Port is a fortified wine that is produced from grapes grown in the Upper Valley regions of the Douro River in Northern Portugal. The original wines are strengthened by the addition of distilled wine (i.e. essentially brandy) early in the production process, and the resulting blend has an alcoholic strength typically in the region of 19-20% as compared with the usual 12-13% for your average wine.
The fortified Port wines are shipped out from the town of Oporto, known to the Portuguese simply as Porto, hence the common shorthand name of the beverage. Bear in mind though that not all of the wines produced from the Douro regionÕs grapes are turned into the familiar Port wine Ð there are of course standard table wines produced too. Those wines that are used for the production of Ports are not only dependent for their quality on the grapes used to produce the wine, but of course also rely on the quality of the fortifying spirit used and the methods used to blend the final Port wine product. Hence the role of the Port shipper is a very important one, alongside the usual importance of climate and terrain. There are lots of famous shippers that you may already have heard of: Croft, Warre, Taylors, DowÕs, Fonseca, and many more, and the practices and expertise of the shipper are likely to favour different styles of Port.
As a starting point though, there are four main varieties that you should be aware of: Vintage Port, Tawny Port, Ruby Port, and White Port. The remainder of this article will therefore provide an overview of these main types of Port.
As the name would suggest, Vintage Ports are Port wines that are produced from grapes all grown in the same year (but typically not the same vineyard) Ð always of course a year that was blessed with excellent growing conditions, particularly in the period from the blossoming of the vines to the reaping of the harvest. It is down to the individual shippers to make the judgment as to whether a year constitutes a vintage, and even if a vintage year is declared the shipper will not necessarily use all of the wines from that year for the production of vintage Ports.
As is the case for vintage wines, vintage Ports will have subtleties and characteristics that stem from those of the year in which the grapes were produced. Broadly speaking, the vintage may be substantial enough that it demands the Port wines be stored for many years before they attain perfection, or it may be a lighter vintage resulting in Port wines that will be ready for drinking much earlier.
Overall then, the characteristics of vintage Ports will be highly nuanced. Typically the Port wine will have been bottled within 2 years of its production, and will be a deep red with utterly beautiful tones and textures to the palate along with a subtle and delicious bouquet. The very best vintage Ports are to be treasured and will come with a corresponding price tag.
A further variety of vintage Port is that of Late Bottled Vintage Port, which results from vintage Ports that, instead of being bottled within 2 years, are kept in their original casks for periods of up to fifteen years. This results in a vintage Port that has a lighter colour to it and a correspondingly lighter body. If a lighter style of Port wine is preferred then the late bottled vintage Port is a great option whilst retaining the exquisite bouquet that a vintage Port has to offer.
These are produced from a blend of the Port wines available from the Port shipperÕs stocks and so result from a mix of wines from different years. This skilful blend of Ports is matured in wood casks, and this is what gives the Port its tawny colour Ð a burnt-orange, lighter colouration than observed in typical, bottle-aged vintage Ports. It also imparts flavour and style to the Port in keeping with the wishes of the shipper. This time period is absolutely necessary for the blended wines to fuse into the resulting, delicious tawny Port Ð the Port wines cannot be relied upon to blend in-bottle. Once bottled, tawny Ports are therefore best consumed fairly soon as they will not benefit from further ageing. In style, tawny Ports are lighter and generally more refreshing versions of Port wine, since they do not have the body or the bouquet associated with vintage Ports.
These types of Ports are produced in a similar fashion to tawny Ports, in that they are blended from wines of different ages. The wines used are generally of younger vintages however, so that the resulting blend retains the deep ruby colouration associated with the vintage wines. Also, they are not aged in wooden casks and so avoid the transformative effects resulting from interaction with the wood. These tend to be the cheapest options for those looking to buy Port, and they are produced in the greatest quantities. As with tawny Ports, Ruby Ports are generally lighter styled Ports and will not on the whole benefit from ageing.
Completing this whirlwind introduction, you may be interested in trying out a White Port. These are produced using white grapes and are typically blended Ports that are aged in wood. There are a range of styles available but generally a white Port will be sweet, and often will be very sweet. There are other Ports to buy of course, such as Single Quinta vintage Ports (where ÒQunitaÓ refers to the estate where the grapes were produced), Colheita Ports and Crusted Ports, but these can be approached in time. For now, if you begin to sample and research the basic options mentioned above, then you will be well on your way to finding the right Port wine for you. Choose the style that sounds right for you and take it from there.