Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Port Wine Primer

File this under the category "useful". Ever been curious about Port wine? To the beginning wine drinker, Ports can be very confusing. There's a lot of misinformation being peddled by ignorant "wine people" that causes a lot of you to hesitate before ordering or buying a Port.

If you study this ‘Port 101’ from Fladgate Partnership winemaker David Guimaraens, you'll get a good foundation of knowledge to help your initial foray into these fascinating wines. As always, tasting is of course mandatory! Also, ask questions! I can't stress that enough, especially about wines like Portos.

What is Port?  Port is a fortified wine produced from grapes grown exclusively in Portugal’s Douro region.  Port was created in the 1700’s so the British would have wine to drink while at war with the French. As wines spoiled during the voyage to England, they were fortified to improve shelf-life. (Factoid: A wine is “fortified” by adding a neutral grape spirit to stop the fermentation, leaving residual sugar in the wine.)

Port Grapes:  Port can be made with 48 different grape varieties but five are considered the best and most widely used: Touriga National, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão.  Vineyards are cultivated on steep terraced slopes along the Douro River, arduous and costly work. 

Grape Stomping:  Grapes are hand-harvested, and in order to quickly extract colors and flavors without getting harsh tannins from the pits, the finest producers opt for the traditional way of crushing grapes by human foot treading in shallow stone tanks called lagares

Port Styles:  Simply put, Port can be divided into two main styles:  Ruby and Tawny.  Most Ports are blended wines from various years with the aim of producing a consistent house style (much like Champagne).

Ruby Ports:  Dark purple in color with rich fruity and spicy overtones, and a sweet character.  Bottles marked “Ruby Reserve” offer more complexity than a basic Ruby as they are aged longer before bottling and are generally higher quality blends.  

Vintage Ports:  Vintage Ports are the highest quality Ruby Ports from one single year. A Port producer will ‘declare’ a vintage in exceptional harvests.  Vintage Ports can be consumed young, but will develop in the bottle for decades, with powerful fruit flavors and tannins mellowing with age. Vintage Ports need to be decanted as they develop sediment in the bottle.  (Factoid: 2009 is the 4th vintage declaration of this decade, a rarity over the past three centuries.)

Tawny Ports: Aged in large oak casks, Tawny Ports are amber in color with flavors of toffee, dried fruits and nuts.  Ready to drink when bottled, Tawny Ports don’t need to be decanted.  More complex Tawny Ports have an indication of age on the bottle, e.g. 10, 20, 30 or 40-year old Tawny.  Their mellow, nutty, character comes from contact with air during long maturation in oak casks. (Factoid: Tawny Ports are delicious chilled served with or without ice.)

Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV):  LBV Ports spend between four to six years in oak prior to bottling.  The wines combine the mellow flavors of a Tawny Port while retaining the potent fruitiness of a Ruby Port. They do not need to be decanted. 

Port Pairings:  Ports can be enjoyed on their own at the end of the meal but are also an excellent dessert pairings. Ruby Ports are delicious with blue cheeses like Stilton or Roquefort and rich chocolate desserts. Tawny Ports are best accompanied with caramel and toffee desserts like crème brûlée or apple crumble.

I confess that the original press release that I copied into this blog did contain Port recommendations from Taylor's and Fonseca, two well-respected Port houses. I can certainly recommend Ports from each one. In fact one of my favorite Ports of all time is Taylor's 1985. The recommendations were deleted so as to remove any apperance of bias.

Tomorrow night at 5pm pst, I'll be participating in a live, virtual tasting of a new Port from Croft. It's unlike any I've tasted before, a rosé style Port made by extracting fresh, fruity flavors and a subtle, delicate pink color from the grapes. The result: a vibrant, lighter Port.

Follow along using the Twitter hashtags "#TGTaste" and "#CroftPink" as I (and other wine bloggers around the country) open and taste this interesting development in Port wines. I think it'll be fascinating to watch the bloggers react to Croft Pink.

Beau Carufel


  1. Nice post! I love port, and find myself drinking exponentially more of it in the winter time. I love the warm feeling of the brandy trickling down to my core on a frigidly cold winter day!

  2. I love Port, too. I'll have to look for the new Croft Pink.

  3. After tasting the Croft Pink, I'm not sure what to think of it. Would I drink this Port on it's own? No, definitely not. Would I mix it and create some cool cocktails? Most certainly. A blog post is forthcoming :-)