A beginner’s guide to drinking port

Chances are you will have enjoyed a port after dinner, perhaps with cheeses, often around the Christmas season.
The most common port on sale and drunk in the UK is ruby port, but other versions are available, including white and the increasingly popular tawny.
In fact, you will begin to see articles about port and other fortified wines in all the glossy Sunday supplements very shortly if you haven’t already.

Pipes, used to age port

Pipes, used to age port

What is port?
Simply, it is a fortified wine, produced in the Douro Valley region of Portugal. It can only be produced there, nowhere else, to be called port.
There are three wine growing regions in the valley, each with a slightly different climate producing wines of slightly different character.
But essentially port will be a mix of wines from different grapes, of which six – Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, and Tinta Amarela – are considered classic port varieties, though many others are grown in the region and will be used.
All ports start with the grapes being crushed and left to ferment for a few days. Often, this crushing is still done by foot.
Once half the sugar has turned to alcohol (7%abv), a grape spirit (referred to as ‘brandy’) is added to kill the yeast and stop the fermentation process. It also bumps the alcohol level up to 20%abv.
The wine is transferred to oak casks (sometimes metal) and left to age for a minimum of two to three years.
It is then that the port is assigned a ‘type’, i.e. whether it will be bottled or transferred to smaller oak casks known as pipes and left to age further.
Obviously, that is a very simplified version of the port production process. What follows is a simple, brief guide to the different types of port you might enjoy this month.

Ruby port
Made from red grapes, this port will be blended from various wines from vineyards across the Douro region. They are often aged for three years in casks before being bottled where they can last for a few years.
Ruby ports labelled ‘reserve’ may have been aged for four to six years. Serve at room temperature and enjoy in the classic way, with cheese.

Tawny port
Tawny Port starts out as ruby port, but is aged in oak casks for an extended period – between 10 and 40 years.
The ageing process oxidises the port producing its mellow colour and a taste that is smoother than its ruby cousin. This is very popular in Portugal.
Tawny port can be enjoyed with cheese but can also make a nice aperitif with pudding, especially something sticky and indulgent.
If the port is the result of a single harvest it is known as Colheita port and is sometimes aged for only eight years.

White port
This is basically a white grape version of ruby port, ranging in taste from very sweet to very dry and everything in between. It can be aged slightly longer in the cask. Although it is a lovely drink on its own, it can also be used in cocktails, or with tonic and lemon added.
It is worth noting that you can get a Colheita version of white port.

Late bottled vintage port
Known as LBV ports, these can be seen in very basic terms as the step between ruby ports and Colheita ports in that they are from a single harvest but are aged longer than ruby ports (though not as long as tawny ports).
They are generally filtered and so can be enjoyed poured from the bottle like a fine red wine.

Vintage ports are rare. A vintage is only declared after an exceptional year and that does not happen often, perhaps only two or three times a decade.
Some estimates state that as little as 1% of all ports sold is a true vintage.
It is bottled after only two years in the cask and left to mature in the bottle for a number of years – some will hit peak flavour after 15 to 20 years, although they can be enjoyed when young.
The process will leave a sediment in the bottle which means it is best to decant it before enjoying it and it won’t last long after opening, so you need to enjoy it quickly.
It’s taste is full and holds up well against robust flavours.

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