Port is a fortified wine made by stopping the alcohol fermentation by the addition of spirit (77% neutral brandy) before it is completed, resulting in a wine with both high alcohol (about 20%) and high residual sugar (about 100–110g/L). Port-style fortified wine is made in several parts of the world, but only those wines from the Douro region of Portugal can be called port.
Like all other sweet wines, acidity is important in port. Otherwise the sweetness coupled with the high alcohol content makes the wine too sticky and heavy. In the Douro, the native grape varieties used to make port are well adapted to the harsh growing conditions there. They have high natural acidity and complement each other in the blend to produce a concentrated and complex wine. Port-style wine from other regions often lacks the acidity that gives the wine its finesse.
Port is a nice winter and festive wine because of its nutty and Christmas pudding aromas. The higher alcohol also fits well with a wintry environment. However, port is more than just a dessert wine. The many different styles of port can be enjoyed on different occasions.
This is the only port style that is aged in bottles after spending only two years in barrels. It is a blend of the finest wine from the best vineyards and from one single vintage. It is only made in the best years and, on average, is produced in three years in every 10 – called a “declared” year. The wine is full, rich and tannic when young and can develop for 20 or more years in the bottle, resulting in a mellow wine with great complexity and finesse. Traditionally, people buy it for their children who happen to be born in that vintage year so that the children can enjoy it when they get married. Because it is aged in the bottle, vintage port has heavy sediment and should be decanted before serving.
Single quinta vintage port (SQVP)
This type of port is made in the same way as vintage port but with grapes from a single vineyard (quinta in Portuguese). It is only made in good years but not in “declared” years, as all the grapes are used to blend the classic vintage port. It is the expression of a particular quinta, whereas vintage port is the signature of a particular house. Single quinta vintage port develops faster than vintage port and is often ready to drink at 8–10 years old but can also benefit from further ageing.
Russet or tawny in colour, this is a blend of ports aged in wooden casks for at least seven years. It is soft, smooth and complex, with oxidative aromas of walnut, coffee and caramel. The tawniest ports available on the market are the better-quality ones with an indication of age, labelled as 10, 20, 30 or even over 40 years old, which refers to the average age of the wine. Tawny port is ready to drink when bottled and does not improve with further ageing. It tastes similar to Chinese yellow wine and is great paired with savoury dishes like hairy crab and Cantonese-style roast pork.
Late bottled vintage port (LBV)
Although there is a vintage on the label, it is not to be confused with vintage port. Port houses developed this style to satisfy consumers’ demand for vintage port when there are no “declared” years. It is actually a ruby port (see below) from a single vintage, aged for between four and six years in casks before bottling. The wine, with grippy tannin, is richer, rounder and more complex than a reserve ruby port. This is a good match with heavy, sweet and savoury dishes such as sweet vinegar spare ribs and Peking duck.
This is considered entry-level port with a deep ruby colour and primary fruit flavours. It is non-vintage, aged in wooden casks and ready to drink when bottled. The better-quality ones are often labelled as Fine, Reserve or Select. This is a great-value, everyday port to be enjoyed before bedtime.
Single-harvest tawny port
Again not to be confused with vintage port, this is a tawny port from a single year, called colheita in Portuguese. It is only released occasionally as a special edition.
There are also white and pink ports. In Portugal, white port is usually mixed with tonic, called portonic, and served as an aperitif. Pink port is a relatively new category and is great for making cocktails.
Except for vintage port, all the other ports use T-shape corks that are easily opened and closed. These ports can be kept for 8–12 weeks after opening but are not intended for ageing, and they don’t need to be decanted. So don’t be afraid to buy a bottle or two and enjoy them with different food according to your imagination.