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The Essential Guide to Port Wine – Just in Time for the Holidays

It’s already November which means that plans and parties for Holidays are about to get into full swing. We’re getting ready for weeks of socializing, eating and drinking, culminating into one massive feast before the New Year.

One of the many wonderful traditions of the Christmas celebration is the requisite appearance of the dusty old bottle or ¾ full decanter of Port. It’s the perfect accompaniment to the block of Stilton that magically appears on the dining room table during the last week of December.

These rituals are brilliant and long may they continue, but port is much more than a toddy for Santa’s helpers. Most of us who enjoy port but once a year, myself included, may not be aware of all the whole story – the fact that some are aged in casks (or barrels), others in bottle, and the number of years it has aged before we see them on the shop shelf.

As I discovered on a recent trip to Port and the Douro Valley, having an understanding of the different ports not only provides a greater appreciation of the stuff itself, but quickly demonstrates that port isn’t just the rich, sweet, dark red taste of Christmas, but that its different guises, whether white, pink, tawny or vintage, are worth enjoying much more frequently!

In the hopes that one of your resolutions on January 1 (next to ‘join the gym’) is ‘drink port more regularly’, or, if you simply want to extend or vary your holiday tipple, here is a complete guide to the different styles of port, what to look for on the label and when best to enjoy them.

The Various Styles of Port Wine

Ruby: This is a simple, inexpensive and easily-enjoyable style. They have usually only aged for 2 or 3 years and are bottled young to preserve the vibrant colour. The best ones are jammed with lush berries and are great for any-time imbibing. The label won’t say ‘ruby’, but will simply list the name of the producer without other names or terms. These are not for keeping so drink them as soon as you buy them.

Premium ruby: Is a step up in complexity and depth of colour. These are probably the most common Christmas sippers as they are warming, sweet and spicy. Most will say ‘Reserva’ or ‘Vintage Character’ on the label. These too should be enjoyed without delay so pour a glass with a chocolate mousse or after dinner and don’t hang on to them.

Tawny: is both the name of the wine and its colour. Made with red grapes, a tawny port ages in small oak barrels for many years (the ‘aged’ ones for 6 or more years) which impart colour to the wine and the red fades into a golden-brown, tawny shade. They have nutty, caramel flavours and are a wonderful aperitif when chilled.

Personally, when shopping for a tawny port, I would suggest you choose one with an indication of age as these are the most complex and interesting. Tawny ports are a blend of different vintages, so there won’t be a specific year listed on the label, instead it will say 10, 20, 30 or even 40-year old and refers to the average age of the wine in the bottle.

I’d never been particularly keen on tawny port until I tasted the outstanding 20yr old Churchill’s. We were sitting around a kitchen table high up in the hills of Portugal’s Douro Valley, surrounded by vineyards, enjoying lunch with Churchill’s founder, Johnny Graham. We’d already had lots of his excellent dry wines during the meal and a few of his other ports with dessert, but it was the last wine, the 20yr old tawny, that stopped me in my tracks and completely changed my perceptions and opinion of the wine. Try it, maybe the same will happen for you.

White port: A light-hearted, under-rated category. White port is the perfect pre-dinner drink, especially when mixed with tonic. I had never had white port, let alone a white port cocktail before my trip to the region, but during our six days, it proved to be the in-thing everywhere we went. The best white port cocktail of the visit was made for me by someone who knows his port – he’s one of seven family members from the 13th generation of his family working in the port trade – Charles Symington (thanks Charles!). Simply pour 1/3 white port and 2/3 tonic over ice and add a sprig of mint and you’re all set.

Pink port: This is a new style of port – colourful and sweet – (it was introduced by Croft on Valentine’s Day 2008) and is serving to reenergize an interest in port and has quickly become a bartender’s favourite ingredient.

While on a little boat cruising down the Douro river, we tried our hand at making port cocktails and a few fabulous concoctions were created. The ‘Pink Schist’ and ‘Hot Pink Sting’ were just two and incorporated such ingredients as sliced oranges, mint, honey and tonic or soda water.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV): is a ruby port made from premium grapes of a single vintage. They are aged in barrels for 4-6 years before release, so they are ready for drinking as soon as they appear in the shops, however, a few more years of aging in your wine rack can accentuate them.

The name ‘late-bottled’ comes from when there was a decreasing demand for vintage port, which this wine had originally been scheduled to become, and therefore wasn’t bottled until much later than planned. Over dinner, Charles Symington told us “if you didn’t bottle your port in time, you’d bottle it late, but you still bottled it!”

These are ports of an incredible value as they are the closest in style to a vintage port, but fruitier and lighter-bodied, and a fraction of the price.

Colheita: (pronounced col-ay-ta) is basically a tawny port from a single vintage and may have spent as many as 20 years ageing in barrel (the minimum is seven). Their characteristics will be similar to an aged tawny and are best enjoyed within a year of the bottling date which will be stated on the label.

Vintage port: is the Rolls-Royce of port. As the name suggests, this is a wine made with grapes from a single vintage, however it is a blend of many wines and this elaborate assemblage is what gives the wine its personality and the ability to age for decades.

Vintage port spends only two to three years in wood and is immediately bottled and released for sale. Even though the wine will be perfectly enjoyable if opened right away, it is by letting it age for many years that the wine has time to marry together and transform into the wine it is yet to become. Only at 35, 45 or even over 50 years of age is it truly at its prime and ready to be experienced.

So with the evenings drawing in and Christmas fast approaching it’s the perfect time to start your port exploration…at parties (white and pink port cocktails), after dinner at a restaurant (a 10 or 20yr old tawny) and at your local wine shop (a vintage port to look forward to in 2052). And while you’re there, might as well treat yourself to an early present and bring home an opulent, deep LBV to share with your family and friends over the holidays and long after the last crumbs of Stilton are devoured.


Tara O’Leary

Photos by Ryan Opaz

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