This Port Tasting Pack enables you to compare four different types of port:
A Vintage Port
A Single Quinta Vintage Port (SQVP)
A Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV)
An Aged Tawny Port
Introduction to Port
Port it is not like other Portuguese wines; it must follow a strict set of regulations to obtain the special protected certification of ‘Port’. They can be summed up in three key points: location, grape varieties and fortification.
Port comes from the Douro Valley where about half the vineyard land is devoted to grapes for port. There are hundreds of grape varieties with tongue-twisting names that are native to the country and that, for the most part, grow nowhere else in the world. The best known grape is probably Touriga Nacional which is also used to produce red wine in the Douro.
In Portugal tradition is king, and stomping (treading, or smashing) the grapes by foot in shallow granite vats called lagares is still the preferred method. After stomping the grapes, the fermentation process begins. For a still (regular) wine, this process usually lasts one or two weeks until the sugar runs out. This normally happens when the wine is 12% to 14% alcohol. In the case of Port wine, part way through the fermentation process (usually 3 or 4 days after stomping), the fortification is made. Producers mix the wine with a grape spirit that is 77% alcohol, in a proportion of 1 to 5, which kills the yeast and stops the fermentation, raising the alcoholic level of the wine to 20% and conserving a big part of the natural sugars of the grapes. Next, port-in-progress is aged in barrels (and, in some cases, in the bottle) to varying degrees to obtain the desired colour, sweetness, and flavour profiles.
Types of Port
There are basically two categories of port – Ruby and Tawny. Their names are a direct reference to their colour. Ruby Ports, the most common, are distinctively dark red, like the precious stone, and are intended to keep the original properties of a good, albeit sweet, red wine. They are typically aged between 2 to 10 years in big barrels, called vats, that hold around 40.000 litres of wine. The wine has very little contact with the wood and almost no oxidation.
Tawny Ports, on the other hand, feature an amber translucent colour, comparable to an old whisky. It is named after an amber brown owl called the Tawny Owl. They are typically aged in smaller barrels that hold around 600 litres of wine. The wine gains a lot of oaky and spice notes, and it loses its colour to oxidation.
Vintage port, at the very top of the quality chain, is made entirely from the grapes of a declared vintage year. While it is by far the most renowned type of port, from a volume and revenue standpoint, vintage port accounts for only about two percent of overall port production. Not every year is declared a vintage in the Douro. The decision on whether to declare a vintage is made early in 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". Vintage ports are bottled unfined and unfiltered after a short time in large oak barrels, and their rich, fruity flavours are offset by structured tannins and vegetal notes. Much of the complex character of aged vintage port comes from the continued slow decomposition of grape solids in each bottle. These solids are undesirable when port is consumed, and thus vintage port typically requires a period of settling before decanting and pouring.
Single quinta vintage ports are wines that originate from a single estate, unlike the standard bottlings of the port wine houses which can be sourced from a number of quintas. 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 those years, wine from their best quinta is still bottled under a vintage designation, rather than being used for simpler port qualities.
Late-bottled vintage ports (LBV) are reserve ruby ports made with wines from a single harvest. LBVs are sweet and boozy, with light tannins and dark fruits like cherry, plum, and blackberry alongside pepper and cloves.
Reserve tawny ports age in barrels for at least six years, giving them nuanced, nutty flavours and darker toffee colours. The best of the cask aged Tawny ports have an indication of how long they have aged in barrels - 10, 20, 30, or 40 years - before they’re bottled.
Port is drunk at room temperature between 15 and 20 °C. Once opened, port generally lasts longer than unfortified wine, but it is still best consumed within a short period of time. Tawny, ruby, and LBV ports may keep for several months once opened; because they are aged longer in barrels, these ports have already been exposed to some degree of oxidation. Old Vintage ports are best consumed within several days of opening, but young Vintage Ports can be kept open for several weeks, if not months when very young.
Port and Food
Because of their strong, rich, sweetish flavours ports need strong, rich foods – chocolate desserts are a favourite, or sweet/tart contrasts such as Stilton style cheeses. Most times they are consumed on their own at the end of a meal – most relaxing and an aid to contemplation!
Did you know
Port has a long tradition in the UK.
Originally, port was a product of necessity. As legend has it, when Great Britain warred with France in the 17th and 18th centuries, it reallocated its wine-buying budget to Portugal. Portuguese winemakers fortified their juice to help it survive the sea voyage to the U.K.
A traditional method of opening vintage port is with port tongs. The tongs are heated over a flame and applied to the bottle's neck. The bottleneck is cooled with cold water, causing a clean break. This avoids the use of a corkscrew on an older cork, which would otherwise break apart and crumble into the wine. A Butler’s Friend is a good alternative - see here
Tradition in the UK calls for port being served at a formal dinner to be passed to the left ("pass the port to port") and for the bottle or decanter not to touch the table on its way round and round until it is finished.