For me, there is something heavenly, almost sinful, about tasting a glass of port. The urge for a deep ruby or vintage port gets especially intense whenever the temperature drops, a warm fire is roaring before me and a pungent sharp aroma of a Cabrales blue cheese beckons me towards it. My appreciation for Port actually started years ago when Ryan and I went to Oporto and visited the Port houses propped up on the hill overlooking the Douro River. It was January and the weather was cold with a slight drizzle following us from Port house to Port house. It was the type of cold that creeps up inside your bones and either takes a twenty minute scalding shower to leave your body or a glass a port. I opted for the glass of port. Ironically, I was hesitant to try it at first because I equated it to brandy or whiskey in my head, which has a fiery bite that I can only appreciate while camping; but I quickly realized that there wasn’t a bite, only a smooth velvety sweetness that called for chocolate or cheese. It was absolutely fantastic.
However, one must be careful while sipping port because port has a higher alcohol content than most other wines. The higher percentage comes from the distilled grape spirits, like brandy, used to stop fermentation and fortify the wine.
As alluring as a bottle of port might sound to you right now, you still may be completely and utterly dumbfounded as you walk into your local wine shop and are confronted with several different styles of Port with abbreviations that look like something you might find on a Crayola crayon than on a wine shelf. Like me, you might have found yourself wondering, “What is the difference between a tawny and a ruby port? Why does one bottle have a vintage date while another one does not? No one told me there was such a thing as a white port?” Well, now you can take a deep breath and rest assured knowing that we have tried to lay out all the basics you need to know while looking at a port wine label.
Two Main Categories
Port wines can be divided into two general categories, cask (barrel) or bottle aged. Wood aged ports are either aged in wooden casks or cement tanks that are ready to be drunk immediately after fining, filtration and bottling. Whereas, bottle aged ports are aged for a short time in wood and then bottled without filtration, sometimes taking up to 20 or 30 years before it is ready to be served.
Within these two categories, there are approximately 9 different styles as well as several “designations’, such as “reserva’, “superior and “velhisimo’(very old).
Main Port Wine Styles
My intention is to give you not only the basics of things you might find on a bottle, but also some things you might find within. Port can be extremely confusing if you don’t have a general idea of both the internal and the external structure, meaning labeling, of the wine. The general itemization of how I have structured the description of the different styles of port is as follows:
- Name of the Port Style
- Translation of the Name
- Aging Requirements
- General Characteristics you might find in the wine
- Traditional serving Methods
- Legal Requirements for Labeling
- Vinification Requirements
Therefore, what you will see below is not only a description of the several different styles of port, but also what you want to specifically look for on the label. I realize that this process can be a bit daunting, but by using the information we have provided below, you can at least have a general idea of what to expect and what to look for when you purchase your next bottle of Port.
Aged: in bulk for 2 to 3 years in wood, cement or stainless steel before being blended filtered and finally, bottled.
Characteristics: Deep ruby red, with primary fruit flavors and sometimes light spices.