Port Wine: Definitive Guide & 5 Bottles to Try

Wine connoisseurs and otherwise will be all too familiar with the sweet taste of port wine – that iconic accompaniment to your dessert, which hails from Portugal but has a global reputation. But if you are thinking about investing in port, you should be well-acquainted with the basics: What is port wine? What is it made of? What is port fortified with? And, most importantly, you should know which port wines are the best to buy – for both investing and tasting. Learn whether port wine is good for investment through your wine investing app, or read on to discover which bottles best complement your dinner’s dessert.

Port Wine History

While wine has been produced in Portugal since well before the Romans arrived in the 3rd century BC, the port wine variation was first exported from the country in the latter half of the 1600s. It was named port because the grapes used for production were grown in Porto – at the mouth of the Douro River and its tributaries in Portugal’s Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro region, to be precise, where both fortified and non-fortified wines are produced to this day. Since the 17th century, Porto has acted as the commercial hub for the trade of port wine, with traders bringing their produce to market for exportation – first throughout Europe and subsequently across the world. By the 1800s, wealthy investors were purchasing port wine in Britain and beyond, recognising the variation’s merit for its distinctive taste. Nowadays, only wines produced in Portugal can claim the appellation of ‘port wine’ as one of the oldest appellations in the world, yet similar variations are created aboard – in countries such as South Africa, Canada, Spain, India and the USA, among others. Yet the Douro Valley remains the spiritual heart of the port wine industry and labels from this region are protected under the European Union Protected Designation of Origin guidelines.

How is Port Wine Different From Regular Wine?

Fortified and non-fortified wines have very similar appearances, but differences quickly become apparent upon close inspection (and taste!). 

What Is Port Wine Made of? 

Port is made using Portuguese indigenous wine grapes and a spirit or an aguardiente. While its ingredients are somewhat rudimentary, port wines differ from regular wines in their production methods. 

What Is Port Wine Fortified with? 

Port wine is fortified with a spirit often referred to as brandy, although different in character to the brandy spirits sold and consumed today. The addition of the spirit prevents the fermentation of the grape and leaves a higher sugar content (approximately 100 grams of sugar per litre) – hence the sweetness of its taste. This also means that port wine has a higher percentage of alcohol content when compared to regular wines. On average, port wines have an alcohol percentage of approximately 20%, whereas non-fortified wines have an ABV of around 12%.

Its rich taste and high alcohol content mean that port wine is usually consumed in small servings, either before dinner as an aperitivo or after dinner with dessert – a digestivo. However, regular wines are traditionally drunk more freely. 

How Is Port Wine Stored & Matured?

Both wine types are stored and matured over a number of years in barrels or casks, commonly made from oak. Much like non-fortified wines, certain ports taste the best when aged, becoming increasingly complex over time. Most common ports, however, which are often differentiated from vintage wines by their corks, should be drunk shortly after purchase. In terms of taste, ports differ from non-fortified wines in their sweetness, evoking flavours of berries, caramel, cinnamon, nuts, butterscotch, or even chocolate, as opposed to the drier flavours of vanilla, fruit, zest, or oak. 

Port Wine Regions

What Grapes Is Port Made of?

Winemakers can use over 80 grape varieties to make port, though five or six are favoured, including:

  • Touriga Francesca
  • Touriga Nacional
  • Tinta Barroca
  • Tinta Roriz
  • Tinta Cão

Each of which derives from Portugal and brings a unique taste to the wine. 

The Wine Regions of Portugal

Considered by many oenophiles to be among the world’s most iconic wine regions, with 2.7% of the global vineyard surface area, Portugal has a distinguished history of winemaking that varies according to the region. There are approximately 14 major wine regions within Portugal – from Transmontano in the north to the Algarve in the South – each of which varies with regards to its climate, grape varieties, landscapes, and soil type. 

Yet it is in Portugal’s Douro Valley region that the majority of the country’s port wine is produced. Humans have made wine here for over two millennia, transforming the Douro River’s landscapes into vine-covered terraces. So distinguished is the Douro Valley’s winemaking history that UNESCO today recognises the site with World Heritage status, citing the human influence on its development as a treasure to cherish. 

 Comprising approximately 40,000 hectares of vineyards, the Douro Valley is further divided into three neighbouring sub-regions: Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo, and Douro Superior. Each produces a unique style of port wine, with Cima Corgo laying claim to the world’s highest quality vintage labels.

Types of Port Wine

Connoisseurs will agree that the variation in the types of wine is what makes oenology such a fascinating subject. While most will be familiar with red port wine varieties, only the purveyors among us will be acquainted with each of the four main categories of port:

Ruby Port 

You might not be able to tell ruby port apart from non-fortified wines in terms of colouration, yet take a sip and the difference quickly becomes apparent! Typically aged for two or three years in large stainless steel vats before being bottled and aged further, ruby port is the most produced variety. It has a deep red hue that yields sweet-tasting, berry-like flavours (blackberries, raspberries, cherries). Ruby ports can be subdivided into ruby, vintage, late-bottled vintage, and – less commonly – crusted port.

Tawny Port

The port of choice among the Portuguese traditionalists, tawny ports resemble ruby ports in appearance but are aged in smaller barrels, known as pipas, which increase the oxidation of the wine for a distinctive nutty taste and a leather-like scent. After the reserve designation, which is aged for around seven years, tawny ports extend into 10, 20, 30 and 40+ year ageing categories – as permitted by the Port and Douro Wines Institute. Tawny ports are often enjoyed after a ruby port.

White Port

Made with indigenous white grapes – including Rabigato, Viosinho, Gouveio and Malvasia – by roughly 30 producers in the Douro Valley since the 17th century, white port is less common than ruby and tawny ports, often drunk as an aperitif by comparison. A worthy bottle for your home bar, white port is a versatile base for cocktails.

Rosé Port

The latest addition to the family, rosé port – or pink port – is a new category of port wine that dates back to just 2008. Until brandy is added to fortify the wine, rosé port is produced in the same manner as the non-fortified wine. The grapes’ skins are left on for up to 12 hours during the fermentation process, giving the alcohol its light pink colour. Once the juice is extracted, this fruity-tasting tipple is left to ferment for an additional seven days. 

Other Types of Port Wine

Garrafeira Port

Since the 1930s, the House of Niepoort has produced a rare variation called Garrafeira port. The main point of differentiation with Garrafeira port is that it undergoes two distinct ageing periods – the first in wood for between three and six years, and the second in glass, sealed with a cork.

Late-Bottled Vintage Port

With around 60 variations, late-bottled vintage port is a disputed and varied category of wine. Produced with grapes from a single year, late-bottled vintage is aged for up to six years in wooden vats – unlike regular ruby ports, which are aged for up to two years – and is selected for its exceptional quality.

Crusted Port

As its name suggests, crusted port wine is unfiltered before it is bottled, which results in a sediment layer forming in the bottle over a decade or more. Crusted port is produced by just a handful of houses in Porto, made using a selection of young ports from a series of harvests.

Port Wine Vintage

What is a port wine vintage? While, when applied to regular wine, vintage means the year in which a wine is produced, it takes on a quite distinct meaning when describing port. The appellation of ‘vintage’ is reserved only for the very best yields of port, produced only by a single vineyard in exceptional years – typically in the Cima Corgo sub-region of the Douro Valley. Vintage ports are usually the most expensive and highest-quality bottles available. Vintage port wines are decanted to eradicate any build-up of sentiment.

Storing and Serving Port Wine

How to Store Port Wine?

Much like regular, non-fortified wine, port wine requires particular conditions for storage. Knowing how to store wine is critical to best enjoy it. Firstly, port wines should be stored on their sides, lying down, to ensure that the cork remains moist. The room in which the ports are kept should be cool – at a consistent temperature of around 14 degrees – dark, and with a humidity of approximately 70%. Traditional wine cellars are ideal for storing port wines. Once opened, port wines should generally be consumed within a matter of days.

How to Serve Port Wine?

Glass, Temperature & Decanting

·        The Glass: Port wine is best served in 75ml or 3oz port wine glasses due to its sweetness and high alcohol content. Official port wine glasses showcase the drink’s acute flavours with a thin rim and a short stem. If you are lacking a dedicated port glass, use a white wine glass instead.

·        The Temperature: Port wine is best served at a temperature of between 15°C and 20°C – a little under room temperature. There are exceptions: tawny port is enjoyed slightly cooler, while white port is often chilled.

·        Decanting: It is not essential to decant filtered port wines, yet unfiltered varieties – such as some vintages, crusted ports, and select late-bottled vintages – should be decentered. Not only does this allow the wine to breathe, but, more importantly, it also removes residue sediment. 

Port Wine Food Pairings

As port wines are traditionally consumed before, during, and – more commonly – after meals, it is customary to accompany the drink with food pairings. Try the following port wine food pairings:

  • Ruby and Reserve Port: The rich flavours of ruby and reserve ports best lend themselves to select full-flavoured cheeses, such as cheddar or red Leicester. Alternatively, if enjoyed after a heavy meal, complement the ports with a chocolate cake or something equally sweet.
  • Tawny Port: As tawny wine can be consumed at a slightly lower temperature than ruby ports, it sits nicely on the palate with more salty snacks, such as roasted almonds, pâtés, and dried fruits.
  • Late-Bottled Vintage and Vintage Port: The most iconic sipping wines, late-bottled vintage and vintage ports are enriched by strong flavours, such as blue cheeses, dark chocolate, or figs.
  • White Port: White port is more versatile, with pairings ranging from shellfish and salmon to olives, salted almonds, cured hams, and sweet fruits.

What Does Port Wine Taste Like?

  • Ruby Port: Ruby port is very sweet in its flavour, with fruity notes, including raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries, as well as cinnamon and chocolate.
  • Tawny Port: Aged in small oak barrels for longer than ruby port, tawny port possesses nutty qualities, evoking tastes of hazelnut, fig, caramel, and walnut. 
  • White Port: White port often tastes like apricots or apples, with refreshing, zesty qualities – brought out by its cooler serving temperature.
  • Rosé Port: Rosé port boasts strawberry, raspberry, and caramel flavours – light and sweet in taste.

Top 5 Port Wines to Buy

Interested in investing? Read on to discover 5 of the best port wines to buy, among others. Unsurprisingly, most of the best ports are produced in Portugal’s Douro Valley region. Keep an eye out for bottles from the following houses, which are among the best port wine producers:

  • Kopke Port House
  • Espaço Porto Cruz
  • Croft Port
  • Cálem
  • Quinta Do Noval
  • Graham’s Port Lodge
  • Broadbent
  • Ramos Pinto
  • Warre’s
  • Taylor’s
  • Offley

Top 5 Port Wines to Try

All this port talk may even have you gasping to try the best labels. Set your sights on the following five bottles:

·        Sogrape Vinhos, Sandeman 20 Year Old Tawny NV

·        Quinta do Portal, Quinta Dos Muros Vintage 2018

·        Cockburn’s, LBV 2015

·        Sogevinus Fine Wines, Kopke Colheita 1978

·        Symington Family Estates, Waitrose No 1 Crusted Port NV

Before trying your bottle of Port, check out these wine tasting terms & tips for wine tasting!

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