Lesson 09 – About PORT Wine

Port is a fortified wine. That means spirit is added to a base wine to fortify the alcoholic strength to a designated level, which in the case of Port, is 20% ABV (Alcohol By Volume) or about 18% in some Australian versions. It is difficult to pinpoint when Port was “invented” but it is pretty sure to be around since the 17th century. The best Port in the world comes from Portugal but the countries that drink the most Port are France and Britain.

Unlike dry red or white wines, Port is such a versatile product that there are numerous styles. Each style can easily be a stand-alone product complete with its own purpose, appeal and characteristics. Here are some of the more popular styles that you are likely to encounter frequently.

Ruby Port
This is “entry level” port which we can buy for about p300 and up to p1000 for a ‘Premium’ Ruby. Cheaper versions tend to be a bit harsh, often used in cooking – port reduction sauce for example – or drunk with strong flavored food and moderately spicy Asian cuisine. Ruby Port is aged in wooden barrels for up to 3 years and they are ready to drink when bottled.

Tawny Port
The range of quality in Tawny is staggering. True Tawny usually has on its label the number of years it was aged in barrel before bottling. This can be 10 to 40 years and their respective prices range from p1500 to p8000. An ordinary Tawny Port weighs in at p650 to p1500. Long ageing in barrels gives this Port a red-brown color – hence the name Tawny – as well as a dry nutty flavor and raisin notes. Steer clear of exceptionally cheap Tawny Port even if they show the matured red-brown color. Most of these cheap Tawny Ports are made by adding a little White Port to a basic Ruby to achieve the color that would allow it to pass for a Tawny. We get the color but not the attractive flavor or barrel-aged Tawny Port.

White Port
White Port is made from a variety of white grapes like Arinto, Gouveio, Malvasia etc. It comes in dry or sweet versions, both best served slightly chilled and often enjoyed as an aperitif. A serious dry white port can benefit from a few years of ageing.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)
LBV is the most popular style because of its consistently good quality and reasonable price tag. It is a superb introduction to first-class Port. Unlike Tawny and Ruby, LBV is made from a single harvest and a Vintage Year appears on the label. It is aged in barrel from 4 to 6 years giving it more complexity than a Premium Ruby. Before you serve an LBV, check if it is “filtered” or “un-filtered”. If it is unfiltered, you should expect a considerable amount of sediments in the bottle. Decanting is strongly urged.

Colheita Vintage Port
It is not often that we come across a Colheita but when you see one, it is almost always a super-value buy. Colheita is a Tawny Port made from a single vintage which is stated in the label. It ages for at least 7 years in barrel giving it depth, complexity, that attractive nutty flavor and flavors of dried fruit. Most Colheita’s are zapped up once they hit the wine shelves because it is perhaps the closest thing to the KING of Port – The Vintage Port – at probably half the cost.

Vintage Port
Well, well, well, this is what PORT is all about, the top of the line, ultimate luxury but alas almost always expensive Vintage Port. To start with, producers don’t make Vintage Port every year. As a matter of fact, they “declare” – term used in the trade to mean announcing that a Vintage Port will be made for this year – a Vintage about 3-5 years in a decade. That decision is based on how great the vintage is. Vintage Port accounts of about 1% of Port made so it hardly makes or breaks a producer’s financial disposition either way. A lousy Vintage Port can seriously damage a producer’s reputation.

Vintage Port is made from one single vintage year and only the best grapes are chosen. It is bottled after 2-3 years in barrel, unfiltered of course and is expected to improve with bottle ageing for many years, a century even, for the best vintages such as 1955, 1963, 1977 for example. Many argue that Vintage Ports are one of the finest wines in the world. After a sip of these, one might be at a lost for words to disagree. Prices for these luxury wine start at p6000 and depending on the vintage, reaches p600,000 or more. We can always expect a thick sediment in Vintage Port and so decanting is absolutely required.

Single Quinta Port
Now that we know how sensitive a decision to “declare a vintage” is, for lesser-quality vintages, producers may opt to produce a “Single Quinta Port”. It is practically the same as a Vintage Port but it comes from a single vineyard. But the mere admission that it is not “Vintage Port” means two things – (1) it is less expensive and (2) its quality is not up to the standard of Vintage Port. Along with Colheita’s, Single-Quinta’s can be excellent value for your money. Always decant a vintage port.

Now before we end this week’s lesson on Port, let’s quickly explain how Port gets its sweetness. Except for really bad Ports where cheating takes place, there is no sugar added to make the wine sweet. Instead, the sweetness comes from the (red) base wine. Let me explain. To refresh our memory, the fermentation process converts sugar in grape juice into alcohol to form wine. For dry wine almost all the sugar is converted. What if we stopped the fermentation half-way? This would mean two things – (1) there is sugar left unfermented and (2) not the full strength of alcohol is achieved. We’ll we have achieved the sweetness. Now we need to achieve the desired level of alcohol strength. We are an exact ratio of spirit – grape brandy usually – to make the solution precisely say 20%ABV. Viola! We have Port – a complex wine with a great balance of sweetness and alcohol strength.

Some names to look for in Port are: DOW, GRAHAM, COCKBURN, TAYLOR, DIEZ, SMITH WOODHOUSE, SANDEMAN, FEIST and BARROS. But the greatest name of all, the nobility among Port producers if you will, is Portugal’s national pride – QUINTA DO NOVAL. Their vintage port made from the indigenous grape variety called Touriga Nacional – specified in label – commands an extraordinary high price but despite that all bottles are zapped up immediately upon release. Although some connoisseurs recommend serving Port at 20˚C, many find it more pleasant at room temperature 15˚C in tropical climates.

What do we eat with Port? Blue cheese, medium-spicy Asian food, heavy reduction sauces, dark bitter chocolate come to mind instantly. The all-time classic pairing is a English Blue Stilton cheese with a glass of genuine Vintage Port. Life is not long enough to say no to something so perfect, do you agree?

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