With the onset of the cold weather, I start thinking of sitting by a fire with a plate of cheese (especially blue), apples, and nuts, and sipping on a nice Porto. This is such a wonderful ritual that it’s almost worth half freezing to death driving home after work to enjoy it.
Porto, or Port, is a wine produced in the Duoro Valley of northern Portugal. It is typically red and sweet, although dry white forms are occasionally seen. Port is fortified by the addition of a neutral spirit called aguadente that stops fermentation, leaving residual sugar and an alcohol content of 18-20%. It is then aged in barrels.
The Duoro Valley was defined as an appellation in 1756, making it the oldest in the world. Over 100 different grapes can be used, but only five make up the vast majority—Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cao, Tempranillo, Touriga (most widely grown), and Touriga Nacional (considered the best but difficult to grow).
Red Port is found in several styles.
Tawny Port is aged in wooden barrels that expose it to gradual oxidation and evaporation. As a result, it gradually mellows into a golden brown color with a distinct nuttiness and viscosity on the palate. If a bottle of Port says simply “Tawny,” it has been aged in wood for at least two years. Designations of 10, 20, 30 and over 40 year old Tawny exist at markedly escalating costs. Most Port houses blend wines from several vintages to keep their style consistent. A Tawny from a single vintage is called a Coheita.
Ruby is the most common and the least expensive Port. After fermentation, it is stored in concrete or steel tanks to prevent oxidative aging. This keeps the fruit fresh and lively. Reserve ports are usually rubies from the best lots of grapes.
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) was wine that was destined to become Vintage Port but was left in barrel longer than planned, usually due to decreased demand. So it is somewhat similar to a Vintage Port, but is softer and rounder because of the longer time in barrel, and usually a bit lighter in style.
Vintage Port is the most famous of the Ports, the rarest (less than 2% of all Port produced), and the most expensive, approaching $100.00 or more per bottle at release. This is made from grapes produced in a single year, and only if the harvest is of excellent quality (usually 3 or 4 times per decade). A vintage is declared in the second spring after harvest. The wine is aged for a maximum of 2 ½ years in wood before bottling. Many require an additional 10, 20, or even 40 years before they reach their proper drinking age. They retain their ruby color and their fresh fruit, but are remarkably powerful and complex…and can remain drinkable for many decades.
There are many excellent Port houses. Symington Family Estates owns the brands Graham, Dow, and Croft which are all good. Also excellent is the Fladgate Group (Taylor, Croft, and Fonseca). Most Rubies cost in the low teens, while the plain Tawnies cost in the mid teens. Ten year old Tawnies cost in the thirties and 20 year olds cost in the fifties and sixties. LBVs average twenty-five to thirty dollars.
When considering these prices, remember that these wines are thick, sweet, and powerfully flavored. They are meant to be drunk in much smaller amounts than typical table wine, and half a glass is usually more than enough. One bottle will give you lots of enjoyment!