Below you will find answers to some of the most Frequently Asked Questions about Port Wine. Don't see what you are looking for? Visit the Port Basics section of the FTLOP Forum for more information and the opportunity to pose your question to a very active and knowledgeable community of Port lovers.
Port is a fortified wine, as defined in EU legislation and originates in Portugal. Port has been produced in the Douro Valley region of Portugal for centuries and the Port region was originally demarcated in 1756. Kopke was the very first Port shipper, established in 1638 and the first of the British Port trading firms was Warre’s, which began in 1670. However, there are records which show modern wine production in the Douro, as early as the 1400’s with ancient evidence of wine in the Douro dating back to the 4th century A.D.
Like all wine, Port is fermented and during the fermentation process, adding a neutral grape spirit (similar to brandy) called Aguardente prematurely stops fermentation leaving a sweet dessert wine known as Port. After production, the dessert wine is either stored in the Port Lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia (across the river from Oporto) or up in the Douro Valley (the latter since 1986) at wine estates known as Quintas.
Port is typically enjoyed as a dessert wine, but there are countries which serve it as an aperitif or choose to use it for cooking. It pairs beautifully with a variety of dessert dishes and cheese, or can be enjoyed all by itself as dessert. Port ranges between 19-21% alcohol by volume (ABV).
The city of Porto, (Oporto in English) gave its name to the country Portucale, as well as the wine known as Port or Porto, as most call it in the US. The Port wine industry originated there in the early part of the 17th century, circa 1638 when the earliest Shipper (Kopke) settled in Oporto. Although wines had been produced in Portugal for many centuries, Port wine as we know it today was first produced circa 1820. Up until that time, various production methods and “additives” were incorporated in wines that lacked consistency or definition and had little similarity to the wines we now consume as Port.
Port is only produced in Portugal, whereas “port-style” wines are vinified in America, Australia, France, South Africa and a few other venues around the world. In some cases these port-style wines may be very good, but they’re not authentic Ports for the same reason that California’s sparkling wine is not Champagne. Port wine is all about place, and that place is Portugal’s Upper Douro Valley region. It was one of the very first "demarcated" (a specifically designated geographic area) wine producing regions in the world ... almost 100 years prior to Bordeaux’s AOC Classification of 1855. In 1756, by decree of the Marques de Pombal, the Portuguese Prime Minister, nearly 340 large stone markers were set around the newly demarcated Douro wine region. To learn more about Pombal and the demarcation of the Douro, you might be interested in Roy's The Methuen-Pombal Link & The Demarcation of the Douro.
Wine was made in the Douro region ever since the days of the Roman Empire ca. 220 BC, but Portugal did not gain its independence until 1143. Nearly five centuries later in 1638, Christiano Kopke a German ambassador founded the first Port shipping company in Oporto, which is still in existence today. In the second half of the 17th century, something happened that would forever change the popularity of Port wines and make them amongst the most respected and highly sought after in the entire world.
The British, which throughout history always held a very favorable relationship with Portugal, had set up a colony of merchants not far from Oporto. During skirmishes with France at that time, the British and Dutch levied heavy tariffs against the prized wines produced in France (especially Claret), which was highly sought after in England. In 1703, a treaty was passed (Treaty of Methuen) which effectively gave Portugal special trade agreements with reduced tariffs on their wine in exchange for Britain’s textiles, which were widely sold in Portuguese markets. Wine production in the Douro, which made richer and more flavorful wines than anywhere else in Portugal, was dramatically increased.
Warre established the first of the British Port Shippers, which began their trading business in 1670. They have been owned by family members ever since and they’re the only British Port firm from that far back in history that can make that claim. Over the next few decades many companies were to follow, such as: Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman, Sandeman, Croft, Quarles Harris, and Silva & Cosens (now known as Dow) all of which are still in the Port trade. Throughout history the Port wine business has remained an integral part of everyday life in Portugal and one of its most prolific industries and employers. To put this into perspective, approximately 1/5 of Portugal’s export revenues are directly derived from the shipping of Port wine.
Simply put, Port comes from Portugal. The grapes are grown and the Port is vinified in the demarcated Douro Valley Region. It is one of the oldest demarcated wine regions in the world. The original boundaries were established in 1756 and they’ve been revised on several occasions since. The Douro River is in the northern part of Portugal and spans from the Atlantic Ocean (near Oporto) eastward 120 miles to Spain, where it continues as the Ribera del Duero for another 240 miles. The Port growing area, known as the Alto Douro region, begins about 60 miles east of Oporto and continues right to the Spanish border.
There are five key grapes used for the majority of Port types: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cão. Of course there are many other grapes that can be added to the blend and each grape adds a unique component to the final assemblage. Some add aromatic charm, others body weight, complexity and richness, still other grapes bring a unique flavor profile to the party, but all have their place and raison d’être.
There are nearly 80 (white and red) grape varieties found in different blends of Ports, but the grapes used must be from a specific list that was approved by the Portuguese Government in 1940. Up until the past two decades, most winemakers and master blenders had no idea which grapes were used in their Vintage Ports. Even many vineyard owners and their vineyard managers were mostly clueless about which grapes were growing on their property. Until the late 1980s, most vineyards were a cluster of "field blends" with plantings of varying grape types mixed together. That is one of the positive changes that have occurred in recent times. Recent plantings and just about all that have taken place in the past two dozen years, segregate grape types, called “block planting.”
After the grapes are picked, they are either trodden by foot in stone tanks (called a Lagar), or placed in large stainless steel tanks where they are crushed by mechanical means. They are then left in the tank or lagar for 1-4 days during the fermentation process in which the naturally occurring sugars are converted to alcohol. During fermentation, when about half of the sugar is turned to alcohol, Aguardente (brandy) is added to prematurely stop fermentation by killing the yeast cells. This also raises the alcohol content to about 19-21% alcohol by volume (ABV) and leaves a good deal of residual sugar in the Port. It is then transferred to large stainless steel or wooden tanks or casks to age for a minimum of two years. After that the Ports are selected for quality and it is determined what types of Port they will become. Obviously, this is a much simplified overview, but it will provide the basics, which can lead one to further exploration and reading.
The little paper strip with the numbers on it is called the Selo de Garantia, or “Selo” for short. It is issued by the IVDP after they have approved a wine for bottling, and assures the consumer that the contents of the bottle came from the demarcated Douro region in Portugal.
There are two main types of Port; wood-aged and bottle-aged, with many sub-categories of each. To keep it simple the Port types have been broken down into their specific categories below. While most use the same type of grapes, the way in which they are selected, vinified, stored, and aged are very different.
Another way of thinking of the kinds of Port is White (made from white grapes), Ruby (made from red grapes, bottled fairly young, and intended either to be enjoyed young or aged in their bottle) and Tawny (made from red grapes but allowed to age in small wooden casks to accelerate the ageing and oxidation of the wine, which is ready to drink when bottled and not intended for bottle ageing, though some very fine wines may change character over time in bottle). There is also a unique style, Garrafeira Port, which is aged in both cask and glass demijohns.
See the FAQs about each specific type of Port:
Ruby Ports: Ruby, Reserve Ruby, Crusted, Single Quinta Vintage Port, Vintage Port
Tawny Ports: Colheita Port, Tawny Port, Tawny Port with Indication of Age
This is the most basic of wood-aged Ports and the youngest. A Ruby Port is a blend of several years, typically averaging 3-5 years old. They are simple and fruit driven given their young age and are less complex than a Reserve Ruby or Late Bottled Vintage Port which progressively move towards a Vintage Port in style. Ruby Port is vinified to be consumed upon release and is not meant to be aged at all, with primary, vibrant fruit character. A lot of people use these to cook with, (e.g. Poached pears or for a Port reduction) as they are less expensive than other types and very fruit forward. Lightly chilled, these make a wonderful drink on a warm evening. Almost all Port producers make a reasonably priced bottle of Ruby Port and they are easy to find in a wine shop or on the shelves of your local grocer. Once opened, they last reasonably well, so there is no rush to finish the bottle quickly.
This designates a higher quality version of the Ruby Port which used to be called, “Vintage Character” Port. A Reserve Ruby is typically a Port which is made by blending a variety of vintages, with an average age of 5-7 years. They are still fruit forward Ports, but have more complexity and structure than a Ruby Port due to the extra time in cask. A few examples of good Reserve Ruby Ports are: Fonseca's Bin 27, Sandeman's Founder's Reserve, Graham's Six Grapes, Quinta do Noval LB, Quinta do Portal Cellar Reserve round out my personal favorites. A point of interest … Warre’s Warrior is touted as the oldest Port wine brand in existence.
Late Bottled Vintage Ports are produced from the grapes of a single harvest; the vintage of which will be stated on the label, and can be either filtered or Unfiltered (formerly called “Traditional”). The year of bottling will also appear, typically on the back label of the bottle. LBVs are bottled between the 4th and 6th year after harvest and typically spend those years in very large oak barrels, which are called Tonnels.
LBVs which are filtered (and fined), are designed to be consumed upon release and are not meant to be aged. Filtered LBVs do not possess sediment and need no decanting prior to drinking. Most filtered LBVs do not state the term “filtered” on their label. Examples of filtered LBV’s are Taylor’s LBV Port and Graham’s LBV Port.
Unfiltered LBVs will throw a “crust” (aka: sediment) just like a Vintage Port and need to be decanted. These types of LBVs can be cellared for longer term drinking than a filtered LBV (5-20 years) or consumed right away. Most of the time the word “Unfiltered” will appear on the front or back label to indicate this designation of LBV Port style.
Often referred to as the “Poor man’s Vintage Port” because they emulate the qualities of a Vintage Port but are a fraction of the price. Crusted Ports are blends of at least two or more vintage years that age in wood for up to four years, bottled, and then ideally aged at least another three years in bottle before release. Crusted Ports are left unfiltered and are intended to be aged in bottle for midterm cellaring (10-20 years). Crusted Ports are not often seen today outside of the UK, as LBVs have all but replaced them, especially in the US marketplace. They offer good quality at typically very good prices, and will need to be decanted just like a Vintage Port to remove the sediment (or “crust”). A little known Crusted Port factoid: Like VP, Crusted Porto must get used to its storage conditions and initially will throw more of a "crust", and then it will slow down as it acclimates to its surroundings and will continue to slowly mature. In the USA, Dow is about the only Crusted Port easily found, but Quinta do Noval makes an excellent version and going on trusted friend’s opinions, I’ll recommend Smith Woodhouse, Churchill’s and Martinez’ Crusted Port.
SQVP’s are a variation on a Vintage Port theme; however, the main difference is that SQVP’s only use the grapes from one specific property. Since the mid-1990’s this category has grown exponentially in popularity, as small grape growers decided to produce Ports under the name of their own wine estate (or Quinta) rather than sell their best grapes to larger Port companies. This movement has dramatically changed the landscape of the Douro and opened the door for many family run wine farms to convert from being growers to shippers. A few excellent examples to seek out are: Quinta do Portal, Quinta do Vale Dona Maria and Quinta do Tedo.
Additionally, whereas “classic” Vintage Port is produced on average, three times per decade, Single Quintas can produce Vintage Ports whenever they feel they have enough quality grapes to bottle from a single harvest. It is not uncommon to see SQVPs produced in consecutive vintages. Additionally many Single Quintas are now “hedging their bets” by producing DOC Douro table wines as well, reducing their reliance on Port wine in order to maintain financially viable. SQVPs are usually quite a bit less expensive than the “classic” Vintage Ports and many Port enthusiasts have started to collect them in earnest. Some believe the SQVPs tend to mature earlier than “classic” Vintage Ports and therefore drink them at 10-20 years old, while the traditional Vintage Ports continue to age in their cellars.
Vintage Port (or VP for short) is considered the crème de la crème or King of Ports. On average, VPs are only produced 3 times per decade, in the very best of years. A Port declaration only occurs when a shipper believes they have enough quantity of very high caliber grapes to bottle from a single harvest. VP’s typically are a blend of grapes from several Quinta’s that a producer owns or buys from. However, some grapes are also purchased from other contracted Quinta’s. After the initial vinification, VP’s are stored in used (and neutral) oak barrels for at least two years. By law, VP’s must then be bottled between the 2nd and 3rd year after harvest. They are bottled unfined and unfiltered and will form a rather large amount of sediment over time and must be decanted prior to drinking. VP’s are typically designed to need many years of cellaring before they fully mature. The top VP’s from a declared vintage will easily last 30+ years.
To learn more about Vintage Port, you may be interested to read Roy's Top Twelve Vintage Ports.
These are the only Ports that use different grape types than all the other Ports mentioned. They range in sweetness levels from very dry to very sweet (called Lagrima Port). Typically, they are relatively inexpensive and are used as an aperitif or mixed with tonic and lemon into a drink called “Port Tonic.” The latter is a very refreshing drink on a warm summer day. There are also some rare bottles of White Colheita’s that exist, but these are very hard if not impossible to find.
White Port or “Porto Branco” in Portuguese is an uncommon category of Port but a great place to start. I have enjoyed this style of Porto from the first time I had it at Quinta do Bomfim. Most often served as a chilled aperitif; unfortunately they’re rarely appreciated or promoted in the US marketplace.
White Port is made from white grapes of which a few dozen varieties qualify for the final blend. There are nearly as many white varieties grown in the Douro as red grape types. Some of the more widely used white grapes are: Moscatel, Malvasia Fina and Gouveio (a.k.a. Verdelho, which is also used in Madeira production as is Malvasia), Rabigato, and the prolific Codega (the most widely planted white grape in the Douro) to name a few more esoteric ones. White Port is fortified like all other styles of Porto, but vinified like a tawny and aged for a year in huge oak tanks before further aging in “Pipes” (550 liter oak casks) prior to bottling. The wines range in color from that of a pale straw Chardonnay to a beautiful salmon color seen frequently in Rose, to those aged for extended periods in wood that resemble the appearance of ancient Tawnies.
There are a few distinct styles of White Porto, which are segregated by the degree of sweetness levels, and they can be either sweet or dry, or somewhere in between. Another point of differentiation is the length of aging time.
The Light Dry White Porto is known as “Leve Seco” which has a lower alcohol content of 16.5% and ages in oak between 5 – 10 years and gains complexity like a Sherry or Tawny Port while losing its residual sugar as it ages.
The medium sweet White Porto ages in wood for at least 3 years and shows more color definition and body than Leve Seco.
The sweetest White Porto is known as “Lágrima” and is very delicious. I have only seen and tasted Lágrima in Portugal and the Portuguese seem to like this sweet style very much and it is widely available there, but not found easily elsewhere in the world. Oak aging is between 3 - 5 years and the wine is produced utilizing free run juice from a variety of white grapes. This sweet style is very different and can double as a dessert wine as it pairs well with a variety of cheeses. I only wish it were exported to the USA as I have only seen it here once and that was a recent tasting of Barros.
My favorite White Ports in order of preference: Churchill, Niepoort, Ferreira’s Lágrima and Dow. Seek out any of these wines for unique flavor profiles, not to mention great wines to sip during hot summer months. Another great way to enjoy White Port is in a Port Tonic, as described above.
Colheita (pronounced Col-yate-a) is pure and simply, a single vintage-dated Tawny Port, (all grapes are from one harvest) which are aged in small used oak barrels. In Portugese the word "Colheita" actually means "harvest" and can be construed therefore, to mean vintage as well. Colheita Ports may also go by the name of "Port of the Vintage" and therefore must not be confused with Vintage Port, even though it is vintage dated on the label. If "Reserve" or "Reserva" is on the label...it means that the wine is a Colheita and not a VP. This confuses many individuals who think of “Reserve” in the typical sense of domestic wines in America. Colheita must be aged in cask at least 7 years, but eight years is pretty typical, but they may spend as many as 50 or more years maturing in wood. Look for the date of bottling on the front or the back label ("Bottled In 19XX or 20XX") along with the words "matured in wood" or "aged in cask"...both of which are further clues that this is not a Vintage Port. Colheitas offer excellent value as these wines are well aged, can be considered outstanding quality Tawny Ports, and are less expensive than similarly aged VP's. Caveat: the wines must be of outstanding quality going into the bottle as aging alone will not make a decent wine great.
Like VPs, Colheitas are "declared" after approval by the I.V.D.P. (Port and Douro Wine Institute, located in Oporto with a secondary branch in Lisboa). There is even less Colheita produced than VP, approximately 1% of all Port produced and mostly Portuguese Port Shippers produce the great ones, but others like Niepoort, Kopke and Quinta do Noval are famous for this style too and just happen to be my three favorites. But Ferreira, Burmester, Barros, Ramos Pinto, Warre’s and Borges all make stand out examples as well. It is far more popular in Portugal than here in the U.S. where it is just becoming more popular in the past five years.
There are some Colheitas from the 1800’s that are still aging in small oak barrels in Portugal! Colheitas change dramatically during this extended time in cask and take on flavors of dried fruits, nuts, citrus and exotic spices, while becoming very smooth and complex the older they get.
This is a very rare style of Port and many Port lovers have never even heard of it, and even fewer have ever tasted one. Literally the word garrafeira (pronounced: gah-rah-FAY-ruh) translates to bottle cellar, private wine cellar or bottle rack in Portuguese. Do not confuse this with the word garrafeira you may find on your typical table wine in Portugal. In that scenario the word "garrafeira" typifies a Reserve wine, but has nothing to do with Port.
Garrafeira Port, which today is only produced by the Niepoort family, is an elegant style of Port made from the grapes of a single harvest, like a Colheita and therefore has a vintage date on the bottle. But "Garrafeira" is its own special category and unique ageing regime.
After aging in wood for three to six years the wine is transferred to glass demijohns ("bon bons") which can vary (in the Niepoort Lodge) from seven to eleven liters apiece, and the ageing process continues in glass. This type of aging adds a unique character known as "cheiro has garrafa" (translates to: savour or essence of the bottle) which is derived from prolonged direct contact with the glass demijohns. Further aging in the demijohns, sometimes for well over 50 years helps to produce a seamless, smooth Port that is delicate, fresh and possesses great finesse.
It must first be mentioned here that Tawny Port, not Vintage Port, is the most popular after dinner wine in Portugal. It is very easy to find excellent Tawny Port all around Portugal, but there is some difficulty in finding top notch VP, especially those from older vintages. That may seem surprising, but from many restaurants to the majority of retail shops, that is definitely the case (the Port Lodges and IVDP not included). Actually you may find the best old VPs at Portugal’s airport gift shops! But I digress, and now comes Tawny time…
Although I used to be a predominantly Vintage Port (VP) aficionado, I certainly appreciate and frequently drink a variety of Tawny Ports, especially Colheitas. There are those folks (many, of the "cigar persuasion" set ) that actually take sides....VP vs. Tawny. Like listening to a heated debate of which heavyweight boxing champion was the all-time greatest, a discussion of which is the BEST style of Port is always an interesting topic. Surely this question has no right or wrong answers...just opinions and varying tastes. But what always intrigues me, is why Porto lovers always tend to appreciate one style far more than the other.
Tawny Port actually starts out like a Ruby Port, but then spends an extended period in wood to soften and round out its character. As the large oak casks or "pipes" are somewhat porous, the oxygen that enters over the years will allow some of the wine to evaporate. This concentrates flavors in the remaining wine and leaves a slight "air gap" at the top of the cask. Like a fine wine in a decanter with increased surface area exposed, the Tawny Port is allowed to oxidize during its time in the oak vessel. Constant racking over the many years the wine is in cask also allows for further oxidation. As this oxidation process takes place, the color of the wine slowly changes from a purplish-red eventually to a tawny or reddish-brown. The more time the Tawny spends in wood the more complex its flavor profile, and the Tawny-er the color becomes.
Unlike VP, Tawny Port is frequently served slightly chilled or even poured over ice. I prefer to drink it at room temperature or just slightly chilled, as I find that pouring Tawny over ice tends to conceal the multi-layered flavors. My season for drinking Vintage Port is October through about September and the rest of the year I also enjoy Tawny time. Tawny is a lighter bodied wine and when chilled just a tad, makes for a wonderful summer beverage. In France, Tawny is served as a very popular aperitif, (millions of cases are sold every year to France) whereas the people in most countries choose to drink it after the meal. But like most wines these days, rules are being broken all the time.
A few of my personal favorite foods to pair with Tawny Port: various dried fruits (especially apricots), crème caramel, walnuts, pear tartlet, bread pudding, rice pudding, strawberries, slightly warmed and drizzled over vanilla ice cream, sharp cheddar cheese, crème brûlée, bittersweet chocolate desserts, and you can say that you heard it here first...but don't laugh until you try this one!!! Figs stuffed with peanut butter and served at room temperature or put in a pre-heated oven for 2 minutes.
There are only 4 types approved in this category and they are 10 years old, 20 years old, 30 years old, and over 40 years old. These are a blend of many years where the average age of the bottle is at least 10, 20, 30 or 40 years old (in the US market ONLY this is called 40 year old, for legal reasons that I won't bore you with here).
They are typically produced in a “House style” that varies from producer to producer yet remains relatively the same from year to year. It is the Master Blender responsible for exhaustive work at blending these Tawnies that has maintained the reputation of the "brand" and the Port Shipper's "house style." The consistency of the particular house style is the primary goal of the winemaker and master blender, along with producing a wonderful wine year after year. These Tawny Ports often give excellent quality to price ratio, (QPR) allowing the buyer to get an older Port at an affordable price. Tawny Port with an Indication of Age is what most Tawny lovers seek out, except those that have been enlightened by Colheita which is gaining prominence in the US and is still very difficult to come by in the UK marketplace.
The ages mentioned are not the minimums allowed in the bottle, but they are actually the average age of the Tawnies that are blended into the bottle. In theory, a 30 year old Tawny may have five year old Tawny that is balanced by a fifty five year old blend...and may have many different vintages blended into the same "lot" as well. Port Shippers that have an eye for quality and a concern for the long term "image" of their brand's consistency, add a year or two to the average age of the wine blended in their bottles. Therefore instead of having a 20 year old just meet the requirement...the savvy Shipper might add some Tawny with extra age that might actually balance out to 22 years.
Look on the label of a Tawny Port With An Indication Of Age and you will find the year of the bottling, the age of the wine 10, 20 etc., and a mention that the wine is aged in cask (or wood). These wines offer a smooth and silky mouth feel, with intense flavors and aromas that vary from nutty, caramel, nutmeg, leathery, and even chocolate. I will list a few brands for each of the four types of these Tawnies that I feel are good representatives.
Some personal favorites:
10 year old Tawnies that I do enjoy are Ramos Pinto, Ferreira, Niepoort, Kopke, Sandeman and Graham’s.
20 Year Old, is what great Tawny is all about! The color has now matured to a tawny hue, the tannins softened, the layered nuances dance on the palate, and complexity is understood after the very first sip. More importantly the QPR is in synch with the juice and you won't mind paying for these memorable bottles. Look for these winners: Ferreira's Duque de Braganca my personal favorite, Taylor, Quinta do Portal, Sandeman and Niepoort.
30 Year Old, For my money they do not offer much more than the 20 year olds and are at times too cloying/syrupy, with excessive sweetness, and the difference in complexity is not worth the price...again just my opinion here. Dow, Fonseca, Offley and Vista Alegre offer the top examples of this style.
40 Year Old, show dark amber colors and with all this time in wood have developed incredible characters. Quinta do Noval makes an excellent version, Sandeman, Graham, and Taylor make up the balance of my favorite 40 year olds.
The majority of Ports produced are not designed for long-term storage. Most are made to be consumed within a few years of bottling. However, there are some Ports that can be cellared for the long term as they are meant to age in the bottle.
The categories which improve in bottle are: Vintage Port, Single Quinta Vintage Ports, Unfiltered Late Bottled Vintage Ports, Crusted Ports and some Colheitas. However, nothing says you can’t enjoy these young, if that is what you prefer. Remember, we all have different likes and dislikes, so it’s important that you consume them at the age that most appeals to you.
Port is like any other wine, it is a living thing that changes with age. As such, it is very important to store your Ports in the best environment as possible for optimal drinking pleasure. The nuances that develop in mature Ports are what many collectors are after. The tannins and fruit both soften and complexity and elegance replace the vibrancy and power of a young Port.
Port is like any other wine in that it needs to be stored in a cool (55-65 degrees or 12.5-18 Celsius) and a dark place where the humidity is kept between 60-75%. A temperature controlled wine cellar is ideal for this, but a cool “passive” cellar or inside closet will also work. So long as the temperature does not get too warm in the summer you are typically in good shape. Heat is the enemy of wine in general and even though Port is more hearty than most, if it gets too hot, it will damage your Port and impart off flavors. Also try to avoid direct sunlight or fluorescent light, as well as vibrations which have a negative effect on long terms storage of Port wine.
There is no right answer here, as all Ports are a little different and everyone has different tastes or ideas when they think a Port is ready to drink. However, here are some basic guidelines to help you out.
Vintage Ports typically need at least 15 years to start reaching maturity. The top Vintage Ports can easily last 30-100+ years if stored properly.
Late Bottle Vintage Ports that are filtered are not meant to be aged. So there is no reason to do so. Unfiltered LBV’s generally will start showing their best at around 10+ years of age. Generally, they are not designed to be aged beyond 20 years, with a few exceptions.
Tawny Port with an Indication of Age is not meant to age in bottle. This type of Port group is usually best when consumed closer to the date of bottling.
There is great debate about Colheitas and whether or not they improve after being bottled. Some think they are at their best within a few years of bottling and some think they can age and improve in bottle. You’ll have to make up your own mind on that one!
Basic Ruby and Tawny Ports, as well as basic White Ports should not be aged at all.
Many pages could be written about this topic alone. However, don’t get overwhelmed by all the information out there. If you’re just starting out, keep it simple. After all it’s pretty hard to mess this up, just remember a few basics, which we describe below. You may also want to read "Decanting Vintage Port - The Hersh Method" for a fuller discussion of alternatives and details.
You will need:
A wine decanting funnel: One that has a metal mesh filter that goes inside it is best. That will help in removing the large chucks of sediment.
A Decanter: It doesn’t need to be expensive or flashy. A $10.00 one found at a department store works just as a well as an antique $800 decanter from a fancy glassmaker. However, try to find a one that has a wide bottom, often referred to as a “Captain’s” decanter. As is has a wide somewhat flat bottom so it won’t tip over in a rocking boat at sea. That wide bottom allows for more surface area in which air can interact with the Port poured inside.
A Cork screw: Seems simple right? Well, if you’re opening a young bottle with a solid cork then no problems. However, the corks in older Ports will often be crumbly and a regular corkscrew will just break the cork into pieces. An “Ah-So” type cork remover works best on these old corks.
Finally: Rinse, Rinse, Rinse! Nothing is worse than left over soap residue getting into your Port. Make sure everything is clean and rinsed very well in hot water to remove all soapy film. Make sure to remove all left over water in the decanter and wine funnel too.
Note the color. Typically, Ports start out very dark in color and then that color fades with time. Here are some things to look for in Ports.
Young Vintage Ports and other Ruby’s will be very dark purple while an older Vintage Port may be a very light ruby color or even tawny color.
Tawnies and Colheitas will often be more of a orange-amber-brown with red or golden highlights on the meniscus. Very old Colheita’s and Tawny’s will often have faint greenish glints on the edge.
Ports should be rather “clean” or clear in appearance. With the exception of really old Port or very young (under 3-5 years old), they should not have a cloudy appearance. If they do, this could simply be due to a poor decanting that took place in which there was sediment floating in the wine or it could be an indication of a flawed bottle.
The nose is our most important sensory organ. Without it, the things we eat and drink would taste bland. So before you start drinking, give the glass a gentle swirl to release the aromas then insert your nose in the glass and give it a good whiff. Don’t smell for too long, as doing so will dull your senses. So give a sniff, wait a half minute, and then re-smell if needed.
Here is the part you’ve been waiting for. Your taste buds are primarily located on your tongue. The front of your tongue detects sweetness, the side’s saltiness and acidity, and the back of the tongue senses bitterness. Tannins in Port produce what is best described as an astringency or “furry feeling” on the teeth and gums. Tannins are more of a feeling or sensation, not a taste and it may take a novice some time to develop a sense for them. As with anything, learning to taste and evaluate any wine or Port takes time. As you drink more you begin to notice different and subtler dynamics in a Port. Remember, practice makes perfect.
This is one of the most important nuances of any style of Port and separates the good from the great ones. You want to notice how long the finish lasts. Does the flavor last a long time once a sip is swallowed, or does it “drop off” and end quickly? Nothing is greater than an outstanding Port where the finish seems to last for minutes, also known as the “aftertaste.”
This varies tremendously as there are no absolutes, and there are a lot of different theories depending on which expert you listen to. A rough but simple rule of thumb: any Port with a driven cork (you need a corkscrew to extract it) should be consumed within a day or two to enjoy it at its finest, but any Port with a T-stopper type cork (can be removed by hand and easily replaced in the bottle) can generally be kept, securely re-corked in the fridge or a cellar, for a few weeks without significant deterioration. Below you will find more specific recommendations for each style of Port.
Young VP’s (less than 5 years old) can often last 4-5 days once opened. However, older VP’s (more than 15 years old) are not meant to be left open for more than 2-3 days. They won’t spoil if left open longer than that, but they will lose their freshness and seem a bit more subdued than they did when first opened, especially the aromatics. Really old VP’s (more than 25 years old) are at their best if consumed within 24-48 hours.
Unfiltered LBV’s, if stored in refrigeration after the bottle has been opened, will normally provide shelf life of a week or two. For filtered LBVs, these typically can last up to ten days after being open, without any major deterioration of quality.
For younger ones (less than 15 years old) they will last up to a couple of weeks after being open without any major deterioration of quality. Older ones are best consumed within 24-72 hours.
These will last up to a month after being open without any major deterioration of quality, if kept refrigerated. At room temp, two weeks is a good rule of thumb.
Ruby and basic Tawnies: These will easily last 3-4 weeks after being open without any major deterioration of quality.