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Port Wine

When it comes to dessert wine, there’s no single type that gives you as much variety as Port.  It’s one of my favorites, in part because a good Port is absolutely delicious and in part because there are so many ways to enjoy it.  I’d say it’s much more more diverse than just a dessert wine.

It’s an interesting and potentially challenging wine to get started with, because with so many variations it can be a little confusing for beginners.  But if you’ve been wanting to give Port a try and you’re not sure where to start, I have a few ideas to get you started.

Before I get into which ones to try, let me touch the basics of what Port is and the different styles.

What is Port?

Let’s start with the basics of the basics.  Port is a fortified wine, which means it’s a wine that begins production like any other wine but brandy is added in order to stop fermentation early.  This raises the alcohol level of the wine and leaves sugars un-fermented, resulting in a sweet wine.

Types of Port Wine

As I mentioned, Port can be a little confusing for beginners.  You might have come across Ruby Port, Tawny Port, Late Bottle Vintage, Reserve, White Port, Colheita, 10 year, 20 year and others.  And you might wonder what the difference is between all these and which one you should try.  Let me try to simplify and make sense of all these variations.  There are four basic categories of Port and some sub-categories within those.  While not an exhaustive list of the different types, here are some of the most common:

  • Ruby Port is (as you might guess from the name) a red Port with deep, dark purplish-red color and typically has rich dark berry flavors.  It comes in a few different sub-categories.
    • Ruby Port – This is your basic red port and is the most widely produced style.  It’s sold while relatively young (3-5 years of aging), has fresh fruit flavors and isn’t intended for bottle aging.
    • Reserve – A higher quality version of Ruby Port, as deemed by the IVDP (the regulatory body that oversees Port production).
    • Late Bottle Vintage – A Ruby style Port from a single vintage that is typically bottled 4-6 years after harvest.
    • Vintage Port – A Ruby Port of the highest quality from the best vintages, bottled between the 2nd and 3rd year after harvest.  Bottle aging adds elegance to these wines and they typically can age well for 30+ years.  If you want to get into Vintage Port, now is a great time as the 2011 vintage is being lauded as one of the best vintages ever.
  • Tawny Port is aged in casks or vats, where oxygen contact transforms the the color, aromas and flavors of the wine.  A Tawny typically has a brown hue and aromas & flavors such as caramel, honey and butterscotch.  You can find a basic Tawny, but you’re better off trying one of these sub-types.
    • 10, 20, 30 or 40 Year Tawny – These are a blend of different vintages with an average age of that indicated on the bottle.  Each Port house has it’s own style of blend, so if you like Tawny you should try those from a few different houses to find your match.
    • Colheita – This is a Tawny from a single vintage.  You won’t come across these as often as others, but if you see one at a good price snag it!
  • White Port is made from white grapes and is typically sold young (although there are some exceptions).  The level of sweetness can vary.  For my purposes in this primer, I’m only going to touch on basic white port, which is often used for making Port cocktails.
  • Rosé Port is similar to White Port in that it’s a younger Port and good for Port cocktails, however it’s made from red grapes which only undergo light maceration in order to restrain the color, tannins and depth of the flavors.

Port Wine Barrels

Getting Started with Port

So, with so many different types & sub-types of of Port, where should one start if they want to become acquainted with this wine?

I had a conversation about this with a good friend and self-appointed Port wine ambassador, André Ribeirinho, and his thoughts were totally aligned with mine.  André has been an evangelist for Port for longer than I have known him.  He lives in Portugal, where he has much better access to great Port than I do, and he’s a Knight of the Port Wine Brotherhood.  In short, he knows his stuff and if you really want to learn about Port I suggest you follow him @andrerib.

Here’s where we landed…

Start with a Ruby Port.  This will show a lot of rich berry flavors and give you a sense for Port, although it won’t show much of what ageing does to the wine.  It’s a fairly approachable style of Port for newbies.  And to enjoy it even more, try it with some chocolate.

If you want to explore more complex Port with some aging, you’ll find the best balance between aging and affordability with a 20 year Tawny Port.  Expect to pay between $30 – 50.  I realize this is higher than the typical price range of wines I normally write about, but it’s not a typical wine.  This is a wine that you can enjoy over several days.  You just need a little taste, not a big glass.  Since the wine is oxidized during ageing, it will keep fine for a number of days after opening the bottle.  One note, while these wines are well-aged prior to bottling, they are not meant to be aged in the bottle.  You’ll see a “bottled” date on these wines and you’ll want to consume them within the first few years of that date.

If 20 year Tawny is out of your price range, you can get a 10 year Tawny Port for a little less — although the characteristics from ageing will not be as prominent.  I actually like to use this as the wine in my tiramisu recipe.

Sandeman Splash

Finally, another fun way to get started with Port is by trying Port cocktails.  I was recently at the Digital Wine Communicators Conference in Montreux, Switzerland where I came across a couple reps from Sandeman serving cocktails they called the Sandeman Sangria and Sandeman Splash.  Those are super tasty drinks, using Port wine as the only alcohol in them, and there are several other cocktails you can make with Port too.

A Few Reviews

While I recommend exploring a number of different brands of Port, I’ve tasted a few Port samples recently and wanted to share my notes from those.

Fonseca BIN No 27

Fonseca, BIN No 27 Finest Reserve

If you want to start with a Ruby Port, this is a great choice.  This is a step above your basic Ruby port, blended across vintages in order to create a more consistent style from year to year.  Blackberry, mushroom, nutmeg and allspice aromas are nice, but the nose isn’t the best part of this wine… the palate is.  Juicy blueberry, blackberry and coffee flavors with a balanced sweetness.  The mouthfeel is rich and velvety.  It finishes with lingering blueberry and chocolate flavors.  It’s delicious.

Wine: Fonseca, BIN No 27 Finest Reserve
Style: Ruby Port
Alcohol: 20%
Rating: 87
Price: $19.00
Disclosure: This wine was received as a sample.

Find Fonseca, BIN No 27 Finest Reserve with Snooth

Fonseca, Late Bottled Vintage 2008

Fonseca, Late Bottled Vintage 2008

For those wanting to adventure into the LBV territory this is an affordably-priced way to do so.  Plum, blackberry, mushroom, maple and strawberry aromas create a complex and exciting nose.  The palate abounds with concentrated blueberry, strawberry, blackberry and caramel flavors.  It’s harmonious and most importantly it’s delicious.  The finish is overflowing with long-lasting berry flavors.  This is a very tasty Port.

Wine: Fonseca, Late Bottled Vintage 2008
Style: Late Bottled Vintage Port
Alcohol: 20%
Rating: 88
Price: $22.00
Disclosure: This wine was received as a sample.

Find Fonseca, Late Bottled Vintage 2008 with Snooth

Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Tawny

Taylor Fladgate, 20 Year Old Tawny Porto

This is my “go to” 20 Year Tawny, mostly driven by availability in shops in my area although it’s pretty darn good.  Caramel, butterscotch, coriander and vanilla aromatics create a delightful nose on this wine.  It has good intensity too.  In the mouth, it’s delicious, offering rich caramel, coffee, orange peel, cinnamon and allspice flavors with outstanding concentration.  It’s sweet, but still earthy and balanced.  The finish is long and delicious. This is a delicious port.

Wine: Taylor Fladgate, 20 Year Old Tawny Porto
Style: 20 year Tawny Port
Alcohol: 20%
Rating: 90
Price: $50.00
Disclosure: This wine was received as a sample.

Find Taylor Fladgate, 20 Year Old Tawny Porto with Snooth

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