Port Tasting - December 2, 2014 at 4:00 PM

Cynthia Opsal, brand manager of the Fladgate Partnership visiting

Port Wine Basics


You know that Europeans take their Porto seriously when the EU drafts legislation to define what it is. For the record, port is a fortified wine, produced in the Demarcated Region of the Douro, Portugal.

Officially, real port wine comes only from Portugal, very much the same way that true Champagne comes from the Champagne region of France. All other bubbly would be considered sparkling wine.

The alcohol in port wine is produced under very specific conditions that result from natural and human factors. While aging in wood, port wine's fruity aroma develops through oxidation to create a bouquet that is reminiscent of dried fruit, toasting, wood, and spices. The aging process also adds to its smoothness while making the bouquet more complex. Much older wines have a greenish tint.

Traditional production methods include stopping the fermentation process by adding grape brandy (beneficio) and other details relating to the aging of the wine. But since this article serves up the basics for the consumer and not the producer, I will focus on the info that you really need to know.


Port wine is different from other types of wine because it has an above average alcohol content; most range between 19% and 22% by volume. Another special characteristic is that its color and sweetness will vary according to the different types of port.

There are several styles of port, but there are essentially two aging styles: reductive aging and oxidative aging. Ports that are aged using the reductive process are sealed in their container and have no exposure to oxygen. They are smoother and less tannic. The ports that are aged using the oxidative process are matured in wooden barrels and are slightly exposed to oxygen. Oxidated ports are more viscous and intense. Following are several port styles that have been aged using one of these two methods.


Ruby is the label given to younger wines that display a deep color; they are fairly fruity and are usually aged for between three and five years. This port is aged using the reductive process and it is stored in concrete or stainless-steel containers. It is the cheapest and most readily available port in production and it is often blended to match the style of the distributor.


Generally speaking, blended tawny types vary considerably and they are aged using the oxidative process. Tawny Reserve port ages for a minimum of seven years in wooden barrels, where it takes on a nutty flavor. Other tawnies are a blend of several different vintages and the average age is printed on the label.

Port wine with an indication of age

Such wines are often tawny and are blended from wines of different years, expressing the nature of the wine as regards to characteristics that are given to it through oxidative aging in wood.

Connoisseurs understand, then, that a 20-year-old wine has the color, texture, aroma, and taste of a wine that has aged in wood for 20 years. Speaking of that legislation, the decreed age indicators are 10, 20, 30, and more than 40 years.

Port houses

Producers of Port wine are often called "shippers". In the early history of the Port wine trade, many of the most powerful shipping families were British. Over the years Dutch, German and Scottish as well as Portuguese owned shippers have also become prevalent in the Port industry.
A list of some notable shippers include:

Ramos Pinto
Royal Oporto
The Symington Family Estates-owned Graham's, Warre's, Dow's and Smith Woodhouse
Taylor, Fladgate, & Yeatman (Taylor's)
Quinta do Noval

What is Port, exactly?

Port is a fortified wine. Grapes, usually red but sometimes white, are picked and crushed, then the must is fermented, just as in any table wine. But before the fermentation is finished, while strains of yeast are converting grape sugars to alcohol, distilled spirits (generally in the form of grape brandy) are added to the must. The spirits kill the yeast, thereby stopping the fermentation while some sugar remains in the must. This gives Port its two salient features: higher alcohol content (generally about 20 percent) and some residual sweetness.

Why is Port fortified?

The history of Port dates to the 17th century, a period when England and France were at war. The English needed to fill a void of French wines, and Portuguese wines were a good option. Eventually, Portuguese winemakers started experimenting with fortifying the wines to keep them stable during shipping.

So, all Port is from Portugal, right?

Genuine Port comes from the Douro Valley in Portugal, just as true Champagne comes only from the Champagne region of France. But other wine-producing regions have borrowed the term to refer to their own fortified wines. The European Union frowns on this unauthorized usage, though, so it's dropping out of fashion. Of course, there are many versions of wines made in the Port style all over the world, with varying names.

What grape varieties go into "true" Port?

More than 80 different grape varieties are authorized for Port production, an overwhelming number I can't list here. Instead, let me tell you the most widely used-and most highly regarded-grapes: Touriga  Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz (another name for Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão.

What's with all the different types of Port? There are so many categories, styles and price tags.

Vintage Port is at the top of the pile as far as price, aging potential and prestige are concerned. It's made only from the best grapes of a single vintage, and only in years that individual Port houses have "declared" vintage-worthy, which usually happens just a few times a decade. Vintage Port is aged only two years before bottling. Because the wines are so young upon release, they are usually tucked away in cellars for many years until they mellow and mature into their full potential.

Late-bottled Vintage (LBV) Ports are bottled four to six years after the vintage date. Because they spend more time in wood than Vintage Ports, they're usually more accessible on release. LBVs were originally intended to offer an experience comparable to Vintage Port but at a much lower cost. Many  deliver the goods, but some of them can be mere shadows of the real thing. The best are usually unfiltered, and labeled as such.

Tawny Ports are aged longer in wood. The best are matured for between 10 and 40 years (the time is typically indicated on the label). They are paler and, uh, tawnier than traditional Ports. They have a mellow, nutty, slightly woody, dried fruit character.

Ruby Port is the most basic (and usually least expensive) port. It is aged for two to three years before release. The wine is often blended with older versions to create a consistent house style.

How do you serve Port?

Port might seem like a fussy beverage, but serving it is actually very simple. Any good wineglass will do, though because of the high alcohol, a smaller-than-normal pour is appropriate. Ports are served at cool room temperature (tawny Ports can be chilled a bit more). Pair with nuts, any hard or blue cheese, or your favorite cigar.

Serving a mature Vintage Port is a little trickier. It will likely have a lot of sediment, and in that case you'll want to follow normal decanting methods. Keep the bottle still and upright for a day or so to allow sediment to settle at the bottom, then pour slowly into a decanter, stopping when you see sediment appear.

How long will a Port remain drinkable after it has been opened?

Both the higher alcohol content (typically around 20 percent) and the residual sugar of Port help protect against degradation once the bottle is open; most Ports will remain fresh and vibrant for a week or so after being uncorked. However, oxidation begins the moment a cork is pulled on any bottle of wine, fortified or not, so the same rules apply for keeping your wine fresh: Minimize the surface area of the wine by transferring it to a smaller container, and store it in the refrigerator to extend its life.



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