Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Diversity of Port

"For Port incomparable when good. It is not a wine-of-all-work like Sherry....It has not the almost feminine grace and charm of Claret; the transcendental qualities of Burgundy and Madeira; the immediate inspiration of Champagne; the rather unequal and sometimes palling attractions of Sauternes and Moselle and Hock. But it strengthens while it gladdens as no other wine can do; and there is something about it which must have been created in preestablished harmony with the best English character."
--George Saintsbury, Notes on a Cellar-Book (1921)

Let us help destroy the stereotypes of Port, to show its diversity and complexity, its pleasures and versatility. Port, which may also be known as Vinho do Porto, Porto or Vinho Generoso, is basically a fortified wine, meaning alcohol was added to it, that is produced in the Douro region of Portugal. During fermentation, neutral grape brandy is added, which will stop the fermentation process and this tends to make most Ports taste sweet. Over 100 grapes are permitted in the production of Port though there are five main grapes which are most commonly used in red Ports, including Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz , Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Nacional.

Though other wine regions around the world produce wines that are labeled Port, it is not authentic Port, which can only be produced in the Douro. This is similar to the situation where some sparkling wines produced in the U.S. are labeled as Champagne though they are not authentic French Champagne. The Douro has numerous regulations governing the production of Port, including vineyard rules, which do not exist in the other wine regions that produce their own "Port" wines. Ports from the Douro are unique and should be acknowledged as such.

There are numerous types of Ports available, a number which have only been developed and formalized during the last fifty years or so. But, all of these types can generally be placed into one of two categories: bottle aged or barrel aged. Bottle Aged Port is usually bottled after about two years in the cask, is unfiltered, and generally requires additional bottle aging before it is ready to drink. These Ports usually include unfiltered Late Bottled Vintage, Crusted, Vintage and Single Quinta Vintage. Barrel Aged Port is bottled after a longer time in the cask, is filtered and ready to drink upon bottling. This category includes about 98% of all Ports, from White Port to Colheitas, Rubies to Tawnies.

All of these Port types can sometimes get confusing as there may only be subtle differences separating certain types. For example, if you see a vintage date on the bottle, it might not actually be a Vintage Port and could really be a Colheita or Late Bottled Vintage. Do you know the difference between these three Ports? I will try to help lessen the potential confusion.

White Port:
Using white grapes such as Arinto, Cercial, Codega, Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Rabigato, and Viosinho, White Port is generally produced in the same manner as Red Ports. But, they are usually fermented without any skin contact and commonly aged in 550 liter oak pipes. White Ports range from dry to sweet, and the sweet versions are sometimes known as Lagrima. There is also a special category called Leve Seco ("light dry") which has a lower alcohol content, about 16.5%. The amount of aging of White Ports will vary, though most appear to be released when young.  White Port is usually consumed chilled and it is very common to mix young White Ports with tonic to make a Port Tonic cocktail. With the heat of the Douro, a Port Tonic is a very refreshing libation. Older White Ports are generally savored on their own.

Rosé Port:
This is a very new style of Port, only a few years old, and is essentially a Ruby Port with less contact with the skins, thus giving it a pale pink color. Several producers, including Pocas (Pocas Pink), Croft (Croft Pink), Kopke (Kopke Rosé Port), Cruz (Cruz Rosé Port) and Quevedo (Quevedo Rosé Port), now make Rosé Ports. It is a bit controversial as some people don't feel it is authentic Port or that it might hurt the reputation of Port. But as more and more producers start making it, it will likely gain more acceptance.

Ruby Port:
The most commonly produced style of Port, Ruby Port is a blended wine, of different vintages, that is generally aged for 3 years. Each producer will age their Ruby Ports differently, generally minimizing any oak aging, if any at all is permitted. For some, all of the aging will take place in concrete or stainless steel, while others will use some neutral oak. The primary goal is often to prevent oxidative aging. Ruby Ports are usually filtered, have a rich red color and lots of berry and grape flavors. Ruby Ports generally do not improve with age. For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Ruby Port was most favored style but that started to change in the 1960s, though it still is popular.

Tawny Port:
Produced in a generally similar manner as Ruby Ports, the main difference of Tawny Ports is in the aging, as Tawny Ports see much more oak aging. They are aged for at least 3 years, but usually most of that time in spent in barrels, exposing the Port to oxidative aging. Because of this the color of these Ports is lighter, often taking on an amber/brownish color, and the taste acquires some flavors from the oak, like spice and nut flavors.

Reserve Port:
Both Ruby and Tawny Ports can be produced as Reserve Ports, which indicates generally that these Ports are aged longer, are more complex and higher quality than regular Rubies and Tawnies.

Tawny With An Indication Of Age: 
There are four categories under this type, including 10 years, 20 years, 30 years and over 40 years, which indicates the average age of the Port. The additional years of aging tend to lighten the Port's color, soften the tannins, make it more concentrated & complex, and it also tends to make the Port taste more dry. These often can be some fantastic wines, especially the older ones, which also are usually more expensive, though the prices are generally commensurate to the quality.

Colheita Port:
A Colheita ("harvest") is usually a Tawny Port, though a few White Colheitas are also produced, from a single vintage that has aged in wood for at least seven years. The vintage, as well as the date of bottling, must be listed on the bottle. It is filtered so it will not change any more in the bottle. A Colheita should not be confused with a LBV or Vintage Port, and usually has more oak aging than either of these. You can find some old Colheitas, and they can be quite stunning.

Garrafeira Port:
A Garrafeira ("private wine cellar"or "private reserve") is a rare style of Port, which gained an official designation in 2002. It possesses a vintage and has some strict aging regulations. It must spend at least seven years in the barrel and then an additional eight years in glass, in dark green demijohns which are known as bon-bons. These Ports possess their own unique taste though I have yet to taste any of these Ports, or even see them available locally.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port:
This style is intended to be similar to a Vintage Port but is ready to drink as soon as it is bottled.  A LBV will generally age for 4-6 years, and the extra barrel aging does assist in maturing the Port quicker than a Vintage Port. A LBV does carry a vintage date on the bottle and the grapes all come from a single harvest. They may be either filtered or unfiltered. The filtered type is ready to drink, requires no decanting, and may improve a little with aging. The unfiltered type is also ready to drink but needs decanting and will improve more with a few years in the bottle. LBV Ports are usually less expensive than Vintage Ports.

Crusted Port:
This is usually a blend of different vintages, allowing the producer to use grapes from lesser vintages and balance them with better quality grapes. It is bottled unfiltered, and thus needs decanting, and is named for the crust of sediment which develops in the bottle. Aging will improve a Crusted Port though it can be consumed younger than a Vintage Port. The date on a Crusted Port bottle refers to the date of bottling, and not the harvest time of the grapes.

Vintage Port:
Considered by some to be the elite of Port, and constituting only about 2% of all Port, a Vintage Port must be produced from grapes harvested from a "declared" vintage year. Each House decides on their own whether to declare a vintage or not, and that declaration essentially means the quality of the harvest was very high. That declaration must then be approved by the Port Wine Institute. Usually, a producer does not declare in back to back vintages. Some producers declare often while others may only declare 2-3 times per decade. So in any specific year, some producers may declare while others do not. A Vintage Port usually spends about 2 years in the barrel before being bottled, and then it will need at least another ten years before it is optimally ready to drink. Though it has been said that newer Vintage Ports are ready to drink with even less bottle aging. Vintage Ports can age well for a long time, easily 50+ years.

Single Quinta Vintage Port:
Sometimes considered the elite of the elite, Single Quinta Vintage Ports are produced from a single estate. There are different types of this Port though, varying in quality. Some producers will produce these during a year that they do not declare, and such Single Quinta Ports will be less expensive than the regular Vintage Ports. Other producers make a higher end Single Quinta, which is as good, if not better, than a regular Vintage Port. The bottle will usually list the name of the Quinta.


Jason said...

My litmus test for differentiating between Vintage and Late Bottled Vintage is pretty simple. If I can afford it, it's LBV.

Another greatly informative post! I didn't realize there were still so many styles I hadn't tried yet...

Dominic said...

Great article. There is a new category of white port, which is a white port with age indication. I think this was only formalised a year or two ago. We stock Dirk Niepoort's 10 Year Old White Port, and very good it is too. It is the only one I have seen so far. I wonder if there will be 20 and 30 year old white ports in years to come?

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Jason:
That is true in some respects, but Vintage Port can be relatively inexpensive upon release. Just need to store it away for 5-10 years. :)

Hi Dominic:
Thanks, and glad to hear about the aged White Port. If it is that new, then I suspect others will get on the bandwagon and in time, we might see white ports of 20+ years. That would be very cool.