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A Quick Guide to Port Wine

The Portuguese fortified wine Port is known for its after-dinner appearances, particularly in the presence of fireplaces, or around winter holidays, but it’s versatile enough to be enjoyed—both sipped and mixed—throughout the year, even in warmer months. To inspire that year-round enjoyment, we enlisted André Ramos, wine specialist at Portugalia Marketplace in Fall River, Massachusetts, to help break down the basics of Port, from crisp whites to soft, fruity vintages. 

Port of Origin Authentic Port is produced in Portugal’s Douro Valley DOC, located in the country’s north. One of the world’s oldest designated wine regions, the Douro Valley was demarcated in 1756 (you can discover more about the Douro in Imbibe’s May/June 2021 issue). While a wholly Portuguese product made from blends of the country’s indigenous grape varieties, Port is in fact a British brainchild. In the mid-1670s, relatively small amounts of Douro Valley red wines were imported to London. When war erupted between England and France, making the purchase of French wine nearly impossible, the country upped their intake of Portuguese wines. To ensure the wines arrived drinkable, merchants began dosing wine barrels with distilled grape spirit. In addition to ramping up the alcohol percentage (between 19 and 22 percent), the addition of brandy halts the wine’s fermentation process by killing the yeast, leading to higher levels of residual sugar and giving us sweet and strong Port.

To this day, the Douro Valley wears its history on its sleeve. “It’s a region of a lot of establishment, a lot of tradition,” says Ramos. “Most wineries—not talking about big, big bulk producers—they mostly still doing foot trodden wines. A lot of the vines are handpicked. Making wines in the Douro, it’s pretty much about love and hard work.”

Port Styles 101 *White Port: When introducing customers to Port, Ramos always begins with the white styles. “I find whites to be the most curious style of Port because almost no one knows about white Ports, at least in the United States, even people who have had Ports for years and years,” says Ramos. Produced from white grapes, including the varieties Malvasia Fina, Rabigato, and Esgana Cão, white Port only comprises an estimated 10 percent of all Port production and ranges from dry to sweet in style. “I find it to be very versatile. Typically, it’s a little bit fresher than either the tawny or the ruby, but it’s also very complex,” says Ramos. Drier styles of white Port experience a longer fermentation, Ramos explains. “They don’t stop the fermentation as soon as they would for a sweetener, richer style so you get much less residual sugar. It’s fresher, it’s crisper.”

White Port has become increasingly popular in recent years thanks in part to global interest in Portugal’s heat-relieving Port Tonic cocktail. Mixed with white Port, tonic water, and garnished with citrus, the low-proof drink shows off Port’s aperitif potential. And the increasing quality of young white Ports, often aged in stainless steel or concrete vessels and boasting floral aromas and citrus candy notes, makes them an excellent option for cocktailing. Numerous producers release white Ports with Indication of Age, incorporating many different high-quality vintages into the blend. As white Port is aged in wood casks, nutty, toffee aromas and flavors develop and the color darkens. There are also reserve (or reserva) white Ports which are comprised of superior vintages and aged in wood for at least seven years. Excellent bottles both young and old can be found starting around $20.   

*Ruby Port: Portugal is home to approximately 250 indigenous grape varieties, and the number used to make Port can range anywhere from 50 to 80, even stretching to 100 depending on who you ask. “I doubt that anyone can give you a straight answer; if they do, they’re probably just lying,” Ramos says. The reason why, as Ramos explains it, is that while producers have shifted to growing single parcels of commonly used red grapes such as Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz (also known as Tempranillo), and Tinta Cão for ruby Port, the region is full of old vines—for many years Port production relied on field blends—with many still unidentified vine varieties ending up in the bottle. 

The most widely available style, ruby Port undergoes a short period of aging, usually no more than two years, creating exuberant, juicy, fruit-filled wines. When it comes to ruby Ports, Ramos likes to keep it simple: “I typically describe them as almost like regular red wines. In terms of fruit profile, a lot of the notes you’ll find in a ruby you’ll find often in red wines, like red fruit, cassis, berries. Sometimes I find mint, floral notes of lilac, and violet.” Here’s where it can get complicated. Ruby port also includes the subcategories: reserve ruby (similar to white reserve Port, a selection of superior wines from numerous vintages), vintage Port, and late bottled vintage (LBV). 

The prize of the Douro, vintage Port—produced from grapes harvested in a single year—is prized among collectors. On average, a vintage is declared by producers three times per decade and signals the wine’s tremendous quality and potential for aging. It can only be labeled as vintage if approved by the Douro and Port Wine Institute, says Ramos. The declaration occurs two years following harvest, at which point the barrel-aged wines are transferred to bottles for further aging. While Ramos notes some customers enjoy young vintages, a minimum of 15 and up to 50 years of aging in-bottle is recommended “so you can actually see a considerable improvement in the bottle,” says Ramos. “When young, it’s very concentrated, very tight, and once you age in the bottle they’ll become smoother and softer, less tight, less tannic.” 

Lastly, there’s late bottled vintage or LBV Port, a style created in the 1950s in which a blend of top wines from a single year, aged in large vats, oak tuns, or stainless steel tanks, is released by producers four to six years following the vintage. “Those two extra years, that extra oxidation, quickens the process so once it’s bottled it will be ready for consumption,” says Ramos. Like vintage Port, LBVs showcase the personality of a single harvest year but can be found for a fraction of the cost.

*Tawny Ports: Between ruby and tawny Port—both made from red grapes—“the biggest difference is the period it stays in the barrel,” Ramos says. A ruby carries less cask time thus retaining its dark color and juicy fruit character, whereas tawny has a longer period of aging in small wood barrels, allowing for slow oxidation that alters the appearance and profile of the Port. They range in color from dark brown to hay shades and carry flavor notes of dried fruit, toasted nuts, and cacao. “What I like to mention often is that tawnies, once bottled, are ready for consumption,” says Ramos. The style features several categories: tawny, tawny reserve, and tawny with an Indication of Age including 10-, 20-, 30-, and 40-year-old, the age denoting specific characteristics found in the bottle. In Portugal, aged tawnies are enjoyed with a slight chill to combat the heat of the Douro. Additionally, there are Colheita tawnies, Ports from a single year cask-aged for at least seven years. “I love pairing tawnies with dried nuts, even caramelized nuts. I love them with blue cheese, just cheese in general,” says Ramos. 

Everything Old Is New Again For more than a decade, fortified wines, including sherry, vermouth, and madeira, have dusted off their public personas to become popular back-bar staples. Though Port has been less handily embraced, it is increasingly making its way into bright, summery cocktails that shine new light on the wine’s reputation as a winter sipper (check out a handful of our favorite ways to mix with Port in hot weather). Still, Port production largely runs according to tradition, so while some producers have introduced rosé Ports to draw crowds, others will carry on and let consumers come to them. “At least some of the producers don’t feel like they want to run or have to run [to a new] audience; they just think eventually people will shift onto it and gain interest in it,” says Ramos. By and large, it’s working. Following the trusted what’s-old-is-new-again timeline, the iconic dessert wine is still being discovered. “It’s been on the market for centuries, and there are still people finding ports,” says Ramos.

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