OK where were we? Ah yes, the many styles of port. Here we go…
Some research tells me there are four basic categories of port, these being related to how long, and if, they are held in wood. Other resources say there are ten styles and just go at them individually.
I’m just going to try to explain them in some kind of order I made up in my head, which means it might not be any kind of real order at all, but here goes.
Let’s start with Vintage Port. This is the style regarded by many as the best. These ports are made from grapes from the best vineyard sites and from the best “declared” vintage years. Not every year is “declared” so a firm won’t even make a vintage port in undeclared years. (The grapes of that year will then be used to make different styles of port.) Vintage Ports typically spend six months to two years in oak and then go unfiltered into a bottle for further aging, typically to the tune of 20 years or more! After this long aging, a heavy sediment builds up so they must be decanted and given some air before drinking. Vintage port represents 2 to 3 percent of the total production of port. As you may imagine, these bottles represent the upper echelon in both style and cost.
A sub category of Vintage Port is Single Quinta Vintage Port. The grapes for a Single Quinta Vintage Port come from a given quinta i.e. farm, or, more accurately, an estate (rather similar to a French château). These grapes will be from a particular year in which an estate vineyard with a special microclimate may produce exceptional wines to be made even in years when the vintage as a whole may not be declared. These wines, like Vintage Ports, are put in bottle, unfiltered, and usually released after two years. They are then aged a decade or more by their buyers. These are slightly less expensive than Vintage Ports.
Then, under this, I put Crusted Ports. Well named, these are simply a good hearty Port made from a blend of several different years that has also been bottled unfiltered, and thus throws a lot of sediment. These also must be decanted. The average age of the wines in the bottle is generally 3 to 4 years. Gutsy, full bodied and moderately priced it’s sometimes described as the working man’s Vintage Port.
Let’s move on to Tawny Ports. There are two types: young (as in not aged) and aged. Young is less than three years old, basic and uncomplicated. It’s made from less prestigious grapes that yield a lighter colored wine. They are often drunk straight up or on the rocks as an aperitif. Aged Tawny Ports are another story. They are usually designated on the label as 10, 20, 30 or more than 40 years old. Aged Tawny Ports are among the best loved ports in Portugal, Britain and France. They are drunk both as an aperitif and at the close of a meal. These ports are blends of older vintage wines that have been left in the barrel until they take on nutty, brown sugar and vanilla flavors and a soft silky texture. As they spend more time in oak, the color fades from deep ruby red to, well, tawny! The designation of years actually describe the flavor of the port. The wines used for Aged Tawnies are of the highest quality and, if a declared year, will be used for Vintage Ports. However, because these are made in completely different ways, Aged Tawnies and Vintage Ports taste nothing alike. An Aged Tawny is about finesse, Vintage Port about power.
A special type of Aged Tawny is called Colheita. The word means harvest and Colheita means it is a tawny made from a single harvest. It must be aged a minimum of seven years, although there is no set maximum. In practice, many are released after they are 10, 20, or even 50 years old! Colheitas are the rarest of ports and account for less than 1% of all production.
Ok. Rubies. Sometimes we want to enjoy the simple things in life. Ruby port is one of them. The least complex style of the red ports, it is inexpensive and has almost no barrel aging before release. But these ports are, nevertheless, fresh with red fruit, tasty and can be just the ticket. Especially for entry-level port drinkers.
Then there’s white port. Which I didn’t think I’d even mention when I started this, but, here it is. White port is the simplest type of port – so simple, it’s barely considered port by many port lovers. It is derived from those obscure white grape varietals I so rudely told you to look up earlier on in this report. Sorry. It is made in very dry to semisweet styles. It is typically fruitier on the palate and a bit fuller bodied when aged briefly in wood. It has found favor as a gin replacement so order up a “Port and Tonic” and see what you think!
Late Bottled Vintage Port. LBVs are somewhat confusingly named. They are not to be confused with Vintage Ports. While LBVs are also made with grapes from a single vintage, the quality of the grapes is not as high as those for Vintage Ports. LBV’s are aged in wood from 4 to 6 years and are considered, more or less, high-quality ruby ports. They are ready to drink when bottled and don’t have the aging potential of Vintage Ports. LBVs are very popular in the UK.
LBVs are followed by Traditional Late Bottled Vintage Port. (Really???) Only a few port shippers still make a TLBV port which is closer to Vintage Port then to a standard LBV. They are made like VPs but with grapes from good, not great, (i.e. undeclared versus declared) years. They are also aged in wood for four years, not two. TLBVs are aged by the shippers in their lodges (see part one!) and released when they are mature enough to drink. These will continue to age well for two decades or so and are not filtered so throw a lot of sediment and also need to be decanted.
OK, OK, I know you’re getting tired. But, wait, there’s more…
Just briefly, one more. Vintage Character Port. They don’t resemble VPs at all and they don’t come from a single vintage. Whaaat? Think about these as Super Rubies. They are round and juicy and have proprietary names made up by their producers.
That’s it folks! If nothing else, we have learned that Port is a very big subject. So this is what I suggest – try different styles,find what you like, drink it, and watch this very informative and, perhaps more clarifying, VIDEO.
Then go to Portugal. I hear it is quite wonderful and doesn’t see many Americans. So be polite, uphold tradition, and, as customary, pass the Port to the left.