While I’m a Floridian at heart, there is something to be said about enjoying cool weather. There’s something about curling up underneath a blanket with a nice glass of wine. There is one wine in particular I save for these rare occasions: Port.
For clarification, I’m referring to the fortified wine from Portugal (specifically, the Douro region). There are over 100 different varieties of grapes grown in the region, all used in Port production. The process of making Port involves stopping the fermentation while still sweet with alcohol. This gives the wine high alcohol content (19-23%) and makes it very age worthy. There are 4 basic types of Port and knowing the differences beforehand can make staring at the rows of bottles on the shelves a bit easier.
The first type is Vintage Port. While the most expensive, it also has the most ageing potential (up to 50 or more years!). These are produced only in the best years and the winery must declare a vintage by sending a sample to the IVDP (Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto) for approval. If approved, the producer officially declares the vintage. Vintage Port only accounts for about 2% of Port production, which makes these bottles quite prized. The ports are aged in the barrel for a maximum of 2 ½ years before bottling and then aged in the bottle for another 10-40 years. Over time, Vintage Port gradually gains complexity and character.
The next type of Port is Ruby Port. While it’s the most basic port, it’s also one of the least expensive. After fermentation, the wine is stored in stainless steel or concrete tanks. This keeps the wine from oxidizing and preserves it’s rich, purple color. It is sweet, grapey, and ready to drink upon release. It does not usually benefit from prolonged bottle ageing, so drink up!
Tawny port is where things get interesting. White wine (though made from red grapes) spends at least 2 years in barrels (though sometimes much longer). This exposes the wine to gradual oxidation and evaporation, imparting nutty and oaky flavors into the wine and resulting in a golden brown color. Tawny ports are blended for age profiles (indicated by a 10, 20, 30 year and so on). These are blended Ports aimed at the profile of the age, not the actual age of the wine. Thus a 30 year Tawny is actually blended to taste like a well-aged port, not actually aged that long. An interesting and rarer type of Tawny Port is called Colheitas. This is with a vintage year on the bottle that has been aged in a barrel for many years before being bottled and sold.
The final and most confusing type of Port is, well, everything else. These are indicated by different bottles with terms like LBV (Late bottle Vintage), Reserve, or no information at all. These usually much less expensive than Vintage Ports, and are ready to drink when sold. LBVs are Ports that were left in the barrel past the required time to declare a vintage. They are usually bottled 4-6 years after the vintage and have a year on the label after the LBV. Reserve Ports are blends of different Ports approved by the IVDP as a premium product. Crusted ports usually have little or no information on the bottle. These are blended Ports, usually unfiltered, and aged in the bottle for at least 3 years. So get out there and drink some Port! It just isn’t the same when it’s hot outside!
Bill Dahl, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits wine consultant
Follow me on Twitter @ABCwineBillD