Have you ever looked at a bottle of port wine and wondered what all the fuss was about? Or perhaps gotten a recommendation from a fellow enthusiast to try one, only to find it too complex to understand? If so, you’re not alone! Portuguese port wines are serious business – but don’t let that scare you away. We’re here with an easy guide on port wines and why they’ve been around for centuries; and soon enough, we’ll have you enjoying this iconic beverage like the studied connoisseur (well maybe almost). Read on for everything there is to know about Portugal’s prized fortified wine and learn everything about what is port wine.
1. Introducing Port Wine – Its History, Origin, and Varieties
Why Port Wine is iconic – Introducing the sweet, fortified Portuguese wine and how it has become an international favorite
Port wine has a long and storied history that stretches back hundreds of years. It is an iconic drink that has become popular around the world for its unique flavor, aroma, and texture. Its history dates back to the 17th century when Portuguese merchants began fortifying their wines with brandy to stabilize them before exporting them to England. This was done in response to rising taxes applied by Louis XV on French wine imports into England, which resulted in an increased demand for Portuguese wines as a substitute.
In that period port wines were dominated by wealthy ship owners and therefore the port producers have remained known today as shippers. They all come from Britain which you will find reflected in Port Wine’s names.
The addition of alcohol stopped the fermentation and created a sweet, fortified wine with a higher alcohol content, which became a favorite among English wine drinkers who were looking for something unique and special, and Port wine was different from other wines, due to its sweet flavor, fortified strength, and age-worthiness.
Over time, port wines have come to be known as one of the most prestigious drinks available – together with the other famous fortified wine, sherry – with some varieties being aged for decades before they are ready to enjoy.
2. Port Wine definition: How is port wine different from regular wine?
Port wine, also known as Porto, is a fortified wine with rich history and complex flavor, and it sets itself apart from regular wine in several ways.
- First, it is fortified with a neutral grape spirit (aguardente -brandy-) during the fermentation process, stopping the alcoholic fermentation, leaving a higher residual sugar content and a thicker, more viscous texture, resulting in a full-bodied wine and sweeter than typical table wine.
- The aging process of some port wine is also distinct, with many aging for years in oak barrels, developing deep complexities and notes of caramel, chocolate, and spice.
- The wine growing area: Portugal’s Douro Valley provides an important viticulture area that produces more than fifty grapes used in making port -the total number has been reported as 52! – where unique soils, climate, and grape varieties all contribute to its distinct personality. The more commonly used local grapes entering the bottles of Port are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, and Tinta Roriz.
- But the aging location takes place in the city of Vilanova de Gaia, just across from Porto on the Douro River. This traditional practice dates back to the mid-18th century when casks of port wine were sent from Douro Valley down the river by ships called rabelos and stored in cellars located along the banks due to favorable temperatures and humidity levels for long-term storage and maturation.
Port wine is a true testament to the art and science of winemaking.
Is Port Wine a sweet wine?
Many people wonder if port wine is a sweet wine, and the answer is yes – but there’s more to it than that.
The sweetness of port wine is derived from the addition of aguardente (neutral grape spirit) during the fermentation process. This halts the alcoholic fermentation and causes a higher concentration of residual sugar to remain in the final product. This results in a thicker texture and fuller body compared to regular wines. However, the sweetness can vary based on the specific type of port and the aging process it undergoes. Whether you’re a seasoned wine connoisseur or just starting to explore the world of wine, the port is a must-try for its unique flavor and undeniable complexity.
Is Port wine a red or white wine?
When it comes to Port wine, there is often confusion about whether it is a red or white wine. The answer is both! Port is a fortified wine that is made from a blend of grapes, including Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, and Tinto Cão, these grapes being used to make red ports.
With the same philosophy, white ports are made from a blend of white grapes, most commonly Malvasia Fina, Gouveio, and Viosinho. These varieties create an aromatic and sweet style of port wine with notes of honey, citrus, and stone fruits.
3. Exploring the Different Styles of Port Wine
Port Wine is not like other wines. It is a special type of wine with a lot of ingredients and steps to make it. It can be either red or white, so it needs to be classified in different ways. Therefore, Port Wine has been classified into different types based on its aging process and other factors. The two main categories of port wine are Ruby and Tawny.
The Ruby Ports
Remember: Ruby Port is made to be aged in the bottle. When it comes to indulging in a glass of port, Ruby is the perfect choice for enthusiasts who enjoy a more vibrant, fruity flavor. Notorious for its deep, rich hue, this fortified wine is made to age in the bottle, allowing for an even more intense flavor profile over time.
Ruby ports are typically aged for around three years before they are bottled, and thanks to their higher levels of residual sugar, they offer an ideal balance of sweetness and acidity. In that line, we can say the following ports belong to the Ruby family of ports (the list is not complete. we show the most known):
- Ruby Reserva/Reserve (1): this is a type of Ruby port wine that is made by blending a variety of vintages, all of which normally have an average age of between 5 and 7 years. It is a step up in quality from standard Ruby port, exhibiting deeper color and greater aromatic complexity. Like Ruby port, it retains its strong fruit flavors but has more complexity and richness than a standard Ruby as it spends more time in barrel. Ruby Reserve Port is a non-vintage wine.
- LBV (Late Bottled Vintage): is a type of Port wine that is produced from the grapes of a single harvest, which will be stated on the label. Unlike Vintage Port, which is aged for two years before bottling and released to be aged much longer, LBV spends much longer in barrel, typically four to six years. LBV Port is bottled between the 4th and 6th year after the harvest and is ready to drink upon release. The year of bottling will also appear on the label, typically on the back label of the bottle. LBV Port can be either filtered or unfiltered, which is formerly called “Traditional.” It is a high-quality Port wine that offers a balance between the fruitiness of a Ruby Port and the complexity of a Vintage Port. LBV Port is often enjoyed as a dessert wine and pairs well with chocolate, cheese, and nuts.
- Crusted: Crusted port is a type of Port wine that is a blend of at least two or more vintage years that age in wood for up to four years, bottled, and then ideally aged for at least another three years in the bottle. It is a younger, rare style of Port wine that is bottled unfiltered, leaving a sediment (crust) to form in the bottle with time. Crusted port is a fairly recent invention, aiming to provide a full-bodied, traditional style that emulates Vintage Port, but at a much lower price. Like a Vintage Port, Crusted Port is bottled without any fining or filtration. It possesses many of the characteristics of Declared or Single Quinta Vintage Ports and can benefit from being bottle-aged for a further five years or more. Crusted Port needs to be decanted before serving
- Vintage: Vintage port is a type of Port wine that is entirely made from the grapes of a declared vintage year, which is declared by the producers (2). The wine is produced, aged, and bottled according to the regulations that define Vintage Port. Vintage Port is bottled young and designed to age in the bottle, and it is considered the most prestigious and expensive style of Port wine. Only about 2% of Port wine is made into Vintage Port, and it is only produced in exceptional years when the grapes possess the characteristics of a Vintage Port.
(1) In the context of Port wine, “Reserva” means that the wine has been aged for a longer period than regular Port wine. The term “Reserva” is not regulated by law in the same way as it is for Spanish wines, but it is often used by Port producers to indicate that the wine has been aged for a longer period than usual.
(2) When is Vintage Port declared? The producers of Port wine decide to declare a Vintage Port when they feel that the wines from a given harvest year possess the characteristics of a Vintage Port. The decision to declare a Vintage Port is made by the producers and it is not regulated by law.
When the producers declare a Vintage Port for a given harvest year, they submit their port to the Port Wine Institute for approval. This process is done to ensure that all regulations related to production, aging, and bottling are met. The process includes several rounds of tasting and evaluation by experts before it is approved and declared as an official Vintage Port. Port houses usually declare vintages three to four times a decade, but the number of vintages declared per decade can vary depending on the quality of the harvest. Not every year is declared a vintage in the Douro, only those when conditions are favorable to the production of a fine and lasting wine.
The Tawny ports
Tawny Port is made to be aged in the barrel. Tawny Port is a port made from a blend of grapes that have been aged in wooden barrels for several years. Unlike Ruby Port which is bottled immediately after fermentation, Tawny Port undergoes an extended aging process in which it develops its distinctive amber-brown color (that gives the name to the wine) and mellow characteristics.
The longer aging process also allows for the development of woody aromas from the barrels it is aged in. This gives Tawny Port a unique character that sets it apart from other fortified wines. While Ruby Ports tend to be fruity and sweet, Tawnys offer more complexity with notes of caramel and butterscotch as well as hints of vanilla and spice
In the Twany Ports family, we have the following classification:
- Tawny 10, 20, 30, 40 years: aged tawny port wine has been aged in wooden casks for at least 10, 20, 30, or 40 years before being bottled and released. Tawny port wines are non-vintage wines, which means they are blended from several vintages, and the age indications of 10, 20, 30, and over 40 years are permitted by the Port and Douro Wines Institute (IVDP). The age indications give the shippers more freedom when creating a house style, fine-tuning here and there with small quantities of older or younger wines.
- Colheita: is a single vintage-dated Tawny Port, meaning that all grapes used in the wine are from one harvest. It is aged in wooden barrels for at least 7 years before being bottled and released. Colheita port is similar to Tawny port in production, appearance, and flavor, but the key difference is that Colheita port is made from a single vintage, while Tawny port is a blend of several vintages. The term “Colheita” is Portuguese for harvest or vintage and is often used by producers in reference to their regular non-reserve wines. Colheita port can offer excellent value as they are usually less expensive than Vintage port, but still offer the complexity and depth of a single vintage wine
White Port is the only type of port officially distinguished by its sugar content and can be found in three main styles: dry, semi-dry, and sweet, the latter known as lágrima (tear, due to its viscosity).
White port is made using the same process as red port, except that White Port is crafted from a “field blend” of indigenous white grapes, including Códega, Malvasia Fina, Esgana Cão, Gouveio, Rabigato, Viosinho and Verdelho. The wine is fortified with clear brandy to stop fermentation and is either put into wood casks for aging or kept in tanks to be bottled young. White port is aged for a year in huge oak tanks before further aging in “pipes” (550 liter oak casks) prior to bottling.
White Port is the only type of port officially distinguished by its sugar content and can be either Extra Seco (extra dry), Seco (dry), Doce (sweet) and Lágrima (very sweet).
Additionally, there are also White Tawny classified by age at 10, 20, 30, 40, and even 50 years. One of the most highly-acclaimed port houses is undoubtedly Dalva. And one more very premium style is the White Colheita, a single vintage white showcasing the flavors from specific vintages, released only every ten years.
There is a special category, Reserva White, that is aged for a longer period of time than standard white port, and results in a more complex and mature flavor profile which highlights caramelized citrus aromas, orange jams, and honey notes.
White ports are usually served as an aperitif or in cocktails.
Rosé Port, also known as pink Porto, is the newest addition to the world of fortified wines, which was developed by winemaker David Guimarens in 2008, and the Croft Port House is credited with creating the first rosé port at the moment when rosé wine has become one of the most popular drinks in recent years. This sweet and fruity style of the port has quickly become a favorite among young drinkers looking for something unique and flavorful. It is made from red grapes such as Tinta Barroca, Touriga Franca, and Touriga Nacional allowing only some hours of skin contact to provide an appealing color. The result is an aromatic wine with notes of berry fruit and a light sweetness that makes it perfect for sipping on its own or mixing into cocktails.
4. Tips on Serving Port Wine
Do you need to decant Port?
Only vintage Ports and crusted Ports must be decanted before serving. Why? Vintage and crusted ports are bottled unfiltered and might contain sediments and decanting is necessary for removing them. There’s no harm in drinking the lees, it’s just unpleasant.
Which glass should we use?
There’s nothing quite like the rich, complex flavors of a good port wine, but did you know that the right glass can make all the difference? When it comes to enjoying port, the proper glass is a must, and the one you’re looking for is the port glass. This unique glass is designed with a wide bowl and narrow mouth, which allows you to fully appreciate the intricate aromas and flavors of the port as you sip. But who invented this ingenious vessel? While there’s no definitive answer, some credit the British glassmaker, George Ravenscroft, with creating the first port glass in the 17th century. Whoever the genius behind it was, we’re certainly grateful for their contribution to the world of wine.
Tip: Young port wines that are less complex can be drunk from a regular wine glass.
Port serving temperature
Young port wines should be served slightly chilled, the tannins and fruitiness of the young wine will be highlighted at this temperature. Old port wines, on the other hand, should be served at higher temperatures, as it helps bring out the complex flavor profile associated with the aging process. But to simplify you can use this parameter:
- Rosé Port: 39.2º – 42.8ºF (4°- 6°C)
- White Port: 42.8º – 50ºF (6°- 10°C)
- Tawny Port: 53.6º – 57.2ºF (12°-14°C)
- Ruby Port: 57.2º – 60,8ºF(14°-16°C)
- LBV: 57.2º – 60,8ºF(14°-16°C)
- Vintage Port: 60.8º – 64.4ºF (16°-18°C)
How long does a bottle of Port last open?
Ruby ports stay fresh for around 2 weeks (a month if kept correctly inside a fridge). Tawny ports keep fresh for months, remember they have already undergone micro-oxygenation. In any case, always keep your wine in good condition for a long time by preserving it always in a cool dark environment.
5. Port Wine Food Pairings: A Guide to Pairing the Perfect Port with Food
Indulging in a glass of Port is a luxurious experience, and pairing it with the right food can elevate that indulgence to a whole new level. The velvety sweetness of Port beautifully complements rich, savory dishes, making it a popular choice for dessert wines.
The nutty and caramel notes found in Tawny Port wine make it an ideal pairing for blue cheeses and almonds, while a Ruby Port is best paired with dark chocolate or berry-based desserts.
For a lighter pairing, try a White Port with seafood or fresh fruit.
Some good combinations:
- One example of a delicious blue cheese and port wine pairing is Gorgonzola cheese with a Tawny Port. The nutty, dried fruit and caramelized flavor of the Tawny Port pairs perfectly with the sharp, slightly sweet taste of Gorgonzola cheese. The unique flavor notes found in Tawny Ports make it an ideal match.
- One of the best food pairings for a Ruby Port is dark chocolate. This sweet and truly indulgent pairing highlights the fruitier notes of the port like blackberry, currant, and cherry. The richness of the dark chocolate works to soften and balance out the tannins in the port wine, creating a velvety smooth finish.
- But another excellent pairing of a robust Ruby Port and hearty meat dishes is a match made in heaven. The deep and complex flavors of Ruby Port are the perfect complement to any rich and savory dish, especially when eaten with game meats such as venison, wild boar, or pheasant. The sweetness of the port helps to balance out.
Exploring Port Wine in Cocktails
Port wine is sweet and its unique flavor profile and high alcohol content make it an excellent ingredient for creating delicious cocktails. From light spritzes to dark Negronis, a signature favorite is Port Tonic, a refreshing cocktail made with extra dry port wine and tonic water, an unexpected balance between sweet and tart flavors.
Experiment with your pairings and let your taste buds be the guide to finding the perfect match. Happy cocktail hour!
What are the oldest Port Wine cellars?
The oldest port wine cellars include the Symington Family Estates, which was founded in the 16th century and dates back to the 14th generation of winemakers; Kopke, established in 1638; Ferreira, which has origins tracing back to 1751; Sandeman, founded in 1790; and Graham’s Port Wine Company, founded in 1820.
We would like to mention two more: Noval and Real Companhia Velha. Noval was founded in 1715, making it one of the oldest port wine cellars still in operation today, and has been producing some of the most exquisite and sought-after ports for centuries, including its iconic Vintage Ports. Real Companhia Velha is one of the oldest and most iconic port wineries in Portugal. Founded in 1756, it has been producing some of the finest ports for centuries. Its range includes the award-winning Vintage Port, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), and Tawny Ports. The wines produced by Real Companhia Velha are renowned for their exceptional quality and great value for money, making them a favorite among connoisseurs around the world.
All of these cellars produce some of the most amazing port wines available on the market today, allowing you to taste a little bit of history with every sip.
Can you answer to the question: What is Port Wine? Now you can and we hope this port wine guide has given you a clearer picture of the different types of port wines and their special characteristics. If you’ve been inspired to sample some port wine, you can easily buy many brands of the beverage from specialty shops or online sources. You can explore the sights and sounds of Portugal through its most prized drink, not to mention its stunning landscape at Douro Valley. Port wine is an experience that everyone should try at least once in their lifetime. So add it to your travel bucket list, raise your glass high in appreciation, and toast to pleasant experiences. Saúde!