Port is certainly one of the most famous wines in the world. Nevertheless, the diversity of Port wines is much less known and most of the wine lovers do not necessarily know the different categories and styles of Port wines and their characteristics. The purpose of my article is not only to introduce you to the wide variety of Port Wines, but also to encourage you to taste and enjoy them on many occasions. If you think that Port is reserved for aperitif or dessert, you are mistaken. You can drink Port before, during and after a meal and the very diverse food and wine pairings will surprise many people!
A bit of History
Although it is still unclear who brought the vine to Portugal (formerly known as Lusitania) – the Phoenicians, the Greeks or the Romans – it is generally believed that wine production in the Douro region really began to flourish in the late 17th century. England, because of the embargo imposed by the France of Louis XIV, discovered the wines of the Douro region and exported them in considerable quantities to its shores. At that time, however, the wine could not withstand the journey because of the transportation conditions. It was then that it was decided to “mutate” the wine by adding brandy to it so that it could survive the long maritime transport. This is how Port wine was born!
The Douro is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world, dotted with centuries-old terraced vineyards that have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of the approximately 40,000 hectares of vineyards in the Douro, more than half are located on slopes with a gradient of more than 30%, shaping this incredible wine landscape. The region follows the sinuous course of the Douro River from the Spanish border to the town of Mesão Frio, located about 100 kilometers from the port city of Porto.
How Port is Made?
Port is a fortified wine, which means that alcohol is added to the wine during the alcoholic fermentation. The addition of brandy during fermentation, an operation called mutage or coupage, stops the fermentation process and therefore retains some of the residual sugar in order to obtain a sweet, round and opulent wine. The mutated wine is then aged in the cellars in bottles or barrels. Port wine is classified as very sweet, sweet, semi-dry or extra dry. The level of sugar in the wine is a matter of production decision, i.e. when the fermentation is stopped. But make no mistake, Port wine is always sweet. Extra dry does not mean that there is no sugar, but rather that it is a Port with the lowest sugar levels, but it is still a sweet wine!
The Different Categories of Port Wines
Port wines can be classified into two categories according to their maturing method: Ruby style and Tawny style. Ruby style Port wines have a more or less intense color, in which we try to preserve the fruit and vigor of young wines. In this category we find Ruby, Reserva, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) and Vintage (in increasing order of quality). The LBV is a Ruby Port of a single vintage, selected for its high quality and bottled after four to six years of aging. While they are often ready to be enjoyed immediately after bottling, some can continue to age in bottle. As for Vintage Port, which is considered the most noble, it is the only Port that ages only in bottle. Made from grapes harvested in the same year and bottled two to three years after the harvest, Vintage Port has such concentration and tannic structure that it is made for long-term aging. They age admirably in bottle and can be kept for a very long time (several decades, even a century for the greatest vintages). Finally, there are also Single Quinta Vintage Ports, which are Vintage Ports produced from a single vineyard or parcel!
Tawny Ports are blended wines made from wines that are at different stages of ripeness as a result of aging in casks and barrels. Tawny Ports are generally less intense in color and the bouquet often evokes aromas of dried fruit and wood. There are several categories: Tawny, Tawny Reserva, Tawny with an indication of age (10, 20, 30 or 40 years), which are blends of several years, and Colheita, which represents a particular vintage (these Tawny Ports from a single harvest are aged for a minimum period of seven years in barrels). Unlike Vintage Ports, which can age and evolve for a very long time, Tawny Ports can be consumed as soon as they are bottled and will not evolve over time.
There are also White Port wines (made with white grapes). Their styles vary according to the way they are aged and their sugar level. Finally, there are also Rosé Ports, obtained through a short maceration with red grapes, generally very fruity and to be consumed young.
The Service and Conservation of Port Wines
Due to the high alcohol content of port wines, it is not recommended to serve them at room temperature. Wines should always be chilled before serving. Since the best way to preserve them is in the cold, the easiest way is to take the bottle out of the refrigerator, pour it into a glass and wait for the wine to warm up to the appropriate temperature. Rosé and White Ports can be enjoyed between 5 and 10°C, Tawny style Ports between 10 and 14°C and Ruby style Ports between 12 and 16°C.
Once the bottle is opened, the storage of a Port wine will vary depending on the type of wine. Vintage Ports have not been exposed to oxygen since they were bottled, so they should be consumed quickly after opening, usually within a day or two. The same goes for LBVs. The Ruby Reserve can be kept for about ten days, the Tawny Reserve for 3 to 4 weeks. As for the Tawny or White Port with a mention of age (10 – 20 – 30 or 40), which have been exposed to oxygen for a long time during their ageing in casks, they can be kept from 1 month for the youngest to 4 months for the oldest, as well as for the Colheita.
Gastronomic Pairings With Port Wines
The great diversity of styles of Port wines allows them to be paired with a multitude of different dishes. They can be enjoyed on a variety of occasions from aperitif to dessert. White Port, for example, can be paired beautifully with salmon and other smoked fish, exotic salads, vegetable tempura or lemon pie. Try a 10 year old Tawny with pâté en croûte, stuffed poultry, walnut dishes or crème brûlée, and an older Tawny with foie gras or strong cheeses such as Parmesan. As for LBVs, why not try a Margarita pizza, a steak au poivre or a chocolate mousse? Finally, with a Vintage Port, one can imagine pairing it with game, a dark chocolate fondant or blue cheese like Roquefort, Stilton or Gorgonzola.
For More Information
If you wish to learn more about the fascinating world of Port, I encourage you to visit the Douro and Port Wine Institute website at the following link: https://www.ivdp.pt/en. And why not plan a future vacation in Porto and the Douro?
This article is a collaboration with the Douro and Port Wines Institute.