Port confessions

I confess: I love Port. There is always a bottle of Tawny open and some bottles of LBV waiting to be opened at our house. But I’m getting ahead of myself. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of enjoying Port before, here’s a quick introduction.

quintavargellasAll Port comes from the Douro region in Portugal. Port has around 20% ABV and is sweet, which makes it a great companion to many strong cheeses (especially blue cheese). If there’s a cheese plate accompanied by Port on a restaurant’s menu, chances are highly likely (read: it’s a virtual certainty) that’s what I’ll be ordering.

The grapes for Port are grown on the steep banks of the valley along the Douro river. The banks are so steep that historically the vines have been planted on narrow terraces with only up to 3 rows of vines per terrace (see the picture above). Needless to say, most work gets done by hand in these vineyards, since getting any machinery to these vines would be somewhat of a challenge. Over 80 grape varieties are allowed (though only (!) 29 are recommended), so we won’t get into that here.

So how come then that Port is sweet and high in alcohol? What happens here is that in the middle of fermentation (the process whereby grape sugars turn into alcohol), the wine maker adds grape-based spirit to the wine (aka fortification), which brings the alcohol level to 20% and kills the fermentation process, which means there’s still quite a bit of sugar left in the wine.

After fortification, Port is matured in different ways, which explains the different styles of Port available on store shelves. Here’s a brief overview:

Reserve Ruby Port

Reserve Ruby Ports are matured in oak for up to 5 years and then generally blended with other vintages (years), the goal being that each bottle tastes the same, regardless of the year it came from. A favourite:

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)

LBV’s are sourced from a specific vintage and aged between 4 to 6 years. For a few extra dollars compared to Reserve Ruby’s, you get greater intensity and complexity. Within LBV there are two categories: modern LBV is filtered before bottling and then shipped to your local wine store, ready for drinking. Traditional LBV is not filtered before bottling and then aged in bottle for another 3 years before it is shipped to your local wine store. This style offers greater complexity compared to the modern style and often has the potential to benefit from additional cellaring. As mentioned, there are always several bottles of LBV waiting to be opened at our place. Some favourites:

Tawny Port

Virtually all Tawny Port available in Alberta has an indication of age; on the bottle you will see the numbers 10, 20, 30, or 40 in large font. Since Tawny Port is a blend of different vintages, this indication signifies the average number of years that the wine was matured in large (550-liter) casks. Because of the extended time spent in these large casks, Tawny Ports have a distinct nutty flavour and have less fruit-flavours compared to Ruby and LBV Ports.

A limited number of Tawny Ports, known as Colheita Ports, are sourced from a single year. You can get these from as far back as the 60’s (that I have seen). They are intense and smooth at the same time. Truly amazing.

The nice thing about Tawny Ports is that a bottle can stay open for 4 to 6 weeks after opening without spoiling, so you can have a glass every now and then without having to drink the whole bottle.

Some favourites:

Vintage Ports

Vintage Ports are only made in the best years: just these past few weeks, Port makers declared (i.e., deemed appropriately outstanding) the 2011 vintage, so look forward to those hitting the shelves over the next year or so.  Prior to 2011, the last vintage that was universally declared was 2007 (though some port makers declared 2009 as well). Vintage Ports are only matured for 18 to 36 months, after which they are bottled unfiltered and shipped to your local wine store. And then the wait begins: Vintage Ports can be cellared for decades. As an example, Cellar Tracker indicates that the drinking window for my 2007 Warre’s Vintage Port is 2025 to 2125, so it’ll be spending a few more years in the cellar still…

A few favourites:

So if you haven’t tried Port before, pick up a bottle and some cheese and enjoy! Cheers!

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. Ton Visser

     /  April 24, 2013

    Wat opnieuw een heel duidelijke uitleg. Heel prettig om te lezen. Mooi ook de persoonlijke touch die je er aan geeft. Je zou voor een tijdschrift kunnen schrijven.


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