintage Port but often lack the character and complexity that can only be achieved through the careful blending that is done to create a declared Vintage Port.
Wood Aged Ports
Ruby Ports are the youngest of Port wines. They are generally blended from young wines of different vintages that have been aged in oak barrels for 2 to 3 years. These red, fruity, sweet wines do not benefit from further aging and are very stable and store well after opening.
Vintage Character Port
Vintage Character Ports are non vintage blend Ruby Ports made from richer and more powerful fruit that are designed to mimic the style of a Vintage Port. There is no benefit from further aging for these wines and they are very stable and store well after opening.
Late Bottled Vintage Port
Late Bottled Vintage Port is Ruby Port blended from a single vintage and aged in oak barrels for 4 to 6 years. These Ports come closest to the intensity and complexity of a Vintage Port. Those that have been bottled unfiltered will also continue to mature in the bottle like a true Vintage Port. LBV's are generally stable after opening. Wine Guy Note: Well-chosen LBV are the best values around and often taste much better than a Vintage Port drunk too young!
This is the Wine Guy's favorite Port! Good Tawnys are golden brown in color, silky textured and filled with walnut, brown sugar and vanilla aromas and flavors. In fact, many are so rich and aromatic they are best enjoyed in a brandy snifter. Long aging changes their color from ruby red to tawny brown. Most Tawny Ports will state their age on the bottle. These designations of 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years of age refer to the blending of many aged wines of various vintages to achieve an average age of 10 to 40 years. To really savor the Tawny Port experience, the Wine Guy recommends trying a glass of Yalumba's Antique Tawny Port from Australia (15 years - Wine Enthusiast 97, $19) in a brandy snifter on a warm spring evening after a great meal. The cigar is optional. I personally think they ruin the flavor of the Port - Port first, then cigar!