Arguably, Port is one of those quintessential British drinks, alongside Champagne and Sherry, yet its various guises can be confusing for the newcomer, and it is often associated only with Christmas or Rowley Birkin QC. It deserves better than that. Port is a category rather than one drink, so Introducing Port is my summary of the main styles with some good examples to look out for at different price points.
Port can only come from a demarcated area in Portugal’s northeastern Douro Valley, though many other regions have copied its production methods. The key to Port is in its fortification and subsequent maturation that can create a variety of styles.
The town of Oporto lends Port its name, where the river Douro meets the Atlantic. The vineyards lie some fifty miles and more upriver in a dramatic and inhospitable landscape of precipitous hills, thin soils and extreme summer heat. 90% of the land has a gradient steeper than one in three, so vineyards were created in narrow terraces hacked out by hand over a period of more than 300 years, a process only recently augmented by dynamite and bulldozer. As a result, this part of the Douro valley looks like a giant staircase and is now a World Heritage Site. It’s one of the world’s most beautiful and dramatic wine landscapes.
British history and tradition are fundamental to Port. Because of almost constant Anglo-French antagonism, Britain turned to Portugal; as a staunch ally and to slake its thirst for thick and sweet red wines. In 1678, the English discovered a monastery in the Duoro that was fortifying red wine with Brandy. Such treatment made the wines richer and more alcoholic, ideal to withstand long sea journeys. Eventually, this “blackstrap” was refined and became Port.
Port is also the oldest geographically demarcated wine region in the world. In 1756, laws were introduced to protect the wine from adulteration and fraud. By then, merchants controlled the trade and were investing in vineyards (known as quintas), a situation that remains to this day. Many of these shippers were British, but merchants also came from other seafaring nations including Portugal, Holland, Spain, Germany and Norway. Between them they have created a range of styles to suit the palates of various export markets – there is something for everyone.
Port wine is usually a blend, of grape varieties, of vineyards and vintages. These combine into a consistent house style. There are eighty authorised grape varieties, many of which are Portuguese natives. The top five red grapes used are Tinta Barroca, Touriga Naçional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Cão and Tinta Roriz.
Given the steep and narrow terraces, most grapes are hand-picked. Until the 1960s all grapes were trodden by human feet in shallow stone troughs called Lagares. Since then, mechanisation and electricity are now available, but laborious and expensive foot-treading is still used to create the best Ports because it is still considered the optimal way to extract colour and tannin from the grapes.
Fermentation of the grape juice stops after only 24-36 hours by the addition of 77% pure grape spirit. This fortification leaves the wine sweet and raises the alcohol level to around 20%, creating a young Port; fiery, tannic, clumsy and completely undrinkable! Port needs taming by long maturation.
The wine is taken down the river to the shipper’s lodges at Vila Nova de Gaia, a small town facing Oporto on the opposing river bank. Before the damming of the Douro and modern roads were built this was a hazardous river journey. The cooler and more humid conditions in Vila Nova allow time and transformation long before air-conditioning became available upriver.
It is the choice made between ageing the wine in glass bottles or old wooden casks that fundamentally affects the style and price of Port, so let’s take a look at some of the main types of Port available.
Ruby Port is the vast majority of Port produced. It is a youthful and fiery red port that is relatively inexpensive, simple and made for immediate drinking. These blended non-vintage wines are matured in a variety of old wooden casks, cement tanks and stainless steel for about three years before being filtered and bottled. They usually carry a shippers or supermarket brand name and will not develop any further.
A far superior version to look for is Premium Ruby Port, with a proportion of older wines included. These offer deeper colour, more complexity and depth. Usually labelled as “Reserve“, they make for a far more satisfying and exciting drink for little extra outlay.
Ramos Pinto, Collector Reserve Ruby Port, NV. 19.5% abv. Ramos Pinto was founded in 1880, then taken over in 1990 by Champagne Roederer. This Premium Ruby Port averages five years of age. Good with mature hard cheeses and chutney. Harrogate Fine Wine Company £15.99
White Port follows a similar journey to the Ruby and Premium Ruby Port just described, except that it uses white grapes such as Verdelho, Malvasia, Codega and Rabigato. The best examples are aged exclusively in wood for deeper colour and nutty flavours. They also come in a range of sweetnesses, from Seco (these taste off-dry), to the intensely sweet and viscous Lágrima. White Port makes for a good apéritive or makes a refreshing longer drink when chilled with tonic or lemonade.
Krohn Porto Branco Seco, NV. 20% abv. Wiese and Krohn were two Norwegians that shipped Port to Scandinavia in exchange for salted fish. Today it is owned by the Portuguese Falcão Carneiro family. This example is about as dry as it gets. Taurus Wines, £11.99
Aged Tawny Port offers a step-change up in quality, a blended red wine aged in wooden casks for lengthy periods. Over time these wines gently oxidise, exchanging their red colour for deepening shades of amber-brown. The style depends on the time spent in the wood and the initial quality of the wine used. Expect nuts, dried fruits and citrus flavours with a satisfying smoothness. As they age (the allowed indicated ages are 10, 20, 30 and over 40 years) they get more delicate, rarer and more expensive. The age shown is only an average approximation as the wine is always a blend of older and younger wines. The older the wines, the more expensive they become.
Warre’s Otima 10-year-old Tawny Port, 20%. From the oldest British-owned Port shipper, established in 1670, now owned by the Symington family. Try it with Sushi – an unusual but cracking combination. Waitrose, £11.99.
Look out also for Colheita; essentially this is a specialised Tawny, made from a single year and the label will carry the date of the harvest and the time of the bottling. Do beware of so-called “Fine Tawny”, a nasty cheap wine that is either a mix of young Ruby and White Port or is a Ruby port subjected to heat to accelerate its ageing. Those will show no age date on the label and not much interest in the glass either.
Niepoort Coheita 1995, 20%. Niepoort is of Dutch origins, dating back to 1842. Dirk Niepoort is one of the world’s most innovative winemakers, and this is one of the best examples. Valvona & Crolla offer a half bottle for £24.95.
Vintage Port is the most expensive style of red Port and the one that commands all the attention, being the Shipper’s flagship wine that can last for decades, even centuries. These are the pinnacle of quality and account for less than 1% of all Port made. Vintage Ports are made solely from the best grapes of a single harvest, hence the age date. Given that each year is unique and dependent on the growing season, it’s only made in outstanding years which are then “declared” by the individual producer.
A producer makes a declaration only when confident that there is market demand as well as high quality, so it is a personal decision, made perhaps three times in a decade.
Vintage Port maturation is completely different. The wine is bottled from wood early; at only two years old. Because maturation takes place very slowly in the bottle over decades rather than in cask, the wine throws a large sediment that needs decanting. Rarely released before their tenth year, most are designed to go on maturing and can be drunk from around their twentieth year. These long-lived wines reward the patient and the wealthy with unsurpassed elegance and finesse.
Taylor’s Vintage Port, 1985. 20.5% abv. There were only three Port vintages declared by Taylor’s in the 80’s. 1985 was the last and most exceptional of all. In fact, Taylor’s was the outstanding Port made in 1985 – the best of the very best, rare and unique. Fiery, intense and heady, that is its character. But there is also richness, inner beauty and an incredible elegance that will last for decades. My favourite Port ever. The Wine Society £75.00
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) was created to convey some of the excellence of a Vintage Port but without all the wait and the expense. It’s a wine made from a single harvest year but bottled much later than Vintage Port, typically at age six rather than at age two. Because of the extra years in wooden casks, they are ready to drink earlier, having already thrown most of their sediment before bottling. If filtered they can also be enjoyed without decanting. However, the best LBVs to look out for are unfiltered and will also be given another three years ageing in bottle, so these can get nearer to true Vintage Port in expression.
Niepoort, LBV, 2005. 20% abv. While Taylor’s invented LBV, Dirk Niepoort’s are legendary. Best decanted, unlike most LBV it is capable of further development over the next decade. Dark chocolate or Blue cheese heaven. A handy half-bottle (37.5 cl) is £11.49 at Martinez.
Single Quinta Vintage (SQV), is the final style featured here. SQVs are red ports made from the grapes of a single harvest but unlike Vintage Port only use those the grapes from a single estate. These wines are designed to spotlight a shippers’ best property. Made in good rather than outstanding years, they are usually less expensive than Vintage Port. In all other respects, they are made and matured just like Vintage Port, can develop for many years and will again need decanting. These wines are usually not released until considered ready to drink. In short, SQV offers the essence of Vintage Port but from lesser undeclared vintage years, though the best examples will rival full Vintage Port in quality but at more affordable prices.
Taylor’s, Quinta de Vargellas, Single Quinta Vintage Port 2012. 20.5% abv. Taylor’s began in 1692. Most of the vines on their Vargellas Estate are over 75 years old. In 1958, Taylor’s introduced this, the original SQV Port. Best wine match – good after-dinner conversation! Uncorked, £28.99.
That Port can be one of the world’s greatest wines is beyond doubt. I hope that Introducing Port helps you explore its diversity.
As for Rowley Birkin, he was very, very drunk.
An earlier version of this article previously appeared in ON Magazine called “The Story of Port”.
If you enjoyed this article then check out the story of Sherry here.
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