Last year I flew to Europe with my uncle and 85-year-old grandparents to sightsee and visit our distant relatives. The trip was so incredible we prohibited my grandparents from dying to ensure an annual family trip. Recently, during our usual Sunday lunch, we ate a global feast to help determine the next country to visit: a huge pot of mussels for Belgium, creamy pasta for Italy, jamón serrano and manchego cheese for Spain, foie gras for France, and port wine for Portugal. Everyone was impressed by how deliciously well the foie gras paired with the velvety Reserve Ruby port.
Port is fortified wine with a silky texture and uniquely sweet and tannic flavor profile commonly served as an aperitif or after-dinner drink, but it also complements an array of foods. Most ports are a blend of a few of the 48 approved port-making grape varietals which generally produce low yields, concentrated flavors, and saturated color in the wine. Interestingly, port was created centuries ago by an opportune twist of fate! Port originated in the city of Porto of northern Portugal’s Douro wine region. In the 1700s, when England and France were in the midst of feuding trade wars, the English began purchasing wine from Portugal. The extended travel time resulted in wine spoilage, so savvy winemakers began adding brandy to fortify the wine and extend its shelf-life. Fortification is the defining phase when wine transforms into port. During wine fermentation, the grape’s sugars convert into alcohol; the addition of a distilled spirit halts this conversion to reveal the grape’s sweetness while increasing the alcohol to 18-22% ABV. Luckily, the English like their booze strong, and that’s how fortified wine was born!
There are two broad classifications of port based on aging style: oxidative aging or reductive aging. Ports using the oxidative method, known as Tawny, have a golden-brown hue and flavors of caramel, toasted nuts, dried orange peel, raisin, and butterscotch from the extensive years in wood casks. Tawny is revered for its versatility, ranging from lighter options that pair well with fruity desserts or grilled veggies to Aged Tawnies, matured for decades, which can hold their own against blue cheese and chocolate bread pudding. Purchasing a Tawny is different than other ports because of the age indicator. While most wines indicate a specific year, Tawny’s age categories refer to the average age of grape harvest: 10, 20, 30, and Over 40 years. A 20-year Tawny, for instance, may be a combination of seven and thirty-year-old vintages, which make for a delicious blend of younger, vibrant aromas and others with more developed flavors. Most 30 and 40+ year Tawnies are meant to be sipped like sweet liqueur for their intense flavor concentration. There are also higher-end Tawny ports under strict guidelines; for example, Colheita may only harvest grapes from a single year and Single Quinta Tawny may only harvest grapes from a
The reductive maturation style, Ruby, is aged in wood for short periods and sealed in glass for decades without oxygen. The least and most expensive ports are ruby in style, with the most economical named Ruby for its ruby-red color, acidity and fruit flavors of berries, fig, and jammy spice. The most renowned, Vintage Port, accounts for 2 percent of all port production and is made in small batches from the highest-quality varietals of one vintage year. Vintage Port is aged only 2.5 years in wood, not filtered, and then aged for 20 to 40+ years in the bottle to allow the grape solids to breakdown gradually, soften the tannins and round the flavors of licorice, dried fruit, smoke, and cocoa. Ruby style ports tend to pair well with red meat, hearty stews, dark chocolate, and nutty desserts.
The extensive variety of ruby ports can make their selection complicated for the consumer. For example, Garrafeira is also made from single harvest varietals, aged for up to 40 years in glass, and is notorious amongst expert palates for its subtle notes of savory bacon, and yet is more affordable than Vintage. Other more affordable ports include Late Bottle Vintage (LBV) and Single Quinta Vintage (SQV), which
were initially created to become Vintage, but operational or legal issues altered their destinies. These styles are lighter in body, have a pleasant astringency, and have notes of coffee, cigars, and pepper.
Ports are a labyrinth of styles whose versatility makes them approachable for all occasions, including pouring over desserts, sipping on its own, or mixing up the Portonic cocktail made from White Port and tonic over ice with lemon. Barely scratching the surface of Portugal’s liquid treasures, port wines beckon exploration of the complex flavors they have to offer.