The origins of Port like all fortified wines lie in the need to stabilise and protect light table wines from spoilage during long sea voyages. When tariffs to import French wines were imposed due to the seventeenth century wars, all eyes (and ships) went to Portugal and their fiery red wines from the Douro (the thin white wines from the North were not to our tastes back then).
To stop the wines from spoiling by the time they had reached our shores the shippers would add some brandy to preserve, then creating a potent dry red wine. It was a while later that the English got their hands on it and decided to add the brandy before the wine had finished fermenting, the added alcohol ceased the fermentation leaving plenty of unconsumed grape sugars. From that point onwards in the 1600’s Port has been the naturally sweet and strong wine that we know and love today. In the mid-18th century, in a drive to protect Port from poor imitations from other regions, the Douro Valley was demarcated as the only area that could produce genuine Port.
There’s more to Port than Ruby and Tawny... We would be fools to forget about the other styles available. So, here is a quick whizz through the styles, how they are made, the flavour profiles they bring and drinking occasions that may not have occurred to you.
The most basic style, blended from the produce of several harvests and aged for no longer than a couple of years – much like Champagne the wines are blended to create the ‘house’ style that is consistent year after year.
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)
The produce of a single vintage (specified on the label), they are basically the vintage wines made in non-vintage years and the quality is generally very good. They are aged between 4 and 6 years and the best ones are bottled without being filtered so will throw sediment and need decanting. To save consumers doing this, many are filtered prior to bottling but those that aren’t tend to be more flavoursome and complex.
Late Bottled Vintage Port is elegant and fruity, it makes an excellent match for a goat’s cheese such as a fresh Valençay or a Sainte-Maure. As the thick crumbly texture of the Chèvre dissolves in contact with the wine, the ripe and opulent fruitiness of the LBV merges with the rich tangy flavours of the cheese in sublime synergy.
At the top of the pyramid, Vintage Port is the product of a single year (stated on the label) that is bottled after two or three year’s cask aging. Each producer must decide within two years of the harvest if the wine is going to be fine enough to be released, unblended as a Vintage Port. This is known as ‘declaring’ the vintage and it is only when IVDP (governing body) have approved samples and volumes that in good years (such as 1985 or the more recent 2011) which result in a universal declaration by producers. Generally, there have been three declared vintages per decade. Vintage Ports require bottle ageing after release and will always throw a sediment.
The association of Vintage Port with a mature blue cheese such as Stilton is one of the great classic food and wine combinations. The soft buttery texture, mellow character and piquancy of the cheese are perfectly matched by the powerfully majestic flavours of the Vintage Port. Other blue, buttery, mellow and slightly piquant cheeses to consider would be: Cashel Blue, Roquefort, Gorgonzola and Saint Agur Blue.
These are vintage wines made from the grapes of a single estate – or quinta. The grapes from these estates will generally be used if a vintage Port is made but if not, then they make it into a single estate where the quality levels are high (normally above that of LBV).
Named as such as it creates a crust of sediment in the bottle, it’s a cross between vintage Port and LBV, it’s not the produce of a single year but it is treated like a vintage Port and bottled unfiltered. Crusted Ports offer an excellent alternative to vintage and provide the Port enthusiast with a dark, full bodied wine at a lower price. They will have three years bottle aging before they are exPorted.
Traditionally a basic blended Port that is aged in oak for several years longer than ruby so that its colour drops out and the flavour goes almost dryly nutty with oxidation. The reality is that in some cases these days, for bulk wines to get the tawny colour either a touch of white Port is added or it’s made from lighter wines grown in the cooler areas of the Douro.
Tawny flavour is typified by raisins and caramel so cakes with a similar character will make a good match. A glass of slightly chilled tawny Port, with its distinctive fruit and slightly nutty flavour, is an excellent match for puddings - think sticky toffee pudding or as the French have embraced en mass chilled as an aperitif.
These are true tawny Ports, aged for many years in cask. Their label will state the average age of the wines that have been used in the blend in multiples of ten. There is also a relatively new category or Tawny reserve which won’t indicate the average age but has had at least seven years age in oak. Aged Tawnys are made from wines of the very highest quality – wines that have been set aside that might otherwise have been used in vintage Port. These wines are bottled when they are ready to drink as opposed to vintage Ports which require additional bottle aging once released.
Aged Tawny Ports with their characteristic mellow spicy, nutty and oaky aromas, silky palate and opulent flavours should be paired quite differently to their ruby Port cousins. Lighter, nuttier and crisper, they are naturally refreshing: served cool, or lightly chilled.
A glass of chilled 10 Year Old makes a delicious aperitif, but is equally good matched to a hard, nutty cheese or a pudding such as apple pie, tarte tatin, baked figs, orange tart, (leave the peel on some of the orange) caramel tart, or cooked strawberries with pepper. The 20-YearOld is excellent with crème brûlée, honey and almond cake and cheeses such as Parmesan and Manchego. Serve it in place of a Sauternes or Gewürztraminer with a delicate foie gras and brioche. The acidity of the 20 Year Old cuts perfectly through the richness of the paté.
This is a vintage tawny, the wines from a single year receive a minimum of 7 years in cask resulting in a faded colour. Many are only released at grand old ages, and the prices – compared to early bottled vintage Port can look immensely attractive.
There are a handful of white grape varieties permitted in Port. Some houses produce a white Port solely from white grapes that is fortified by the same process as red, some are dry and some are sweet. They generally have a couple of degrees less alcohol then red Port and don’t get aged in oak.
Instead of serving a glass of Sauternes with foie gras, why not try a chilled white Port instead. The hints of honey and good balanced acidity in the wine complement the rich paté beautifully. Try with some ice, lemon and sprig of mint with tonic for a refreshing alternative to a gin and tonic.