Many think of port as a grandfatherly drink or imagine that it must be enjoyed in front of a roaring fire on a cold winter’s night or not at all.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Port wine is made in a wide array of styles and is surprisingly versatile option for food pairing or entertaining.
Port is a wine with a long history. Trade between Portugal and Britain started in the middle of the 13th century when Portuguese wines were exchanged for fish and wool. In their search for quality wine from Portuguese sources, English merchants made their way up the Douro River where they found dark and full-bodied wines. Even if these wines were quite sturdy, some merchants added brandy to stabilize them before the arduous return sea voyage. This was the birth of port as we know it today.
Port is a fortified wine, meaning that alcohol is added during the winemaking process. Unlike other fortified wines such as sherry, the addition of grape-based spirits in the production of port takes place while the wine is still fermenting, a mere 24 to 36 hours after the grapes have been crushed and when the alcohol by volume (ABV) is still fairly low at around six to nine per cent. Port gets its sweetness as a result of arrested fermentation. It is stopped before the yeast has transformed all the sugars from the grapes into alcohol. The alcohol that is added plays two roles. It brings the ABV to around 20 per cent and kills the yeast so it stops metabolizing the sugar.
Port can be made from approximately 80 permitted varieties, but in reality only a handful are commonly used: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Cão and Tinta Barroca; each contributing distinctive characteristics to the blend. The location were the grapes are grown also shapes the taste profile of a port. Were they sourced from warmer vineyards close to the Douro River or from cooler sites higher up the amazingly-steep slopes of the Douro Valley? It is worth noting that the breath-taking Alto Douro wine region was recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2001.
Ports are made in many different styles. Ruby ports tend to be fruity with little or no wood influence. They are multi-vintage wines that are bottled ready-to-drink after three to five years of ageing. They do not need to be decanted and are a great introduction to port.
Late Bottled vintage ports, LBVs for short, are ruby ports from a single vintage that are aged a few more years before release. They tend to display more complex fruit and firmer tannic structures. They are also ready to drink upon release and don’t need to be decanted.
Vintage ports, for their part, are far from ready to drink when they are bottled and most will benefit from aging in the bottle for a decade or two (and sometimes more). They are wines from a single and particularly good vintage that are bottled unfiltered after only two or three years of aging. Vintage ports are blends of the finest wines from the best vineyards owned by a producer. Each producer can decide unilaterally to declare a year good enough to produce a vintage port. Some vintages are more unanimous than others: 1977, 1994, 1997, 2000, 2007, and 2011 are some of the great vintages of the last 40 years. Vintage ports are full-bodied, rich and tannic, will throw a heavy deposit and therefore, need to be decanted.
Tawny ports are quite different as they are multi-vintage blends aged in wooden barrels for prolonged periods, which allows for controlled oxidization. The oxidization process causes a loss of colour from deep red to tawny (hence the name) and lend them complex flavours of nuts, date, caramel and butter pastry. The longer the aging, the more pronounced the flavours. A 10-year-old tawny will just start to exhibit these aromas, whereas a 20-year-old tawny will have you dreaming of the best pecan pie you’ve ever had.
Other styles of port include colheitas, essentially a tawny port from a specific vintage, and single quinta vintage port, a vintage port made exclusively from a single quinta or estate. A small percentage of white Port is also produced.
Clearly, there is a port for every occasion.
Jean-Sébastien Morin is a category manager with P.E.I. Liquor. He is an accredited sommelier, wine writer, educator, and wine judge. His love of wine was born in the late 1980s, while studying and working in Europe. Inspired Grapes aims to transmit Morin’s passion for wine while never forgetting that the pleasure of a glass of wine often resides in the moment and the company in which it is shared. To reach Morin, email firstname.lastname@example.org