This may seem like an unlikely time of the year to be writing about port. The dark purple, sweet and highly alcoholic drink is something so redolent of winter and, specifically, Christmas, that we don’t give it a second thought for the rest of the year.
It might surprise you to know, then, that port doesn’t have to be deep purple and can be served chilled – even over ice – giving it appeal, even in the warmer months.
On that bombshell, here’s a quick outline of what port really means and how it’s made. It all starts life as grapes grown in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. Life for vines (and people) here is tough: the weather is scorching (40˚C is a possible average in summer), the soil is not soil at all but rocky schist and there is nary a flat vineyard to be seen, only varying degrees of slope from fairly gentle to vertigo-inducing. It takes tenacity, some would say pig-headedness, to tend vines here – it also requires grape varieties able to stand up to these conditions. None of your namby-pamby merlot and pinot noir here: this is the land of varieties like touriga nacional, tinta barroca and tinto cão, amongst others even less well known.
Once ripe and full of natural fruit sugar, the grapes are harvested. Grapes for port get only a very short fermentation, so they need to be treated vigorously in order to extract plenty of colour and tannin in that time. For once the mental picture of a swarthy local treading grapes in a vat is true.
Foot-treading in shallow granite troughs, or lagares, is the traditional way, and is still used for the very best or small-production ports. Mostly, though, machines of varying kinds have replaced humans – including robotic feet.
After treading, the fermenting wine is fortified with grape spirit, raising the alchohol level to around 20%. Yeasts cannot exist in this alcoholic environment, so fermentation stops, leaving a wine with some remaining sweetness: embryonic port.
After fermentation, different treatments and length of ageing determine what kind of port will finally result. All ports need some ageing and the Douro Valley, with its extreme climate, is an unsuitable place to do it. Young port is, therefore, traditionally taken downstream to Oporto at the mouth of the Douro River, where it will age in the shippers’ port lodges in the damper and gentler maritime climate. This journey used to be undertaken by picturesque sailing boats, until the Douro was dammed for hydroelectric power: now it’s done by lorry.
This is the most straightforward style of port and accounts for the majority of the port that we drink – predominantly at Christmas, when price wars between the major producers result in silly prices. The bottles rarely have the word ruby on them, preferring their own brand identities, such as Warre’s Warrior or Cockburn’s Special Reserve.
Wines from multiple years are aged for two to three years, then blended and bottled while still deep-coloured, full of youthful berry fruit and a spirity fire. They don’t improve in the bottle, so no point stashing them away for a few years, and there’s no need to decant – other than the fact that it looks good on the table of course.
Prices from around £9 a bottle now – much less come Christmas.
The most famous style of port is also the most rare and expensive, accounting for only around 1% of the total sold, so most of us never actually drink it.
Vintage port is the product of a single year’s harvest, deemed to be of exceptional quality. Like ruby port, it is aged for a short time in wood, then put into very thick, dark glass bottles, where it is destined to remain for years, even decades, before being drunk. The port houses each decide whether to “declare” a vintage every year: the quality of the wine is ostensibly utmost, but in practice a vintage is declared three or four times in a decade.
In years where a port shipper does not “declare” a vintage, they may still, confusingly, produce a single quinta vintage port. These carry the shipper’s name and the name of the vineyard or quinta, such as Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas or Graham’s Malvedos. They are less pricey than the straight vintage and designed to be drunk younger, as they come from less favoured years.
Why does vintage port last so long? All wine needs one or more of the following ingredients to help preserve it and to provide a framework within which the flavours can develop: sweetness, acidity and tannin. Vintage port has all of these in spades, as well as masses of dense fruit to provide the centrepiece to fill out the structural framework. As it ages, the fruit matures to give complex aromas and flavours – and it will always need decanting, to separate the clear wine from the thick deposit in the bottle.
Single quinta ports start at around £25 per bottle, vintage port varies greatly depending on the year, but expect to pay around £40 and up.
Late bottled vintage (LBV)
This is a relatively recent innovation, dating from the 1970s. LBV gives some of the cachet of a vintage port, with the grapes coming from a single year, but the price and quality are somewhere between ruby and vintage. As the name suggests, it spends longer than true vintage port ageing in wood before being bottled (hence late bottled). Most are filtered before bottling so need no decanting. They are designed to offer a full-bodied, dark-coloured port that goes some way towards the flavour of vintage port, but which is cheaper and can be drunk earlier.
Prices for LBVs start at around £10 a bottle.
Unlike the ruby and vintage versions, tawnies are aged in wood for an extended period. The time in barrel results in a mellow, nutty style of port which is deep amber-brown: tawny in fact.
The most basic tawnies can be pale pink rather than deep mahogany brown and don’t have much to recommend them. Instead look for “aged tawny” on the label, or an indication of age. 10 year-old tawny will be an average age of the wines in the bottle, ditto 20, or even over 40 year-old tawny. You might also come across a single vintage tawny, known as “colheita”.
Not deep purple, more mellow than sweet and spirity: this is the port that lends itself to summer drinking. While there’s nothing better than a nip of it next to a crackling fire in the winter months, in summer you can chill it, or even serve it over ice for a refreshing aperitif.
Tawny ports, like ruby, won’t have any sediment or need decanting and won’t improve in the bottle.
Warre’s Otima 10 year old – around £11.99 at Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Thresher/Wine Rack and Waitrose
Quinta do Noval 10 year old - £15.99 at Waitrose
Taylor’s 10 year old - £17.99 at Sainsbury’s
Taylor’s 20 year old - £27.25 at Waitrose
Dow’s 20 year old - £26.25 at Waitrose
Calem 1990 Colheita - £20 at Waitrose
As with all these posts, this article was published in the Surrey Advertiser, but this version is much longer.