|Is Port a Gift from God?
You might think so if you have ever had a really good glass of it - I know I believe it.
Port wine has an interesting story and history - the only problem is nobody is really sure how much of what we think is its history is actually true. In cases like this we just have to accept that we don't really know, and then accept what we are told to be the story as being at least part of the story - and the story in a nutshell begins with the French...
Any student of history can tell you that France and England did a lot of fighting with each other - early on it was over who got to be the King in one or the other or both, and then later when that short guy with the big nose came to power it was over lots of things but mostly I suspect over the French holding a grudge for a long time. Whatever the reason, every time England and France went to war the English lost their supply chain for French Wine. Deal Smugglers could only bring in so much, and that was clearly not enough, so the English wine merchants went looking for an alternate source - and found it in Portugal of all places!
Legend has it that the English tried the light and airy wines of Portugal and found them... Well.. Wanting for something. So it is claimed that an English merchant mixed brandy into the wine and voila! Port is born. Now if that were true - and I am not saying that it is not true - but if it were, than wouldn't it make more sense that the wines would be shipped from Portugal to England and mixed with brandy after they arrived? That is not how it is done mind you - Port wine is actually made in Portugal and largely shipped from the city of Oporto, which makes one pause to wonder if the story might have other footnotes. It is true that many of the large and famous Port Houses are English owned, but still...
A Port is a Port Unless it is not from Oporto!
In France there is a bubble-filled wine called Champagne - and in the rest of the world there are bubble-filled wines that are not called Champagne but are called Sparkling Wines. The reason for that is simple - only bubble-filled wines made in the Champagne Region, from grapes grown in the Champagne Region, can legally be called Champagne! Port has the same deal going for it, and while there are wines made in the style of Port in North America, Australia, and South America, they are not Port Wines. You follow that? So what wines do qualify as Port?
The grapes are grown in the Douro Valley in the northeast of Portugal, and then they are shipped a little over 600 miles by barge down the River of Gold (Rio Douro) to the town of Oporto, where they are unloaded and carried to some very special vineyards who have a complicated and lengthy process that they use to create the wine that will bear the name of the town. After the wine is made and the brandy added (Port is technically called a Fortified Wine for that reason), it is stored in barrels for a number of years - often a large number of years for some types - and then bottled. It might be stored in the bottle for another large number of years, or it might be shipped to market, then sold to the consumer, who also might store it in the bottle for a large number of years.
It is a well established fact that port wine just gets better with age, so racking a case in your cellar for a rainy decade in the future is not a bad idea at all! Especially when you consider that purchasing vintage port when it is first released to market is a far cheaper option than buying a nice aged bottle. While Port is very popular in the UK and Europe, it is only really just catching on in the Americas and elsewhere, so now is your chance to be a trail blazer! Drink port!
The Many Types of Port Wine
Ruby Port - Aged 2 to 3 Years
The least expensive - and roughest (think raw) of the Port Wines, Ruby is the Plonk of the Port World. No frills here, they don't even usually age Ruby in wood - most of the Ruby produced is stored in metal vats or kegs for the 2 to 3 years it takes to mellow enough to be drinkable, so that should give you a notion of its purpose. Ruby is not meant to be racked in your cellar - drink it right away, it is not going to get better with age.
Ruby is the Port Wine you want to buy if you plan on making a fortifed Fruit Punch - but whether you are making a punch or plan to drink it by the glass heed this warning - You Get What You Pay For! Never buy the cheap Ruby Port, always buy the premium (Famous House) Ruby's because where I come from they have another use for the cheap ones - they use it to strip paint off of cars!
Tawny port - Aged 3 to 40 Years
Now Tawny is where we get into the good stuff! Aged in wood until they have a pale amber to reddish fire hue (that is why they call them Tawny) they have a nice dry flavor with a hint of nuts and fruit. Tawny Port is ideal for you if you are just starting out on your adventure with port wine - there is enough difference in the aged and houses to give you an opportunity to learn about the wine without having to pay through the nose for the lessons!
While you can sometimes find a Tawny that is only 3 years old, the good stuff is aged in increments by decade. You will see 10 year, 20 year, 30 year, and 40 year Tawny Port on the shelf, but like in most wines you are paying for the age, and the older ones have a level of sophistication that requires prior understanding to really appreciate. If you are just starting out the 20 year Tawny is the one to go for, both for price and complexity, but be sure to try the 10 year too, and when you have the chance to attend a tasting where there are 30 and 40 year Tawny's don't miss that chance.
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) - Aged 4 to 7 Years
Now here is an enigma. What an LBV Port is to put a fine point on it is the product of a year that was not quite good enough to declare a Vintage (we will get to Vintage Port in a bit). What does that mean for you?
In general terms an LBV is a Port Wine created from the product of a single vineyard, just like a Vintage Port, but as its end quality was not considered to meet the high standards for declaring a vintage year, it is not a vintage port. Don't mistake it for being inferior to other types of port, it is not, and some years produced stellar LBV's!
Port that is declared an LBV follows a traditional path - it is aged in wood, then it is filtered and bottled, though there can be and often is sediment in the bottle. On the plus side, unlike Vintage Port that must age and mature, LBV is carefully blended so that it can almost be consumed as soon as it is released!
Single Quinta Port - Aged 3 to 6 Years Plus
Similar to the LBV, Single Quintas are created in years when the grape harvest is not of high enough quality to justify declaring a vintage year. Unlike the LBV however the Single Quinta can be made either in the style of a Tawny or a Vintage, and is made from grapes that originate in a single vineyard.
Though the Single Quinta is sold for a lower price than a Vintage Port, they are largely considered to be if not just as good as a Vintage than nearly so, and are very popular for that reason. In theory the Single Quinta can be consumed when it is released, though in practice some aging in the bottle has a desireable effect upon the wine. This is a good wine for the new port drinker to experiment with as it will help them learn the variations that exist in taste, tone, and texture.
White Port - Aged 5 to 10 Years
The only real difference between a Red and a White Port is that the grapes used for white port are green (white) as the style of making the wine is the same. That is not to say that White Port is the same as Port Wine in the hands of the consumer though as White Port is generally consumed chilled rather than at room temperature. The taste of White Port is distinct and very different than that of Red and some expert declare that White Port is an acquired taste for the very experienced drinkers of the wine.
The style of White Port is more dry than you will come to expect in Red Port, and for the most part it is used as a before dinner drink rather than an after dinner drink. To understand why that is so you really do have to try a glass for yourself, as nothing I say here is going to prepare you either for the taste or the difference in the experience. But life is all about variety, so give it a try!
Colheita - Aged 7 to 12 Years Minimum
Ah, Colheita that gem of gems, the Port that everyone wants and that I cannot afford! This one is a rare wine - when I say that I mean RARE. If you took all of the Port Wine produced in a given year, for every 250 bottles of Port Wine only 1 (ONE) bottle of Colheita is produced. Because of that fact the vast majority of Port Wine drinkers will never even see a bottle of this, let alone taste it, but that is not to say that you can not if you really want to... But it will take some effort on your part, and a willingness to pay dearly.
One word of warning - Colheita is NOT made for cellaring! If you actually do manage to obtain a bottle of it DO NOT SIT ON IT! It should clearly state when it was bottled on the label and you need to consume it within that year! She does not stand up well to age Senor.
Vintage Port - Aged ?
No way to say with authority how long they should be aged... Vintage Ports are the top of the line, and priced way out of the reach of most casual drinkers - the good stuff anyway. That does not mean that you should not try to experience it, but before you start shelling out that sort of dough, spend some time learning the types above, because until you do you are not going to fully appreciate a Vintage Port.
There is an art and a tradition to drinking the good stuff, so get a book or go to a tasting where they give a decanting lesson. You will be glad you did.
What you need to grasp about Vintage Port is it does not come along all that often. In normal decades the grape harvest is only good enough to declare a vintage once or twice - though the 1990's saw a miraculous FOUR vintages declared! How about that? Remember though, every snooty thing you ever heard about vintage port is true - it is this type of port wine that the Port Houses are judged by, and it is with that in mind that they are brutally narrow in their view and why they hold the harvest to such high standards. For some perspective on this you may find it of interest that the people who are really serious about Vintage Port do not consider one ready to even sniff until it is 50 years old or more. That takes some serious patience if you plan on cellaring it for yourself, or some serious bucks if you plan on buying the stuff that is ready to drink now!
Is That All You Need to Know?
No. But the rest you are going to need books for, because it gets really complicated. So go buy a book!