A guide to Port Styles

A guide to Port Styles

Published by William Frazier on 15th Sep 2015

Port wine is a Portuguese fortified wine produced exclusively in the Douro Valley in the northern provinces of Portugal. It is typically a sweet, red wine, often served as a dessert wine, and also comes in dry, semi-dry, and white varieties. 

Fortified wines in the style of port are also produced outside of Portugal, most notably in Australia, South Africa, Canada, India, Argentina, and the United States. Under European Union Protected Designation of Origin guidelines, only the product from Portugal may be labelled as Port or Porto. Elsewhere such as the United States, the situation is more complicated: wines labelled "Port" may come from anywhere in the world, while the names "Dão", "Oporto", "Porto", and "Vinho do Porto" have been recognized as foreign, non-generic names for wines originating in Portugal.

Port is produced from grapes grown and processed in the demarcated Douro region. The wine produced is then fortified by the addition of a neutral grape spirit known as aguardente in order to stop the fermentation, leaving residual sugar in the wine, and to boost the alcohol content. The fortification spirit is sometimes referred to as brandy but it bears little resemblance to commercial brandies and for the last few vintages has been a completely neutral spirit. 

The wine is then stored and aged, often in barrels stored in a cave before being bottled. 

The wine received its name, "Port", in the latter half of the 17th century from the seaport city of Porto at the mouth of the Douro River, where much of the product was brought to market or for export to other countries in Europe. The Douro valley where Port wine is produced was defined and established as a protected region, or appellation in 1756 — making it the third oldest defined and protected wine region in the world after Chianti (1716) and Tokaj (1730).

Barrel aged ports

Tawny Ports are wines made from red grapes that are aged in wooden barrels using the Solera process, exposing them to gradual oxidation and evaporation. As a result, they gradually mellow to a golden-brown colour. The exposure to wood imparts "nutty" flavours to the wine. When a Port is described as Tawny, without an indication of age, it is a basic blend of wood aged port that has spent at least seven years in barrels. Above this are Tawny with an indication of age which represent a blend of several vintages, with the average years "in wood" stated on the label. The official categories are 10, 20, 30 and over 40 years.

Colheita A Tawny port from a single vintage is called Colheitas. Instead of an indication of age the actual vintage year is mentioned. A Colheita may have spent 20 or more years in wooden barrels before being bottled and sold.

Bottle aged ports

Ruby Port is the cheapest and most extensively produced type of port. After fermentation, it is stored in tanks made of concrete or stainless steel to prevent oxidative aging and preserve its rich claret colour. The wine is fined and cold filtered before bottling and does not generally improve with age.

Reserve Port is a premium Ruby port approved by the IVDP's tasting panel, the Câmara de Provadores.

Pink port is a relatively new variation on the market, it is made with the same grapes and according to the same extremely strict rules that govern the production of vintage and tawny and ruby ports. It is technically a ruby port, with a limited exposure to the grape skins, thus the pink colour. Bearing the hallmarks of a light ruby with its taste being lighter in style and containing a fruity flavour, it's commonly served cold.

White port is made from white grapes and can be made in a wide variety of styles, although few shippers produce anything apart from a basic product that is similar to a standard Ruby.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) was originally wine that had been destined for bottling as Vintage Port, butbecause of lack of demand was left in the barrel for longer than had been planned. The filtered wine has the advantage of being ready to drink without decanting, and is bottled in a stoppered bottle that can be easily resealed.

Crusted Port is usually a blend of port wine from several vintages, unlike vintage port, which has to be sourced from grapes from a single vintage, it is bottled unfiltered, and sealed with a driven cork and like Vintage Port it needs to be decanted before drinking. The date on a Crusted port bottle refers to the bottling date, not the year the grapes were grown.

Single Quinta Vintage Ports are wines that originate from a single estate. Most of the large Port wine houses have a Single Quinta bottling which is only produced in some years when the regular Vintage Port of the house is not declared. In a sense, this kind of Single Quinta is a "second wine" of the regular Vintage Port and is typically sold slightly cheaper than the regular Vintage Port. Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos and Taylor's Quinta de Vargellas are examples of this kind of ports.

Vintage port is made entirely from the grapes of a declared vintage year and accounts for about two percent of a year's total port production. Not every year is declared a vintage in the Douro. The decision on whether to declare a vintage is made in the spring of the second year following the harvest. The decision to declare a vintage is made by each individual port house, often referred to as a 'shipper'. More conventional shippers will declare, on average, about three times a decade. Vintage ports are aged in barrels for a maximum of two and a half years before bottling, and generally require another ten to thirty years of aging in the bottle before reaching what is considered a proper drinking age. Since they are aged in barrels for only a short time, they retain their dark ruby colour and fresh fruit flavours. Particularly fine vintage ports can continue to gain complexity and drink wonderfully for many decades after they were bottled.

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