There are many winemaking countries that make Port, but only Portugal makes Porto. Porto, known formally as Vinho do Porto, is a sweet fortified wine from the Duoro Valley, located in northern Portugal. The name Porto comes from the city from where Porto wine was exported, beginning in the late half of the 17th century.
Port is usually sweeter, richer, heavier in the mouth and higher in alcohol than other wines. This is because the wine is “fortified” by adding brandy to the crushed grape must before fermentation has had time to convert the natural sugars of the grapes into alcohol. The alcohol also acts as a preservative, allowing the wine to age in barrels and not spoil, despite the contact with air that is allowed. Porto is usually served at the end of a meal, and it makes a great match with rich cheeses such as authentic English Stilton.
Portos are made from a variety of grapes, with Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Cao, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Francesa the most important varietals. The dramatically sloping hills of the upper Duoro are filled with layers of slate, requiring the roots of the vines to go down 40 to 60 feet to find nourishment. The hot sun and miniscule amount of rain, coupled with the steep slopes make this the most difficult of all grape growing areas in the world to farm. Grapes have been grown here, and wine made, since the 3rd century, but the fortified wines which we know as Vinhos do Porto came into being during the early 18th century.
There are two styles of Port: Tawny and Ruby. Tawny Ports have been aged in barrels for extended periods. The porosity of the wood, along with a gap at the top of the filled barrel allows contact with air that matures the wine and gives it a distinct oxidized note. Ruby Ports have spent a brief time in barrel, but do most of their ageing in bottle. This ageing process is much slower than barrel ageing, and produces wines in great vintage years which continue to mature and develop for decades. The 1945s from the top houses are just now at their peak, as I taste them.
White Port is made from white grapes and is very much underappreciated in the U.S. Served chilled, it is a delicious aperitif. Mixed with tonic or club soda, it makes a fine cocktail.
Tawny Ports of Age are not vintage dated, but are denominated 10, 20, 30 or 40 years old. These are blends of ports from several years, all barrel aged, and given the average of the wine in the blend. A vintage Port would have to be over 50 years old to taste as mature as a 20 Year Old Tawny, with its notes of honey, cocoa, caramel, mint and spice. These are my personal favorite Ports!
Garrafeira Ports are almost never seen on the market, and only Niepoort still makes them. These are Ports that have aged in barrel for three to six years, and then further aged in large “demijohn” bottles for another eight years minimum. In practice, Niepoort ages their Garrafeira much longer.
Vintage Port accounts for a mere 3% of all the Porto made, but it is the top of the line, the flagship wine of each house. Historically, three years out of every ten have been considered outstanding for Port making, and these alone are the years that Vintage Porto is made. The decision is not even made until spring of the second year following the harvest, and the owners of the houses, tasting and voting together, make it. These wines spend two years, on average, in the barrel and are then put up into bottles. Port houses often take the wines made solely from the grapes grown in their finest estate, called a Quinta, and bottle them separately in non-declared years. These wines are often as good as the vintage wines from the same house but, lacking the cachet of a declared year, sell for much less. This is a good place for savvy Port lovers to shop!
Late Bottled Vintage Port (often called, simply, LBV) is made from a single vintage and spends, on average, five years in the barrel. This wine, when released for sale, is more mature that a vintage Port from the same year. Some houses filter their LBVs, so they do not require decanting while other houses, believing that filtering strips away some of the rich flavors, do not filter these wines. For my money, these are the wines where the smart money is spent! You get a Port that tastes like an older Vintage Port but at a much lower price.
Reserve or Vintage Character Porto is a ruby port and is the “entry level” wine for the better houses. These Ports have plenty of peppery, licorice flavors and are the most affordable.
Crusted Ports aren’t seen very often in the U.S. Crusted Porto is made from a blend of wines from different years and is made to resemble Vintage Porto yet sell for considerably less money. The date on these Ports refers to the bottling date, not the vintage year or actual age of the wine.
• 10 Year Tawny $19.95
• 10 Year Tawny, Gift Boxed with Decanter (Going Fast!) $24.95
• 1996 Quinta Da Foz, Single Quinta $44.95
• 1997 Vintage $56.95