Portugal is the home country of one of the greatest soccer players in the world today. But did you know that it is the home of Port wine? In fact, it’s the country’s signature fortified wine.
If more than half of the entire vineyard land in Douro Valley in Portugal can be devoted to the cultivation and development of grapes for Port, then that must mean something.
Ports come in a variety of styles; from white Port and basic Ruby to premium aged, Ports. This sweet – often dark-red – dessert wine’s popularity has surged astronomically in the United States over the past decade with no sign of slowing down.
But then, only a few people are excited about port wine, and that is primarily because it is not understood, notwithstanding the soaring travel rates. Many wine enthusiasts even think that port wine is only suitable for dessert while a few others believe it is best enjoyed in winter.
It is also not an alcoholic beverage meant or produced for older folks only, which is another misconception that people have about this sweet nectar from the gods
However, none of these are true, as you will soon find out. Here I what you need to know about Port wines, and how to find the best of them all.
So, sit back, relax, and let’s get on with it.
Port wines: The Brief History
Port has an interesting history and packs a lot in one glass. It is a fortified wine that originates from Douro Valley which is situated in the northern provinces of northwest Portugal. Fortified wines are alcoholic beverages that have been blended with some distilled spirit. Brandy is usually utilized in this case.
Port is sweet and often comes in different styles which range from the youthful Ruby Port to Late-Bottled Vintage Ports, aged Tawnies, and all the way to the distinguished pricing and character of Vintage Port.
Port wine may be deeply associated with Portugal, but in reality, it owes much – or at least part – of its conception or invention to England. The alcoholic beverage is a by-product of the war between the Brits and France, which took place all the way from the 17th century to the 18th century.
Expectedly, the English refused to do business with the French and therefore, boycotted French wine, especially during the late 17th century. And so, because of the continuous conflict, the English had to source their red wine from Portugal and had nothing to do with Bordeaux from France.
Bordeaux was the highly respected location of Claret, England’s first love in the wine universe.
After procuring Port wine from Portugal, the Brits began to add a dash of brandy to the alcoholic beverage for sustenance on the long voyage back to England. The brandy served as the stabilizer that prevented the fragile Port wine from spoiling – via fermentation – all through the long trip back home on rocking boats.
However, the Brits also noticed that the brandy sweetened the Port wine considerably, especially when it was added early enough. This led the residual sugars in the Port wine to be at a high level at the end of the day.
And that was how Port wine – as it is today – became renowned for being noticeably sweeter, higher in alcohol content, with high palate density, and more body as well.
People who love decadent desserts or rich cheese would also readily fall in love with Port wines, thanks to its pairing versatility. The wine can also be consumed on its own as well.
Port Wine: What is Port?
Okay, this question may come as a surprise or look unnecessary after discussing the origin of this remarkably sweet alcoholic beverage. However, it is necessary so that you can have a full understanding of both its origin and how it is made.
Port wine – also referred to as Vinho do Porto or Porto in Portugal – is a sweet and fortified alcoholic beverage that is produced in the viticultural region of Douro Valley in Portugal. The region is responsible for the cultivation of over 50 white and red grapes that are utilized to make Port wine.
The most common indigenous grapes that find their way into bottles of premium Port include:
- Touriga Nacional: this grape offers structure consistently
- Touriga Franca: this grape comes with velvety tannins to add a softer edge to Port wine
- Tinta Roriz: this grape is as delicious as Tempranillo, Spain’s king of grapes
The name “Port” was derived from Porto, the second-largest city in Portugal. This coastal city is situated strategically at the very mouth of the Douro River where merchant ships, for centuries, were loaded with heavy casks of Port and journeyed up the coastline to England.
Port Wine: How is it made?
The production process of Port wine is not all that different from that of still or table wines. Appropriate grapes are usually harvested in the fall after the vine has spent an entire season struggling in dry, low-nutrient schist soil that makes up the physical entity of the vineyards in the Douro Valley, near Porto.
Then, the harvested grapes are pressed so that the juice can be extracted, and soon after, fermentation is initiated. Extraction of the juice from the Port grapes can be carried out in a variety of ways.
Some producers of Port wine choose to stick to the traditional method of extracting juice from the grapes. The extraction is done by foot treading the grapes in open-air large cement or stone tanks known as “Lagares,” thereby pressing the grapes.
However, a majority of these Port wine producers have chosen to follow and use mechanical treaders which are designed to look like the human foot. After the grapes have been treated, the fresh-pressed juice – along with the stems, seeds, and skins – are left to ferment for a few days until the alcohol content of the mixture reaches up to 7 percent.
This is the point where the mixture or young wine is fortified with brandy to halt the fermentation process abruptly and shoot up the alcohol levels to about 19-21 percent. This action also contributes to the capture of the youthful fruit nuances of the new wine.
The fortification of the young wine affects the sugar level, thus leaving residual sugar levels much higher than is customarily found in most still wines, usually in the 100g/L range.
And finally, this batch of young Port is pumped steadily into large, oak casks and left to mature for at least 18 months. It will then be accessed by the Port house. They will determine what type of Port the wine should eventually become during the assessment, even though they know what they wanted to make right from the start.
After the period elapses, the young Port wine is then blended with lots of other Port wines.
The goal here is to locate complementary components that will eventually deliver a well-defined fruity and delicious wine with friendly palate appeal as well as overarching balance.
The young Port is then transferred to bottles so that it can age further or left in the cask to spend additional time. The more wine ages, the better the taste as well as the aromas.
Types of Port Wine
Port wines can be split into two distinct categories: wood-aged and bottle-aged Port wines.
- Wood-aged Port wine: Wood-aged Port wines are made to be consumed when they are relatively young.
- Bottle-aged Port wine: Bottle-aged Port wine, on the other hand, are made to go the distance up to a decade or even more to reach maturity.
Here are the different types or styles of Port wine:
Ruby Port wine
Ruby Port wines earned that name as a result of their distinguishable ruby color. They are usually young and accessible wines with fruit-filled and fresh aromas as well as an equally active palate presence.
Ruby Port wines are entry-level, pocket-friendly alcoholic beverages which are made from a mix of vintages and grapes. They are aged or matured for a minimum of three years in concrete or stainless steel tanks before getting released to the general public.
Ruby Port wines are quite popular in the United States markets today. The best ones are usually jammed with lush berries. Since Ruby Port wines are not for keeping, drink them all up as soon as you buy them.
The versatility of Ruby Port makes them an excellent choice to pair with most foods like:
- Blue cheese
- Berry-based desserts
- Milk chocolate
Producers of Ruby Port wines include:
- Graham’s Six Grapes
- Taylor Fladgate
Tawny Port wine
A Tawny Port wine is a typical blend of old-vintage wines and usually exhibits a rich amber color. Tawnies, more often than not, fall on the somewhat sweeter side of the taste spectrum.
Tawnies spend a lot more time in oak casks during the aging process, and this makes its color to start fading from the customary ruby red to something akin to brick-red or ruby-orange. And by the time it reaches full maturity, it has changed to mahogany or deep amber hue.
As the aging process continues, Tawnies start tasting nuttier, thereby developing into rich flavors of prunes, caramelized figs, and dates. They are often compared to the fresh-fruit character that is typically found in Ruby Port wines.
The age of Tawnies is typically designated as either 10, 20, or 30 years on their labels. The years that are assigned to these Port wines represent the average age of each of numerous vintages that are used in the production of the Tawny Port blend and not the exact number of years the vino has been aged as a whole.
Tawny Port wines are available in three distinct styles:
- Indicted Age Tawny Port wines: They are usually assigned as being 10, 20, 30, or 40 years old. These numbers typically represent or indicate the minimum average ages of the wines that are used in the bottles.
- Crusted Port wines: This is an unfiltered Tawny Port that usually develops a crust or visible sediment. It must be decanted before it is served.
- Colheita Port wine: This Tawny is produced from all the grapes that are harvested in or within the same year.
A Tawny Port pairs remarkably well with the following foods:
- Apple pie or caramel apple
- Dark or milk chocolate
- Aged cheddar cheese
- Dried fruit
- Pecan pie or pumpkin
Producers of Tawny Port wines include:
- Taylor Fladgate
Vintage Port wine
A Vintage Port wine is usually made from blended grapes obtained from numerous vineyards but must be from the same vintage year. Throughout history, Vintage Port wines are only declared every three years out of ten years on average.
The best, high-quality grapes procured from the best vineyards in the best yards are used for the production of a premium-quality Vintage Port.
Vintage Port wines usually spend up to six months in oak casks and are poured – unfiltered – into a bottle for additional aging. The extended aging period can be up to 20 years or even more.
And so, the direct result of such a long-term or extended aging is the formation of a dense layer of sediment. Vintage Port wines require decanting when they reach the end of their maturing years and need a great deal of aeration before they can be consumed.
If you must view Ruby Port wine as an entry-level Port for beginners, then Vintage Port wine will be at the other end of the spectrum or scale in both cost and style.
Do not mistake the Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port with Vintage Port; they are not the same. The former – which is incredibly popular in the United Kingdom – is also a style of Port wine that is produced with grapes from a single vintage.
But Late-Bottled Vintage Port wines usually aged in oak for at least four years but not more than six years – before it is bottled, and then released to the general public.
Vintage Port wines pair well with the following foods:
- Puffed pastries
- Chocolate as well as chocolate-based desserts
- Walnuts and almonds
- Stilton along with other blue cheeses
Vintage Port wine producers include:
- Taylor Fladgate
Whenever you want to buy Vintage Port wine, it is highly crucial for you to consider the provenance of the alcoholic beverage. You should always buy your favorite Port wine from well-established and reliable wine merchants.
This is because in most cases, these long-established merchants usually have direct relationships with the extensive chain of distributors worldwide.
Apply the same principle when buying Vintage Port at auctions.
As you should expect, Vintage Port wines from renowned Port houses are costly. But they are readily available and more affordable when compared to most of the iconic wines out there.
White Port wine
White Port wine, as the name implies, is derived only from white grape varietals. They can be made into semisweet and dry styles as well. White Port wine is generally fuller-bodied and fruitier on the palate than other forms of fortified white wines.
White Port wine is frequently served as an aperitif or appetizer and has become the perfect replacement for gin, especially when it is served as a “Port and Tonic” on the rocks.
Other Types of Port Wine
The first time Rosé Port was made was in 2005 by Croft, thus putting in the class of some of the most recently invented Port wines. It has not had a great deal of success, despite the heavy marketing that went into creating awareness for the Port wine.
Additionally, only a handful of Port Houses make Rosé-style Port wine.
Rosé Port wine falls under the Ruby Port wine category, but the fermentation process is similar to that of Rosé wine. The wine hardly touches the grape skins, thereby giving it an incredibly pale color.
Rosé Port wine is fruity and designed to be an easy-drinker, just like Ruby Port wine. It is best enjoyed when served over ice or chilled considerably.
Ruby Reserve Port
Reserve Port – which was formerly known as Vintage Character Port – is made when a variety of vintages with average age 5 to 7 years are blended. This alcoholic beverage is also fruit-forward, just like Ruby Port; however, it is much more complex and also spend a much longer time in the oak barrel during the aging process.
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)
An LBV, i.e., Late Bottled Vintage shares several characteristics with Vintage Port but comes at a fraction of the price. Port makers achieve this successfully by leaving the Port in the oak barrel for a little longer, which is usually from 4 to 6 years instead of allowing it to age in the bottle.
This is a highly effective technique, even though it is practically impossible to mimic a Vintage Port.
An LBV is lighter-bodied and therefore doesn’t share the same complexity with Vintage Port. Nevertheless, this is a great deal of Port wine that should not be taken for granted. Of course, you should be able to tell the difference between a Vintage Port and a Late Bottled Vintage.
Apart from the extensive barrel aging, the grapes used in making an LBV come from a single harvest. The quality of these grapes is usually good enough to use for the production of Vintage Port as well.
There filtered and unfiltered LBVs, so don’t be confused when you come across any of the variety of LBVs. You can readily identify a filtered LBV by looking at its cork. If the bottle is corked with plastic-topped stoppers, then it is a filtered LBV.
At times, you can find out from the wine label, though it is not usually printed there in the first instance.
Unfiltered LBV, on the other hand, must be decanted. There are several hacks that you can employ to decant this alcoholic beverage without using a decanter. But this could be too much trouble for you, especially if you don’t own a decanter.
The best option, therefore, is to always go for filtered LBV.
Most LBVs can be consumed straight away, though unfiltered LBV usually improves when aged in bottles over a considerable amount of time. Filtered LBVs, however, don’t improve with bottle aging.
Single Quinta Vintage Port (SQVP)
Single Quinta Vintage Port (SQVP) is another form of Vintage Port wine, but it is made from the grapes of a single estate or “Quinta.” It is not a common Port wine, and rarely produced, so you may find it a bit challenging to get your hands on a bottle.
Best Port Wines Today
Okay, so here are some of the best sweet and flavorsome Port wines on the market today which you can enjoy at your leisure or during your meals:
2006 Fonseca Crusted Port
The Crusted variety is a rare style of Port which is produced only by a handful of producers. It is characterized by a lack of filtration, which is how it earned its name. The Port wine often forms a crust in the bottle and requires decanting before you can drink it.
Crusted Port wine is made from a combination of blends of two or three vintages thus exhibiting a well-rounded style which effectively balances the high-grade qualities or characteristics of several harvests.
You will notice the slight cream and strawberry on the nose, starting from the first sip. Then, it gives way to a delicate sweetness and more winey notes.
To enjoy the best of Fonseca Crusted Port wine, pair the drink with a dessert such as crème brûlée.
Taylor’s Late Bottled Vintage 2012
Taylor’s Late Bottled Vintage offers a lot more for the amount of money you will be paying to purchase this scintillating delight. The first clue to the intensity level of flavor bottled up in this Port wine is the slightly purple hue of the thick liquid within.
Taylor’s LBV is fruity, i.e., you will taste the likes of cherry, plum, and blackberry upfront. And then a little wood character follows suit.
There are little savory notes to go on with this Port wine; nevertheless, you will love it immensely.
Ramos Pinto RP20 20-Year-Old Tawny Port
Ramos Pinto is a Tawny Port is made from a combination of selected grapes from several plots from one of the ancient vineyards in the Douro Valley region in general and Ramos-Pinto’s Bom Retiro estate in particular.
The result of this incredibly extended aging process is a rich, beautifully deep, and rusty-brown liquid that bursts satisfyingly with toasted nut, fig, and quince aromas.
Take a sip and feel – deep down – the velvety-soft smoothness and practically zero aggression of this alcoholic beverage. Oh, and the alcohol does give it a gentle heat!
Ramos Pinto RP20 is slightly sour and exhibits a caramel sweetness as well as roasted notes which fade to a pleasant, savory note. Yes, the apparent match is a creamy cheese, but then you won’t go wrong if you take it – slightly chilled, of course – with a mince pie.
And as with all aged tawnies, do not waste more time: drink now.
Graham’s Fine White Port Wine
Graham’s is a longstanding brand that has been in the business of producing Port as far back as 1820. They are specialists at producing White Port, so you will discover that it is a little rowdier and more vibrant compared to the reds that undergo extended aging processes.
This white Port from Graham’s is salty, fresh, and adds a little creaminess and grapefruit to the finish. It is best enjoyed when served chilled, especially with tonic.
Warre’s Otima 10-Year Old Tawny
This Port wine is produced by the oldest British Port House which was established in Portugal in 1670. This ruby-colored and vibrant Tawny is renowned for its unique flavor.
Take a sip for the first time, and you will be hit with an intense aroma of orange peel, followed closely by burnt sugar. Then, you will also get hit with berries and finishes with pastry-like bready notes.
If this is your first time at drinking Port, then this 10-year old Port wine – which readily available – should be your first venture into the wine universe.
Kopke 30 Years Old White
Kopke alleges to be the oldest brand of Port wine in the world today, having been established in 1638. The Port wines from this vintner still come in hand-painted bottles.
Kopke offers a wide variety of age statements and styles; however, the Tawny and white Ports will make you salivate no end. The 30-year old white Port wine portrays caramelized, nutty, and delicious apple notes with soft hints of citrus which is slightly different from the sublime nuttiness of the 20-year-old Tawny.
Be warned: this product is high-priced. But then, what else do you expect from a 30-year-old Port wine? It is worth a try, and you will surprisingly find this Port is simply un-putdownable.
Ramos Pinto RP20 20-Year-Old Tawny Port is highly recommended. The alcohol content is moderate – around 21 percent – it pairs well with a wide variety of cheeses, chocolate, cream-based desserts as well as desserts whose sweetness are somewhat subdued.
Storing Port wines
Vintage Port wines should be stored on their sides and in a dark but cool environment, just like their still or table wine counterparts.
Ruby and Tawny Ports are often ready to be consumed as soon as they are released. They can be stored on their sides or upright.
Once you open a Port wine – especially if it is a Vintage Port – it can last for a day. Ruby Ports, when opened, can last for several weeks while a Tawny Port wine can last for several months.
These are the only Ports that will improve further with aging:
- Unfiltered LBV Ports
- Single Quinta Vintage Ports
- Crusted Ports, etc.
A few Colheitas may also improve if stored for more extended periods. When a bottle comes with a cork that needs to be opened only with the help of a corkscrew or the words “unfiltered” are printed somewhere on the label, they are excellent indicators that these Ports will continue to mature in the bottle.
So, the longer they are stored, the more they mature, and the more you will get to enjoy.
And if you do decide to store Port, make sure that it is kept in a cool, dark environment. Endeavor to position the bottle of Port on its side. If you have a cellar, then make use of it as it is the perfect location to store Port.
But if not, all you need is an area that will not be subject to any hot environment or where temperatures fluctuate.
Serving Port wine
The serving temperature of Port wine should be kept around 60 to 65 degrees. When Port wine is served relatively chilled, the aromatics are lifted considerably, and the focus is brought to bear on the flavor and innate components.
Today, you don’t have to travel all the way to Portugal to enjoy a chilled bottle of Port wine. Many countries around the world produce this remarkable vino.
But then, most of the fortified wines from some of these countries are composed of raised grapes which lack the appeal, remarkable acidity, and depth associated with the original version.
When you take a look at a Port wine’s bottle and see the designation “Porto,” it is an indication that you are holding an authentic Portuguese Port wine in your hands.
How to Drink Port Wine
Most people in America usually take Port as an accompaniment to cheese or a substitute for dessert. The white varieties are even preferred during cocktail hour. But then no law says Port must bookend your meals.
Port cocktails usually introduce a wide range of fortified wines to titillate new palates. You can incorporate Port into your menus and pair these wines with your spicy foods.
Be free to experiment by pairing Port with a variety of meals until you hit the right set that is suitable for you.
You may also ask for advice from sommeliers or bartenders who are in the best positions to steer you right when it comes to pairing Port with meals.
What Are the Health Benefits of Port Wine?
Port wine also offers loads of health benefits, just like any other red wine. The alcoholic beverage is loaded with beneficial nutrients, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. The antioxidants contain flavonoids and resveratrol, a chemical compound or polyphenol.
According to recent research, drinking red wine at moderate levels, can protect you against heart disease, prostate cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, i.e., by preventing mental decline.
The key focus in most new research that is conducted these days is on resveratrol. Resveratrol is usually found in copious amounts on the skins of red grapes used in making red wines. It is believed that this polyphenol contributes significantly to the following:
- Reduction of bad cholesterol;
- Prevention of clots;
- Protection against artery damage; and
- Promotion of heart health.
Is Port wine healthier than other Red Wines?
Having seen the health benefits of Port wine and what it brings to the table in terms of soundness of overall health, is it safe to believe that it is better or healthier than other red wines out there?
In all honesty, the answer to that question is a resounding “No.” Port wine is not in any way better or healthier than other red wines out there.
If you are therefore looking for the best wine that is bursting with lots of beneficial nutrients, then Port shouldn’t be your #1 choice on the list. This is because Port wine has high sugar and alcohol content, which far surpasses that of other red wine in its class.
So, Port wine will be a less healthy choice for you, especially if you are living with diabetes.
To round up this section, Port wine may not be the #1 choice as regards your health, that doesn’t change the fact that it contains lots of health benefits when and if it is consumed in moderation.
So, you can keep raising a glass of Port to your good health now and then or on a special evening. Remember not to overdo it, and your health will thank you for it!
If you have a wine collection, but a few Port wines are missing from the bunch, then, my dear friend, consider your collection grossly incomplete!
No doubt, the king of Port is Vintage since the fruits are of exceptional quality. We will be lucky if we get up to three or even four declared vintages every decade.
Nevertheless, that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the Tawny Ports, White Ports, etc. – from the best and renowned vintners – that are on the market today.
You should also bear in mind that decanted Port oxidizes quickly, and must, therefore, be consumed within a day or two. That is never a problem with Port lovers, though.
Ruby Ports and Tawny Ports usually last a bit longer, so you can keep them for up to a month, but at a time.