As importers, we often get the question "what really is Port wine?".
If you have been following our team's travels to Portugal for the past few years, you probably know that Port is a fortified wine from Douro Valley let’s briefly recap what that means and then jump into the details.
A View from the Gaia side of the river
What is Port Wine?
Most wines are made via fermentation by which yeasts convert grapes’ sugar into alcohol, leaving the final “dry” (i.e. without sugar) and with 10-15% alcohol.
However, unlike most wines, fermentation is interrupted early in Port with the addition of aguardente, a 77% neutral grape spirit which stops the yeasts’ sugar-converting activity, leaving Port sweet, more alcoholic (18-21%) and better protected from oxygen and bacterial spoilage.
Since the 1700s, this process of fortification helped Port endure long and tumultuous boat rides from Douro to Vila Nova de Gaia (across the river from Porto) and onto England and the rest of the world. Although fortified, Port is still somewhat fragile and warrants proper cellaring, serving and storing for an optimal drinking experience.
Port Style Recap - Tawny and Ruby Port
Tawnies and Rubies are blends of various harvests, aged to perfection at the Quinta and bottled for immediate enjoyment. These make up the bulk of Port and represent a “house style” which differs between Quintas but must, like all Ports, be approved by the Institute of Douro and Port Wines (IVDP).
Tawnies are blends of 3-4 harvests, aged for more time (minimum 4-5 years) in smaller (228-700L) wood barrels. Tawnies prolonged aging in contact with oxygen imbues them with evolved aromas of dried fruits, nuts, spices and caramel. Each year, ~2% of a Tawny barrel evaporates, further concentrating its flavors, acidity and sugar.
Old Tawny Port
Old Tawnies, categorized as Fine or Reserve, 10, 20, 30 Year and so on, develop lighter “Tawny” hues and softer structure. This is because the tannin and color molecules winemakers extract from grapes’ skins and seeds during maceration and fermentation precipitate out of the Port with time.
Colheitas are Tawny-style Ports from a single harvest (rather than a blend).
White and Rosé Port
White and Rosé Ports are often produced from one single harvest, fermented and aged for a short time in stainless steel tanks and usually without oxygen contact.
This preserves their bright and youthful, floral and fruity character. Some White Ports are, like Tawnies, aged in barrels for many years before blending and bottling with their average age listed on the bottle as 10, 20, 30 Year etc.
While Tawny Ports are made with red grapes and their color lightens during aging, White Ports are made from white grapes that lack those tannin and color molecules and darken due to oxidation during aging.
All About Rubies
Rubies are, like Tawnies, blends of various harvests but aged for less time (maximum 5 years) in larger (4.000-5.000L) wood casks and thus are exposed to less oxygen.
This preserves their youthful structure, bolder “Ruby” color, richer red and black fruit characters and, in their finer or older expressions, herbal and floral or chocolate and vanilla aromas.
Those red grape tannin and color molecules we mentioned before remain suspended in these younger Ruby Ports which give them deeper color and grippier texture.
LBVs are similar in aging technique and tasting profile to Rubies except they come from one single harvest of great quality and are more concentrated and structured, similar to Vintage Ports.
Vintage LBVs - the “King of Ports” - are only made in exceptional years (of which there are on average 3-4 per decade) and are bottled after only 18 months of aging in large wood casks of 6.000-7.000L.
These are not “house style” blends, but rather than an expression of the Quinta’s highest quality grapes in the best years.
Vintages (and some LBVs) are not filtered and meant to age in bottle for decades during which their tannins and color will slowly soften and lighten thanks to a process of micro-oxygenation via the porous corks.
Young Vintages are chock-full of dark and rich fruits and minerality, dense color and powerful structure whereas old Vintages are elegant and complex, with more dried fruit, nut and coffee aromas, refined tannins and, in their older expressions, savory leather and mushroom nuances.
We hope this guide to Port styles helped you understand this complex and delicious and almost mystical beverage from Portugal. Our next blog post, covers storing and serving Port. Check out our Port serving and Storing Guide.
Love Port? Check out our collection of artisan Port wines, from Rubies to Tawnies to Port rosé!