In my mind it’s always a great time to sip a glass of port, but in the cooler weather, nothing warms the cockles of the heart better. Created from numerous grape varieties, but mostly Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cao, port is grown in northern Portugal’s Douro Valley about 60 km inland from the Atlantic. The environment is ruggedly beautiful with blazing hot summers and extremely cold, windy winters. The rolling hills along the Douro River are made of schist (flat slaty rock) that are so hard, dynamite often has to be used to create holes in the ground to plant the vines.
Perhaps the most profound aspect about port production is that it is probably the last and only wine on earth produced by foot-trodding. People line up in a ‘lagare’ (large granite tank), and under the direction of a captain, walk this way and that through the mushy combination of grape pulp and liquid, crushing it. Automatic vinificators, simulating foot trodding, have be created and utilized over the years, but still the best Port seems to result from human feet. All Port is ‘fortified’, meaning it has brandy added to it during fermentation. Because the spirit is added before the yeast has consumed all the sugar in the wine, most port ends up sweet.
Two main distinctions in port determine style: whether the wine is dated, from a single vintage or blended from several (most are blended) and whether the wine is matured in wood or bottle. Both are long-lived. Wood-aged ports spend the majority of their lives in barrel (called a pipe) and are constantly cleaned up while within. When they go into bottle, they do not usually throw a deposit in the bottle, thus not requiring decanting before drinking, and are generally more elegant. Extended wood contact gives them flavours of dried fruit (figs, apricots, dates, raisins), nuts and often, toasty caramel. Bottle-aged ports, on the other hand, spend very little time in barrel and go into the bottle to age for the long haul. During their short wood contact, they are not cleaned up, so they generally throw a deposit in the bottle over time, need to be decanted before drinking and tend to be heavier wines. Their flavour profile is more along the lines of black fruit, chocolate, coffee, tobacco, black licorice, etc.
Ruby – The bread and butter of most port houses, it’s fresh, medium-bodied with an average blended age of about three years.
White – Made from white grapes with an average blended age of about three years!
Vintage Character – A fuller, more complex wine with an average blended age of six to seven years. (Name being changed to something like Reserve Ruby because ‘vintage’ is misleading.)
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) – A port from a single year, usually spending four to six years in wood!
Tawny –This is the general term for a lighter, more elegant, longer aged style that has become tawny in colour from wood contact.
Indicated Age (10, 20, 30, or 40+) – A quality, blended, Tawny Port with an average age in wood as indicated.
Date of Harvest – Often called ‘Colheita Tawny’, this single vintage port is at least seven-plus-years-old in wood.
Vintage – Spending about two to three years in wood, this port is a blend of the best fruit, from the best vineyards (quintas), from a single year. The crème de la crème of port, this is meant to age in the bottle for decades.
Single Quinta Vintage – A single vineyard port, from a single year, sold under the name of the vineyard (quinta). Just as much panache as a vintage port!
Crusted Port – A wine made from a blend of vintages where the oldest is about four years old (often shipped in bulk and bottled elsewhere).
Traditional LBV – Like a wood-aged LBV, but unfiltered!
Edward Finstein, a.k.a. The Wine Doctor, is a wine writer, educator, judge & consultant