All types of Port wine explained, including Single Quinta Port, Ruby Port, LBV, Tawny and Vintage Port

april 15 2011
If it wasn’t for Britain, the Portuguese might never have made their famous sweet turbocharged wine, Port. If it wasn’t for Portugal, the British might never have found the perfect companion to their blue-veined Stilton cheese. If it wasn’t for the French, perhaps neither the British nor the Portuguese would have been doing business. The British loved their claret, in fact, the word claret is not what the French call their wine from Bordeaux, that’s what the irritating les rosbifs call it. But during the 16th and 17th centuries, and, what the heck, let’s throw in the 18th and 19th centuries as well, the French and British did not get along very well. They were either imposing stiff tariffs on each other’s goods, or doing battle over respective colonial territory, or just fussing to annoy each other out of principle. Consequently, the British, not content with their ales and whiskies, looked for other wine sources than the unreliable French. Portugal to the rescue.
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Port Starting Points

At some point in the 17th century, the Portuguese started doctoring their wine with brandy. This practice accomplished a couple of things. One, it helped to stabilize the wine during its shipment to Britain. The second consequence was to make the wine sweeter, because the higher alcohol content arrested the wine’s fermentation process, holding the wine’s natural sweetness. This sweeter wine appealed to the British and became increasingly popular. Shippers began increasing the levels of fortification to achieve the sweet spot and consequently pumped up the level of alcohol in the wine. The name itself, Port, is derived from the city where the wine ships from, Oporto, in northern Portugal at the mouth of the Douro River where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. You will notice the name of Porto on these true Ports because that’s how they are labeled.

Port’s Basic Recipe

Port, good expensive Port, is a long and involved process. A compressed version runs something like this: 1) Crush red grapes, preferably by foot in the traditional way but rarely done anymore; 2) Macerate in a tank for a day to kick-off fermentation and convert the grapes’ sugar to alcohol; 3) Halfway through fermentation, add neutral grain alcohol to stop fermentation, kill the yeast, and ratchet up the alcohol to 18-20 percent; 4) Age it in barrels; 5) Bottle it and age it more (or less); 6) Pour it. Saúde!

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Port Types

I will attempt to not confuse you with the differences and vagaries about the types of Port, but it may happen anyway. First, there are two types, those primarily aged in bottles and those primarily aged in wood casks. Wood-aged Ports are ready to drink upon release whereas the bottle-aged Ports require several years of aging prior to release. Simple so far? Fine. Now, take a breath, the fun begins.

  • Ruby Port

This is the least complex and it’s called Ruby because that’s its color. It’s blended in large wood barrels or tanks for two or three years from different harvests, different vintages, and different quintas. Ruby Port tends to be young and fruity in style.

  • Tawny Port

Like Ruby, Tawny Port gets its name from its color, a lustrous mahogany brown. These Ports are aged in smaller wood casks and consequently get more oxidization that results in their tawny color. Again, they are blended from multiple harvests and sometimes with White Port. They are aged from two to seven years and ready to drink when bottled and released. Tawny Port is not too complicated, but it is drier and with a nutty character.

  • Aged Tawny Port

Now we’re talking Port with finesse and refinement. Aged means it is a blend of Tawny Ports over several years. These can be aged for ten, twenty, thirty, and even forty years. The age in this case indicates an average age of the wine’s flavor, as in, “It tastes like 10 years.” Aged Tawny Port will be of the highest-quality wines that may also be included in Vintage Port when a vintage is declared.

  • Colheita

This is a special Tawny Port made from a single harvest and aged for a minimum of seven years, but usually longer. Rare to find.

  • White Port

The simplest and lightest Port, White Port is made from white grapes, thus its name. They will vary in sweetness from the light-dry of leve seco to the extreme of lagrima, or teardrops. In general it is drunk as an aperitif.

  • Vintage Character Port

A higher quality Ruby Port and this category should not be confused with Vintage Port. These are fuller in character.

  • Single Quinta Port

When Quinta is referenced it actually is Portuguese for farm which when used in conjunction with a Port refers to the wine estate. A Single Quinta Port means the wine comes from a Quinta’s single vineyard in a single year. They are made in either Tawny or Vintage styles and aged from five to 50 years. These Ports will be almost as expensive as Vintage Ports.

  • Late Bottled Vintage Port

LBVs are from a single vintage but not necessarily a single vineyard. Aged in wood for four to six years, they are ready to drink upon release by the shipper. These are high-quality wines but not quite worthy to age for decades like a Vintage. They are filtered and available every year. There’s a sub-category called Traditional Late Bottled Vintage Port that hasn’t been filtered and requires decanting. This style is not prevalent.

  • Vintage Port

This is the pinnacle of Port and the one to yearn for. Vintage Port is from an exceptional vintage and made from nothing but the best vineyards. These wines are aged in wood for two years and then bottled. Then, in the bottle the wine sits and waits a long time. Bottle aging is slow and maturity and refinement is not achieved without patience. A decade is not that unusual and neither is several decades. These are intense and lush Ports that have not been fined or filtered, making decanting essential unless you want to floss after sipping. One other thing, they do not make Vintage Port every year but only in exceptional years and those years do not occur on a regular basis. As proof, between the years of 1901 to 1999 there have only been fourteen vintage years. They are expensive and hard to find, as you might expect.

  • Crusted Port

This is a Ruby Port that has aged for three or four years prior to bottling. It’s blended from several vintages. Its name comes from sediment that builds a crust from grape skins, twigs, and seeds. Definitely decant this robust and full-bodied wine.

Douro River Valley

Without Port, the Douro would be just another wine region and just a curiosity. It’s an approximately 70-mile strip of steep, rocky, and terraced hillside vineyards that line the Douro River. The summers are hot as a furnace, the terrain arduous to work, a new microclimate around the bend in the river. After wines are made they are generally shipped down the river or by tanker trucks on winding roads to the village of Vila Nova de Gaia to shipper’s large warehouses known as lodges for blending, aging, and bottling.

Grape Varietals

There are basically five red varietals that can be included in Port: Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cão, Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Nacional. Of these, Touriga Nacional is big, flavorful, and the most important in the lot. It is also used to produce some of Portugal’s excellent table wines.

Port Shippers

The first thing you’ll notice when perusing the Port on store shelves is that very few seem to have a Portuguese name. The names are Warre, Cockburn, Smith Woodhouse, and Dow—very British all. Give credit to 17th and 18th century merchantilism and the British taste for sweet alcoholic elixir. Port merchants or shippers created trading companies that bought and exported Port. They function in the same manner as a negociant in the wine trade, aging, bottling, marketing, and shipping the wines. The British shippers began acquiring their own quintas, working with cooperative growers, building lodges for aging the wine, and developing their Port empires. Today, the Port trade is dominated by both British and Portuguese shippers.

With Food

Traditionally, after dining, gnarly stuffed shirt British male gentry would retire to the library to imbibe Port along with aged Stilton cheese while smoking that rolled up stinkweed known as a cigar. Today it is more acceptable to allow women to join the festivities, abandon the shirts, and absolutely forego the cigars. Otherwise, blue-veined cheeses such as Stilton, Gorgonzola, Roquefort, and Cabrales are natural companions to Port. Dark and bittersweet chocolate also works with vintage-type Ports. Roasted nuts such as walnuts or almonds, together with ripe pears, also make an added treat to the mix.

Non-Portuguese Port

Port is not made exclusively in Portugal. Although not quite up to the Portugal standard, notable countries producing excellent Port style wines are Australia, South Africa, France, and the USA.


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