Varieties of Port


ort is a sweet fortified wine from the grapes growing on the deep valley walls sloping down to the Douro River in Portugal. Port is made from up to about 40 grape varieties, most of which are red. After a brief fermentation to about 6% alcohol, the still fermenting grape must is poured off into larger containers holding spirit, which kills the yeast and stops fermentation. The young wine is then shipped from the vineyards to the Port houses in Oporto, where it stays in barrel for a year or two. At that time a "vintage" can be declared, and the Port bottled with a vintage designation.

White Port

White Port isn't your typical port made of red wine grapes, but rather from white wine grapes. Flavor nuances in white port can range from nutty-sweet (such as Lagrima) to dry and rough, depending upon the wine's sugar content. White Port is usually aged for two years in tanks, barrels, or wooden casks. It is aged longer before the brandy is added, resulting in a drier taste than other ports. It is usually made up of a blend of grapes for consistency in taste and commercial differentiation. White Port can be cut further by the consumer with such things as tonic water, which makes a great chilled aperitif for before a meal or cigar. A popular white port is made by Wellington Vineyards in California's Napa Valley, though you can only get these by making contact with the vineyard directly. Modern trends lean more towards the dry or extra-dry white ports, which tend to be good aperitifs.

Ruby Port

Ruby Port is the youngest (averaging only three years of aging) and least expensive of the premium ports. It is usually a deep dark "ruby" red color and can taste peppery or fruity and acidic. These ports are better off avoided because of the strong and sometimes harsh flavor, but if you must, drink it with a green cigar. That way you get the harshest of both worlds in one shot together.

Colheita

Colheita (which means "the year of vintage") ports are based on the same lighter wines as the Tawny Ports, but are made from a single harvest year (usually a year not good enough to produce top quality vintage wines). The Colheitas are single vintage Tawny Ports. As such, they tend to have more individuality than the blended versions, though they can also show the defects of a particular year. Colheitas are aged for a minimum of seven years. Some connoisseurs consider Colheitas to be the best of the Tawny Ports and belong in the dessert wine category. Both the harvest year and the bottling date are indicated on the label. Good ones are Niepoort, Barros, RC Velha, and Krohn. A Niepoort 1908 sells for roughly $1,000.

Crusted

Crusted Ports are the result of a blend of up to three different harvest years and wines. They are aged for about four years in a bottle, not a cask. Since they are bottled without filtration, these ports build up a sediment "crust" on the bottom of the bottle (hence the name). Like Vintage Ports, they must be decanted. These ports are not much in fashion any more and are difficult to find.

Reserva

Actually a blend of older ports aged for at least seven years, Reservas are the classic ports and are definitely dessert wines. Quality labels include Cockburn's, Niepoort, Presidential, and Seguro.

Tawny Port

These ports are lighter than the Ruby Ports, but much more complex in flavor. Essentially, they are Ruby Ports that have spent more time aging in the wood. They're lighter because they're blended from several lighter red wines (or even white wines). The longer aging they receive makes them more complex. Be careful though - there are a lot of below average or average tawny ports on the market. The better tawny ports are aged longer - 10, 20, 30, and even 40 or more years. As their age increases, so does the quality of the taste, and so does the price! Ramos, Burmester, and Seguro all produce fine Tawny Ports.

Vintage Character

Vintage Character Ports can be somewhat misleading as the name is often abused. The name would lead one to believe that they have the aroma and taste of vintage quality, but in reality most of these are not that impressive. Some of the good ones are produced by the better producers, such as Graham's or Ramos. Vintage Character Ports are actually expensive Ruby Ports whose harvest year can't be identified. As such, they provide a way for producers to rid themselves of indistinguishable cheap Ruby ports at high prices. You would be better off choosing another variety.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)

LBV is always made from a single excellent harvest year, though not of vintage stock. It's aged from four to six years after harvest, then filtered and bottled. Because they are filtered, no deposits build up and the ports mature more quickly than their counterparts. They can be ready to drink much sooner than true Vintage Ports. The bottle must show the harvest year, the date of bottling, and have the designation LBV clearly displayed. These are good, less expensive, alternatives to Vintage Ports, having some some of the same character. They're a good compromise for people who want to avoid the expense and bother of dealing with very old bottles.

Single Quinta Vintage

In some years a port house will decide that there is not enough top-quality wine to declare a vintage, but will still make a Vintage Port from its best estate (its quinta). The Quinta is actually the vineyard, equivalent to the French "chateau." The quality inherent here is, as in Vintage Ports, extremely high and these ports are gaining greatly in popularity. Some of the better examples include Dow's Quinta do Bonfim, Quinta do Noval National and Graham's Malvedos, and Quinta do Vesuvio.

Vintage Port

Vintage Port is the pinnacle of ports. These ports are made from a single harvest year that has been declared "vintage" based on the superior quality and ripeness of the grapes and the exceedingly high quality of the total harvest. Only about two percent of total production is deemed vintage. Vintage Port has the heavenly aroma of nuts, cedar, violets and other bouquets. This aroma is achieved by bottling the port very young (usually between the second and third year after harvest) and then stowing the bottles in dark cellars to age for fifty years or more. During this long period of slow maturation, the harsh tannins of the young wine fade and they eventually develop a depth, vigor and intensity of flavor that is unmatched in any other wine. A mature vintage port shows all the nutty complexity of an old Tawny, but with new dimensions of flavor. Most astounding is its ability (even after 50 years) to retain the essence of fresh, ripe fruit, as though it were bottled only six months before. Since deposits build in these ports and sit at the bottom of the bottle,Vintage Ports must be decanted and tonged so that the undesirable sediments don't wind up in your glass. Good Vintage Ports, usually around five years old, are available for a decent price. If you buy one so young, however, you should store it for at least twenty years before it will truly develop. Vintage Port is mostly a blend of varying grapes, but the base wines always come from the harvest "vintage" year. If you're willing to wait, or if you're willing to pay the price of a well-aged Vintage Port, these are terrific and truly a very special treat. Ramos Pinto (1926), for example, sells for nearly $1,700 a bottle.