Introduction to Port Wine

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A Port Primer
By Nick Jurkowski
While it’s always in style to be a wine snob, I have found that by and large, the newest generation of wine aficionados is ignorant when it comes to port. The only people who drink fortified wines any time outside of the Christmas season are either retired members of the British Admiralty or hobos (often these groups overlap). It is a sad state of affairs, because the world of port is incredibly rich, and you can find one for every taste and occasion.
For those unfamiliar with port, it is a sweet, fortified wine from the north of Portugal. There are a wide variety of classifications of port, though for the purposes of this primer, I will focus on just 3, which are generally the most well known and available. They are: Ruby, Tawny, and Vintage.
It is important to note that the most important factor in determining the flavor, color, and overall character of a port is how it is by what means it is aged. Ports are either aged in such a way that they never have contact with oxygen (in sealed bottles or tanks), or they are aged in wooden casks, and as such have some small amount of contact with oxygen. Ports aged in the former method are generally smoother and less tannic, and often taste fruitier. Ports aged in the latter method get more viscous and intense, and often have flavors dominated by caramel or honey.
Ruby ports are cheaply produced, and probably make up the bulk of what you’ll find at the supermarket. After it ferments, it is stored in airtight containers, which means that it doesn’t lose its red, fruity color. Most of these are fairly inexpensive, and you can get quite a good example for around $15 in the form of Sandeman’s Ruby Port – flavors of sweet plum mix with a slight tannic taste to produce a port that is quite good, especially considering the price.
Tawny ports come in essentially two varieties: those with an age demarcation and those without. Those without an age are generally not aged particularly (if they are aged at all) in wooden casks, and thus are really not great examples of the style. “Tawny Reserve” is a blend of wood aged ports that have spent at least seven years in barrels. An excellent example of the tawny style can be found in Chateau Reynella Old Cave Tawny Port. Though not from Portugal, it is aged 12 years in casks and a nice mellow fruit flavor that is heightened by citrus overtones. Since it is only aged 12 years (some tawny ports are aged up to 40), the caramel flavors imparted by the wood are not overwhelming, but they are certainly palpable. A little more expensive, Graham’s 20-year Tawny is a great benchmark for quality tawny port. A light amber in color, the flavors are very well balanced, combining raisin and plum with overtones of honey and caramel (a bit more present than in the Chateau Reynella). It’s usually around $40 a bottle, but well worth it.
Vintage ports are probably the most well-known ports in the world, though they only comprise about 2% of a company’s total output. The term “vintage” refers to the fact that all the grapes used in the port are from a single year (as opposed to most other ports, which use blends from various years). Vintages are only declared 3 or 4 times a decade, so it’s a big deal when it happens. They are bottle aged, and reward being cellared for at least 20 years. When served, it is important to decant them properly, in order to avoid sediment and waste. Recent years have seen a number of vintages declared – 1994 (which many say is the best of the past 100 years), 1997, 2000, and 2003. If you’re looking to drink a good vintage port before the year 2030, then it’s best to look back in time to the likes of the 1977’s and the 1985’s. For bargain hunters, check out the Smith- Woodhouse 1985 vintage for the low price of $50 (really quite a bargain in the vintage port world). It’s sweet and a bit mineral tasting, with a very nice raspberry tinge to it. The Smith-Woodhouse is reasonably complex, and a great value. Those with more expensive tastes might try a Dow 1977. Vintage ports from 1977 are really coming into their own right now, and it is still possible to find bottles for under $100. The Dow ’77 is usually a bit over $100, but worth every penny (port aficionados also predict that it will only improve with more time). The complexity of this port is quite remarkable – the dominant taste on the nose is black cherry, but you will also taste fig, citrus, and raspberry. Further aging will only bring out the complex flavors and aromas further.
So ends this short introduction to port – as you can see, there are ports at prices for everyone, from vagrant to captains of industry. You will find far more ports in far more categories than are described here, and the important thing is to find what you like and have fun with it. There are enough fantastic ports in the $20 range that you’ll never have to buy a bottle of vintage (though I’d still recommend you find a way to try some). Ports are great to pair with foods (especially desserts) or tasty on their own – there’s really no bad time for port. Happy tasting.