Introducing Port – it’s not one drink.
Port is a quintessentially British drink, yet it comes in many guises and can be confusing. Port is an entire category of wines rather than one drink. Sales of Port remain stubbornly seasonal, although it’s good at any time of year. However, peak Port is Christmas, which naturally gets the most commercial attention.
This article is an introduction to Port, summarising the styles available and with recommendations.
Though much about Port seems eternal, it continues to innovate. This article was initially written and published in 2004 and then updated in 2016. Now it’s revised for 2023!
The Port Region
Port wine can only come from a demarcated area in Portugal’s northeastern Douro Valley. The keys to all Port wines are fortification and maturation. These enable the creation of various types of Ports to suit different occasions and budgets. Other regions may use similar processes, but only wines from this area can be called Port.
The town of Oporto lends Port its name, where the River Douro meets the Atlantic. However, the vineyards start some eighty kilometres upriver. They inhabit an inhospitable landscape of steep hills, schist soils, extreme summer heat and freezing winters. The vineyards have terraces, as 90% of the land has a gradient steeper than one in three. These were made gradually over more than 300 years. As a result, this part of the Douro valley looks like a giant staircase. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s one of the 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 full, sweet red wines. Some say British merchants in 1678 found a monastery in the Douro at Lamego, fortifying red wine with Brandy during rather than after fermentation. That may be an apocryphal story, but fortification undoubtedly strengthened the wines. That also meant they were ideal for long sea journeys and trading. Eventually, this “blackstrap” was refined and became known as Port.
The Port region is also the oldest geographically demarcated wine region in the world, dating from 1756. It included new laws to protect the wine from adulteration and fraud – a problem that continues today. By then, merchants controlled the trade, and over time, they also invested in vineyards (quintas) rather than buying from growers and became producers and traders.
Since Britain enjoyed maritime supremacy, many of these shipping companies were British. But not exclusively so, as they also came from other European maritime nations, including Portugal, Holland, Spain, Germany and Norway.
Some of the original Port companies founded centuries ago still exist. They may often be part of a bigger group, but they retain brand names, identities and House styles. Business consolidation and innovation have been essential to remain commercially viable. If phylloxera and two world wars weren’t enough challenges, then declining demand for strong, sweet wines, seasonality and a (now unfairly) stuffy image have all posed modern threats.
On the plus side, all that has driven innovation. For example, the development of lighter, unfortified dry table wines is, perhaps surprisingly, relatively recent. New categories of Port have also appeared on the scene.
Now, Port must face another existential threat – the Climate Emergency.
The Climate Emergency is affecting the Douro, as in most wine regions. Hence, the need for sustainability is now essential. While Certified organic production exists, what has become recognised is that sustainability packages must address the entire process from grape to glass, not just viticulture.
One such new initiative is Portugal’s Sustainable Wine Growing Certificate, granted after a three-day independent audit covering 86 different environmental, social, business and economic factors. Symington (one of the Douro powerhouses that own Cockburn’s, Graham’s, Dow’s and Warre’s) were the first to achieve this in June 2023, and they are also members of the International Wineries for Climate Action.
Port wine is usually a blend of grape varieties, vineyards, and vintages. These three elements combine into a consistent house style. There are eighty authorised grape varieties, many of which are Portuguese natives. The top five red varieties used are Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Cão and Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo).
Given the steep and narrow terraces, most grapes are hand-picked. Until the 1960s, when electricity became available to power machinery, the grapes had to be trodden by human feet in shallow stone troughs called Lagares. Since then, mechanisation and electricity have become available. However, expensive foot-treading still creates the best Ports because this is still the optimal way to extract colour and tannins from the grapes.
Fermentation of the grape juice is halted after only 24-36 hours with the addition of 77% pure grape spirit. This fortification leaves the wine sweet (it keeps about 50% of the grape sugars) and raises the alcohol level to around 20%; the result is a fiery, tannic, sweet and frankly clumsy young Port, which is entirely undrinkable! The Port now needs taming by long maturation.
The Shipper’s Lodges
The new wine is now taken down the River Duoro to the Shipper’s Lodges at Vila Nova de Gaia, a small town facing Oporto on the opposite river bank. Unlike in the vineyards, which are hot in summer and freezing in winter, the naturally milder, breezier and more humid conditions in Vila Nova de Gaia are perfect, allowing time and transformation without needing air conditioning or refrigeration. Before the damming of the Douro and modern roads reached the valley’s upper reaches, transporting wine downstream to Vila Nova required a perilous river journey using flat-bottomed boats (Rabelo). Nowadays, the wine goes by truck.
Once at Vila Nova, maturation becomes fundamental to developing the individual Port style. The principal vessel in use is either glass bottles or old wooden casks. In reality, there’s often a combination. Maturation time also affects the style and the price. Let’s now look at some of the types of Port wines.
Ruby is the vast majority of Port produced. It is a youthful and fiery red port that is inexpensive, simple and made for immediate drinking. These are blended non-vintage wines. They mature in combinations of old wooden casks, cement tanks and stainless steel for about three years. Then they are fined, filtered and bottled. They usually carry a shipper or supermarket brand name and are for immediate drinking. They will not develop further or throw sediment.
Cockburn’s Fine Ruby Port, NV. 20 %
One of the best Ruby Ports. Cockburn’s dates from 1815, formed by two Scotsmen. Since 2010, Symington has owned it. Widely Available, £9.00 – £11.00.
Premium Ruby Port
Premium Ruby Port is far superior to Ruby Port because it includes a proportion of older wines. These offer deeper colour with more complexity and depth. Usually labelled as “Reserve “, they make for a far more satisfying experience.
Fonseca, Terra Prima, Organic Reserve Ruby Port, NV. 19.5%
Also founded in 1815, Fonseca established itself in London and Porto and is now part of the Fladgate Partnership. Pioneers in sustainability, two of their three quintas are certified organic. Whisky Exchange, £19.50.
White Port follows a similar journey to the Ruby and Premium Ruby. Instead, it uses white grapes such as Verdelho, Malvasia, Codega and Rabigato. The best examples age exclusively in wood for deeper colour and nutty flavours. They also come in various sweetnesses, from Seco (these taste off-dry) to the intensely sweet and viscous Lágrima. White Port makes for a good apéritif or a superb longer drink with tonic or lemonade. Either way, serve well chilled. The wines don’t age further.
Krohn, Lágrima White Port, NV. 20%
Wiese and Krohn were two Norwegians who shipped Port to Scandinavia in exchange for salted fish. Since 2013, it has become part of the Fladgate partnership alongside brands such as Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft. This example is about as sweet as it gets, with sophisticated caramel, honey and nutty flavours. The Wine Shop, Grassington £14.95
The key to Rosé Port is minimal skin contact, extracting the red fruit flavours from the grapes but leaving the deep colour and tannins behind. It’s fortified in the usual way but not aged. Given the renaissance of Rosé wines, it was perhaps inevitable that Rosé Port would appear. Other producers have followed suit. Drink chilled as an apéritif, a long drink with tonic or in cocktails.
Croft, Pink Port, NV. 19%
Croft is the oldest Port producer still trading today, the merchant business originating in York in 1588, so predating Port! Croft was responsible for the earliest known Vintage port in 1781. Yet in 2008, it was the first to market with Rosé Port (known initially as Light Ruby), moreover, bottling it under a screwcap! I can only imagine the cries of horror emanating from gentlemen’s clubs in London and from stuffier critics. How wonderful. Hay Wines, £11.99 (50cl bottle).
Aged Tawny Port
Aged Tawny 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 original quality of the wine used. Expect nuts, dried fruits and citrus flavours with a satisfying smoothness. As they age, they get more delicate, rarer and more expensive. The indicated age (10, 20, 30 and over 40 years) is an average, as the wine is always a blend of older and younger wines. The older the wines used, the more expensive they become.
Warre’s Otima 10-year-old Tawny Port, NV. 20%
Warre’s is the oldest British-owned Port shipper. Established in 1670 and now part of the Symington group. Otima rejuvenated the market with modern styling. Drinks Direct, £17.69 (50cl bottle).
Colheita is a Vintage Tawny from a single harvest year (Colheita means harvest in Portuguese). The label shows the date of the harvest and the time of the bottling. (Do beware of the so-called “Fine Tawny”. That’s a nasty cheap wine, either a mix of young Ruby and White Port or a Ruby subjected to heat to accelerate its ageing. Those will show no age date on the label and little interest in the glass).
Niepoort Colheita, 2004. 2 0%
Niepoort is of Dutch origins, dating back to 1842. Dirk Niepoort is one of the world’s most innovative winemakers, and this is an indulgent example.
Tanners £33.00 (half bottle).
Vintage is the most expensive style of red Port. It’s the one that commands all the attention, being the shipper’s flagship wine. These are the pinnacle of quality and account for less than 1% of all Ports made. Vintage comes from the best grapes of a single harvest year, hence the age date. Given that each year is unique, only the outstanding years are “declared” by the individual shipper.
However, a declaration is only possible when the shipper is confident that there is both market demand and high quality. So it’s a personal decision, made on average perhaps three times in a decade. That does mean that some outstanding years have no declaration! And that not all shippers declare the same year!
Vintage maturation is entirely different. Bottling from wood is early, at only two years. Development then takes place very slowly in the bottle over decades. So it throws thick sediment and needs decanting. Rarely released before age ten, most can be drunk from around their twentieth year and will last decades, even centuries. These almost indestructible wines reward the patient and the wealthy with unsurpassed elegance and finesse. Unsurprisingly, the wines are more expensive, with some attracting investors. Nevertheless, they are for enjoyment, so pick a special occasion. Vintage dates and longevity mean that Birth-years are a popular reason!
Taylor’s Vintage Port, 1985. 20.5%
There were only vintage declarations by Taylor’s in the 80’s. Of these, 1985 was the last and the most exceptional. Moreover, Taylor’s was the outstanding Vintage Port of 1985 – rare and unique. Fiery, intense and heady. But maturity brings richness, inner beauty and an incredible elegance that will last for decades. My favourite Port ever, with memories that bring tears to my eyes. Nickolls & Perks £75.00.
LBV (Late Bottled Vintage) Port
LBV seeks to convey a sense of Vintage character without waiting and expense. It’s a wine from a single harvest year but bottled much later than Vintage, typically at age six rather than at age two. Because of the extra time in wood, they are ready to drink earlier. That’s because they’ve thrown most of their sediment before bottling. If filtered, they don’t need decanting. However, the best LBVs are unfiltered and given another three years of ageing in the bottle. Those get nearer to Vintage in expression.
Niepoort, LBV, 2005. 20%
While Taylor’s invented LBV, Dirk Niepoort’s are legendary. Best decanted, unlike most LBVs, it can further develop over the next decade. Waitrose £19.99.
SQV (Single Quinta Vintage) Port
SQVs are red ports from the grapes of a single harvest. Unlike Vintage, they only use the grapes from a single estate. These wines focus on a shipper’s best property. Made in sound rather than outstanding years, they are usually less expensive than Vintage. In all other respects, production and maturation are just like Vintage. So they can develop for many years and will again need decanting. In short, SQV offers the essence of Vintage from lesser undeclared vintage years—nevertheless, the best examples rival full Vintage in quality but at more affordable prices.
Taylor’s, Quinta de Vargellas, Single Quinta Vintage Port, 2012. 20.5%
Taylor’s began in 1692. Vargellas is their top estate, where many vines are over 80 years old. In 1958, Taylors introduced this example, the first ever SQV. Best wine match – good after-dinner conversation! WineTrust, £32.99.
Crusted Port gets its name from the sediment that forms in the bottle as it ages. In this sense, it resembles a Vintage and will need decanting. But that’s where the similarity ends. In reality, it’s an unfiltered Ruby, which does give it more complexity. It spends up to four years in a cask and at least three in a bottle before release. Warning: despite the date on the label, this is NOT the vintage date; it’s a bottling date. The wine is a blend of different vintages! Nevertheless, there are some excellent examples, and it makes an alternative to LBV.
Exhibition Crusted Port, bottled 2017. 20%
It is produced for The Wine Society’s own Exhibition brand by Taylor’s, from the 2009, 2010 and 2011 vintages. It’s a simply splendid example at £18.50.
For completeness, let’s finish with a true rarity. Garrafeira comes from the best red grapes of a single year. Fortified as usual, it spends the first four years of life in wood casks. But then it’s transferred to green glass demijohns of 8-11 litres capacity, corked up to prevent air contact. The wine slowly evolves in these for decades, throwing sediment. At some point, it’s rebottled and then gets even more ageing.
Niepoort is the sole remaining maker of this official Port category, with its first Vintage in 1931. Since then, there have been only eleven more vintages, the most recent being 1987.
Niepoort, Garrafeira, 1987. 20%
Bottled in 2018, they say this wine is remarkably fresh and combines the nutty and silken elements of an ancient Colheita Tawny with the red colour and fruits of a Vintage Port, described as the “essence of the bottle”. Given the expense, I’m unlikely ever to know first-hand. Whisky Exchange, £700.00 (single bottle). P.S. The 1931 is £2,492.00 at the aptly titled Hedonism in London.
That Port can be one of the world’s most fantastic wines is beyond doubt. I hope this introductory article helps you explore its diversity and try some of the different styles, whatever the season. While the complexities of this region can be daunting initially, they can also engender a lifelong fascination, nay obsession. This particular rabbit hole goes deep!
If you are interested in fortified wines, then check out the styles of Sherry here.