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Port. You’ve seen it in the store. You’ve read about it in British novels. You’ve heard it offered with dessert at restaurants…
But the port is more complex than a mere dessert wine or aperitif. Is a whole world of aromas like dried fruit, and types, such as Vintage Port.
We’ll discuss the two main types: Tawny and Ruby, and their defining characteristics.
So, the next time someone asks you if you want a port, you’ll know which to pick!
Main Differences Between Tawny vs Ruby Port
The Main Differences Between Tawny vs Ruby Port are:
- Tawny can be aged for a long time, whereas Ruby Port has very short ageing.
- Tawny is aged in small oak barrels, whereas Ruby Port can be served as a dessert.
- Tawny a little cooler, whereas Ruby Port needs to be served sightly chilled.
- Tawny vague nutty flavors, whereas Ruby Port has a very sweet flavour.
What is Port?
Port is a fortified wine. In fact, it is the world’s most popular fortified wine.
Fortifying wine involves adding some additional alcohol during the fermenting process. This makes the wine sweeter with higher residual sugar levels and dried fruit flavours.
Because of this sweetness, the port is often served as a dessert wine. But it can be paired with entrees as well.
Some ports are aged in a variety of forms so their character entirely changes.
When you go shopping in your local store, make sure which port you want: Ruby or Tawny!
Where does Port come from?
Port comes from the Douro Valley of Portugal.
Other places may claim to make port wines, but real genuine port only comes from this area.
In fact, it is sometimes labeled “Porto” on the bottle. Porto is the city at the base of the Douro River where the first ships carrying port casks to England set sail in 1658. And it is port’s main shipping city to this day!
In 1756 the Douro Valley became the world’s first wine appellation when the Portuguese government officially set its geographical boundaries. (I know, you would think France was first, but no! Long live port!)
The terroir and climate of Douro Valley are incredibly diverse.
- Baixo Corgo: to the west, has the highest rainfall, produces the highest yielding vines, creates light young ports
- Cima Corgo: to the east, has a drier climate, contains the finest vineyards, creates concentrated and long-lasting wines
- Douro Superior: along the border of Spain, has the hottest and driest climate of all, creates Vintage ports
Most soil comes from the river banks and is full of fine soil or slate-like rock.
But the altitude, wind exposure, sun exposure, and access to water all differ.
This allows innumerable combinations of yields to create complex and exciting port wines for us!
Since the port is only from one area of Portugal, there are only specific grape varieties that can be used to make it!
There are several varieties of these port grapes. (Around 30!) Each contributes a slightly different flavor to the wine.
White port is made from white grapes.
While Tawny and Ruby port are both made from red grapes.
Each bottle of port contains several different types of grape and may even be from several different vineyards!
White Grapes include Rabigat, Viosinho, Malvasia, Gouveio.
- Touriga Franca – raspberry, cinnamon, floral
- Touriga Nacional – blueberry, vanilla, high in tannins
- Tinto Roriz – resin flavors, aromatic and structured wines
- Tinta Barroca – sweet, soft, and round
- Tinto Cao – crisp acidity, velvety texture
What is the history of Port?
Douro’s first shipment of wine labeled Porto was recorded in 1678.
As you may have imagined if you’ve watched too much BBC (guilty as charged), the Great British Empire had a hand in its popularity.
You see, continuous wars with France during the 17th and 18th century essentially lead to a boycott of French wines like Bordeaux. With Claret off the table (literally) England needed something to take its place.
In taking their business elsewhere, the English discovered the Portuguese were happy to fill the gap with wines from Douro!
Because the bumpy voyage from Porto to England could cause the wines to spoil, the British often added a little brandy to the casks to fortify it. (See where I’m going here.)
By the time the wine reached England, it had a reputation for being sweet, high in sugar, high in alcohol, and richly flavored. This is the Port we have today.
How is Port made?
The port grapes grow throughout the hot, dry summer and are harvested in fall.
The grapes are then pressed to extract the juice. While many vineyards now use mechanical pressers, some still use the traditional method: human feet!
The pressed grapes: skins, seeds, juice and all, are then allowed to ferment for around 7 days.
Once the alcohol levels have reached roughly 7%, brandy or other alcohol is added to the young wine. This process is what makes the port a “fortified” wine.
The brandy halts the fermentation process and retains those intense fruity flavors. It also increases the sugar content, which is why it’s often considered a dessert wine!
This young Port then ages in oak casks or steel vats for 4-18 months. After this point, the wines are shipped down the Douro river to the grand Port Houses in Porto and tasted.
Combining and Next Steps
There they are combined, based on taste, to create uniquely aromas and flavored wines. Some ports are bottled for sale. Other is bottled foraging. And still, others remain in casks for aging as well.
It is in these next steps that we find the difference between Ruby and Tawny port wine.
How to Cook with Port?
Most recipes call for young Ruby Port wine. These wines are cheaper so you don’t have to stress about adding them into your cooking!
Adding port to meat dishes gives them a full berry and spice flavor. It is also often added to chocolate cakes or sauces to add a richer, fruitier flavor.
Port can also be slowly reduced down, like balsamic vinegar, until it becomes a glaze that can be used in steak, cocktails, or even desserts.
What does Port taste like?
Port is generally a sweeter wine. It has around 100 grams of sugar per liter.
But the flavors of port vary greatly depending on the type of grapes and length of aging!
Younger ports are more spicy, fruity and taste like berries.
Aged ports lose their berry flavors and gain a nutty, caramel quality.
- White port: Drier, Citrus
- Rosé port: Strawberries, Cranberries, Raspberries
- Tawny port: Caramel, Raspberry, Hazelnuts, Clove, Figs
- Ruby port: Blackberries, Raspberries, Chocolate, Cinnamon
Types of Port:
- Late Bottled Reserve
- Vintage Crusted and Vintage Single Quinta
- 10-40 Years
One should never say that port is in any way “basic,” since it takes expert craftsmanship and knowledge of grape flavor combinations to create even the youngest bottles.
That said if you had to label one as basic, Ruby would be it.
Ruby port is the youngest of all the port options. It’s bottled and sold to drink right after the initial 18-month aging cycle.
Because of this, ruby port retains the flavor of its fruit.
It’s also very affordable so you can buy a bottle for under $20!
What does Ruby Port taste like?
Ruby port retains much of its young fruit characteristics. It is usually high in tannins but still very sweet. It’s full and rich and the deep red color betrays its berry-like flavors.
General Ruby Flavor Notes:
How is Ruby Port Made?
Youth is essential for Ruby ports. They should be enjoyed young without too much aging!
As the youngest iteration, they follow the general process of port wine-making.
- Fall Harvest
- Aging large barrels or vats for 18 months to 2 years
- Bottled and Sold
They age for the shortest amount of time: 2 years. Which gives them time to develop flavors but not enough to lose fruit and body.
Ruby ports only have minor exposure to oak, if at all. Many are aged in stainless steel vats.
Either way, the size of these aging containers must be large to avoid oxidizing the wine. That would defeat the color and fruit flavor that is essential to Ruby Port!
Specialty Ruby Ports
Most Ruby ports are meant to be consumed young and are bottled relatively quickly. However, there are a few specialty versions of ruby that are worth noting!
- Reserve – high-quality Ruby ports, blended from the top-quality vines, meant to be consumed young
- Late Bottled Reserve – Aged for 4-6 years, still meant to be enjoyed young
- Crusted – Blend of more than 1 harvest year, unfiltered, has sediment (decant this one), meant to be enjoyed young
- Vintage – aged for 6 months in oak and then aged in the bottle for at least 20 years (always decant!)
- Single Quinta – Vintage port that comes from a single vineyard
Crusted, Vintage, and Single Quinta are all removed from oak after a maximum of 2 years and bottled.
They are then aged in their bottles for a number of years before being sold.
This extra aging in-bottle is what develops their flavors and produces some of the finest ports in the world.
What food pairs with Ruby Port?
Ruby port is recommended in most recipes. It can be used to spruce up sauces, cakes, meat, and even make its own glaze! It pairs with:
- Strong Cheeses (like Blue or Stilton)
- Aged Cheeses
- Steak in fruit sauces
- Glazed goose
- Salads with fruit
Ruby port is one of the few drinks that serve as a dessert itself. If you’re feeling full but still want a little sweet, a glass of ruby port is just the thing!
It also marries wonderfully well with chocolate, which can be hard to pair.
- Chocolate truffles
- Chocolate cake
- Chocolate sauce
- Cherry Pie
- Raspberry sauces
How to serve Ruby Port?
Ruby port should be served slightly chilled, just below room temperature. Around 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you place it in the fridge, take it out about 30 minutes before serving so it warms up a bit and the flavors don’t get lost.
*You don’t need to decant ruby ports!
Ruby Port Cocktails:
How much does Ruby Port Cost?
Ruby ports are among the least expensive of port wines. You can find great bottles starting around $15. And you can even find some fairly good bottles around $6-$10 depending on where you live!
The Best Ruby Ports
For an Introduction: Niepoort Ruby Port $15.99
Rich and delicious. The nose is heavy on brown sugar, maple syrup, and raisins. But the palate is like a glass of fresh berries. Raspberries, blackberries, cherries, black currants, and even plums fill the glass. The faint taste of raisins in sugar. I was worried at first sniff it might be too sweet for me, but the high tannins brought in a faint sour twang. Be careful, it is high on alcohol and easy to drink too much!
For an Affordable Treat: Sandeman Founders Reserve Porto $20.96
Ripe and full, the nose smells like jam. Plum and blackberries mixed with chocolate covered cherries. Very easy to sip with light tannins. There is the faintest hint of oak, but chocolate and blackberries are the main flavors. A delightful, charming wine.
For a Splurge: Graham’s Late Bottled Vintage 2012 $55.98
For Graham’s, 2012 was a spectacular year and this is a sample of the finest of the yield. This Late Bottled Vintage matured in seasoned oak and was bottled after 4 years of age. Mint notes linger in the background behind full blackberry, cherry, and dark chocolate. It tastes like a caramel fruitcake with spicy fig, prune, and tobacco. You could drink now or leave in the cellar for a few more years.
Best Ruby Port Producers: Cockburn, Croft, Graham’s Six Grapes, Niepoort, Taylor Fladgate, Warre’s
The more complex style of port, such as aged Tawny, has a slightly different story and a slightly different flavor.
Made with the same grapes as Ruby Ports, Tawny port has been aged in oak long enough for the rich red color to fade to deep mahogany.
What does Tawny Port taste like?
Because of the longer aging and longer contact with wood, the fresh fruit character of ruby ports changes into a nuttier and caramel profile.
Tawny port is a little more complex and has a wider array of flavors!
General Tawny flavors:
- Cinnamon (Younger)
- White Pepper
- Dried Raisins
- Dried Apricots
- Graham Cracker
- Vanilla (Older)
How is Tawny Port Made?
Tawny ports also follow the general port-making process with the notable exception that they spend less time on the skins which reduce the red color and obviously fruity character.
- Fall Harvest
However, after being fortified, tawny ports are allowed to age in oak barrels for 3 years minimum.
Unlike Ruby and some Vintage ports, Tawny ports are aged in small oak barrels which provides a greater introduction to oxygen. This slow oxygenation causes the loss of red color and allows them to keep much longer once opened.
A basic Tawny port is aged for 3 years and has only vague nutty flavors.
After that, Tawny ports can be aged for up to 40+ years for a regular tawny, and longer for specialty bottles.
The longer a Tawny ages, the less fruit, and cinnamon it contains and the stronger nut and caramel flavors appear!
Aged and Other Specialty Tawny Ports
Tawny ports can come in a variety of styles.
The year mark on some ports indicates the minimum age of all the grapes included in the bottle. If you have a Tawny 10, none of the grapes are younger than 10 years and some are much older!
- Colheita – all grapes were harvested in the same year
- Tawny 10 – minimum age of grapes is 10 years, raspberry, cinnamon
- Tawny 20 – minimum age of grapes is 20 years, caramel, cinnamon
- Tawny 30 – minimum age of grapes is 30 years, smooth, nutty, caramel
- Tawny 40 – minimum age of grapes is 40 years, smooth, very nutty, butterscotch, vanilla
Tawny 10, 20, and 40 are all aged in oak barrels to allow oxidation and wood contact.
After all this aging, the tannins breakdown and we’re left with velvety smoothness and mellowed nuanced flavors.
What food pairs with Tawny Port?
Tawny port’s nuttier and less sweet-fruit character makes it perfect for pairing with salty and nutty foods.
- Soft Cheeses
- Duck Liver Paté
- Foie Gras
- Cornish Hens
- Pear, apple, banana
Tawny Port is less likely to be served as a dessert on its own. (Though if you’re feeling just a nice Tawny for dessert, more power to you!)
- Milk chocolate
- Crème Brûlée
- Pecan pie
- Caramel Cheesecake
- Apple Pie
- Coconut Cream Pie
How to serve Tawny Port?
Tawny ports can be served a little cooler than Ruby ports. 50-58 degrees is the ideal range, although you can go up to 60 degrees as well.
Don’t serve directly out of the fridge, let them rest about 15 minutes before serving to take some of the chills off and allow the flavors to come forward.
No need to decant with Tawnies that are 10, 20, or 30 years. They shouldn’t have any sediment.
Tawny Port Cocktails:
How much does Tawny Port Cost?
Tawny port is usually a little more expensive than Ruby port since it ages longer.
A regular bottle of Tawny port can cost you around $18-$35.
The longer they’ve aged, the more expensive they get. Some aged ports can cost around $150-200!
The Best Tawny Ports
For an Introduction: Quinta do Infantado Tawny Port 10 Year $28.99
Deep amber color with notes of toffee, caramel coffee grinds, and toasted orange peels. It’s not quite as sweet as the nose warns. Instead, the silky texture makes it dangerously easy to over drink! If you drink slowly you can catch the faint oak and raisin notes. High in alcohol, low in tannins, it makes for an easy sip.
For a Semi-Affordable Treat: Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny Port $55
Ideal for a summer sip, this 20-year-old tawny has all the benefits of aging. A floral nose greets you, full of caramel, nuts, and spice. It’s smooth with toasted walnuts, candied ginger, dried apricot, fig, and just a hint of mango. The toasty flavors blend well with the tropical fruit notes. Butterscotch and honey finish it off with a mature acidity and mild sweetness. Delightful chilled for summer!
For a Splurge: Dow’s 40 Year Old Tawny Port $150
Deliciously aged, and you can tell from the first sip. It is warm, reminiscent of crème brûlée or flan with a sweet caramel flavor. Notes of fig, toffee, raisin, and almonds are in the foreground. But there are also hints of honey, green tea, and toasty bergamot that linger to the back. Very complex. Strong on wood and nut flavors. A lovely sip!
Best Tawny Port Producers: Cockburn, Dow, Graham’s, Taylor Fladgate, Warre’s
Frequently Asked Questions
Due to its character, you can make a variety of cocktails with Ruby port. For example, New York Collins, Sweater Weather and Port Flip recommended by “Food & Wine”.
Wine is always evolving, and Port are not behind. Almost a decade ago, some companies, tried to develop a new variant of port wine, fermented in a similar way as the rosé wine, and as you can image, its name is Rosé Port.
Essentially, it’s a politer form of “pass the port, you lush!”
At a dinner party, the port should always be passed to the left with the previous person pouring a glass for their neighbor.
If the decanter stalls, it’s rude to ask for it directly. (Oh, the English!) Instead say, “do you know the Bishop of Norwich?”
Anyone who understands will immediately continue passing.
If they answer they do not know this estimable Bishop, your response should be, “He’s a lovely man, but he always forgets to pass the port.”
Congratulations, you can now go write your own episode of Downton Abbey.
Port, like most wines, is best stored in a cool, dark place on its side.
Regular Tawny and Ruby ports can be stored upright since they are drink-now wines.
Port will keep for many, many years if unopened and stored properly.
Tawny ports continue to improve with age!
Ruby ports do not improve with age, so they should be opened now.
Ruby ports last about 2 weeks if stored in the fridge.
Tawny ports will last about 1 month if stored in the fridge. (Their oxidation means they have a longer shelf-life.)
Though there are examples of ports lasting even longer!
If you have a cellar, you should keep your open port there.
Vintage port needs to be drunk within 24 hours. Too much oxidation ruins it!
One serving of Port is typically 3 oz.
For younger ports, serve them straight from the bottle at around 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
For older, aged, or Vintage Ports, decant them first and then serve around 60 degrees.
Both Ruby and Tawny ports should be served slightly chilled.
Though it is generally served alone, you can use every type of port in a cocktail as well!
You should definitely decant the older Vintage Ports. These acquire layers of sediment after years of aging. They should be decanted 2 hours before serving.
Crusted ports should also be decanted.
Ruby Ports are meant to enjoy young. You do not need to decant these.
Most Tawny ports also do not need to be decanted.
Port is served in a smaller version of a red wine glass. They usually hold about 7 oz. of fluid and are around 6 inches tall.