For the casual wine drinker, port wine often comes with a heavy reputation. It’s a wine that’s associated with dark rooms and the upper echelons, a wine with a complex finish and a rich history.
If you’ve never drank port wine before, you might think you won’t appreciate it – or worse, won’t even enjoy it.
But then you try a glass of port wine, and everything changes. The fruity sweetness and playful overtones sit on a rich base, perfect for sipping after a hearty meal.
Now you might be thinking of how to add port to your drinks cabinet. Only, with so many varieties out there, it’s difficult to know where to start.
Port is one of the best dessert wines available, and it isn’t as intimidating a prospect as it may first seem. If you want to start drinking port (or start drinking it more), then this guide can help you navigate the exciting world of port wine.
What Is Port Wine?
Port is a sweet red wine, often called a dessert wine. Because it’s sugary and viscous, it’s best enjoyed when sipped slowly after a big meal. Port was initially made similarly to other red wines, only a type of brandy is added early in the fermentation process.
The alcohol level is increased, and the sugar stops fermenting, giving the sweet taste and heavy finish. Because of the high alcohol level, a bottle of port wine can sometimes last a long time without going bad – another great reason to start drinking it.
Port wine is one of the most famous Portuguese exports, and to be a proper port it has to be made in the Douro Valley of North Portugal. Wines similar to port are produced elsewhere, but only those from Portugal can be classed as port.
What Are The Types Of Port?
Port used to have a reputation as an old man’s drink, something to be enjoyed in dark drawing rooms, not sipped under Portuguese sunshine. But, thankfully, it’s managing to break away from the unfair association.
More and more people are discovering the joys of port. Often, if you think you don’t like port, it’s just that you haven’t found the right one yet.
Port comes in more than a few varieties, which can get confusing. But, they all have a few things in common. We’ve compiled a list of the most common ports, to help you find your way around the labels:
Ruby Port. The most common type of port, and the one that many beginners start off with, ruby port takes its name from the lush red coloring. It’s produced widely across the Douro region, and is often relatively inexpensive.
Ruby port tends to age for 3-5 years, and the flavors don’t improve in the bottle. Expect to find the taste of fresh fruits, with a simple flavor profile. Ruby port is normally drunk at room temperature, but it can be enjoyed cool on a hot day.
Tawny Port. Quite different from ruby port, Tawny port turns a luxurious amber color thanks to a long aging process. A Tawny port is aged in oak barrels, unlike tank aged ruby ports, which lightens the hue and infuses the wine with a caramel flavoring.
Younger Tawny ports have a nutty finish, while those aged for longer deepen in flavor. A Tawny is generally made from a blend, with the age indicated on the bottle. Look for 10, 20, 30, or 40 year old Tawny. The best, and most expensive, type of Tawny port is a Colheita.
These ports are made from a single year, rather than a blend. A basic Tawny is nice, but an aged option is better. They don’t age in the bottle, so it’s best to open a Tawny port and enjoy it chilled.
Reserve Port. A reserve is a higher class of ruby port, made from a blend of vintages. It tends to have a richer flavor, still fruit forward, but perhaps with hints of cinnamon and sharper berries. A reserve port will have been aged for at least 3 years.
While ruby can be quick to drink, a reserve port needs to be enjoyed slowly, so the flavors can properly develop on the tongue.
Crusted Port. A significant step up from reserve, but not quite at the level of vintage, crusted port is a strange name for a wonderful drink. This is a combination of several vintages, often aged for 4 years in the barrel, then aged again in the bottle.
Vintage Port. If you want to try the best quality port, you need to get your hands on a vintage. These are rarely produced, and only made from the best grapes of the best harvest. That means, in some years no vintages are produced at all.
A vintage is aged for 2-3 years before bottling, and can’t be aged any longer. However, it only improves in the bottle. A vintage can be kept for over 20 years, gaining complexity and refinement. Decanted and given time to breathe, a vintage port is a drink to be savored.
If you want to try a vintage, do your research before buying. Some years are better than others, and a bottle can set you back a fair bit of money.
White Port. A lighter port made with white grapes, the white port is fruity with varying sweetness. Some white ports have a citrus edge, or the soft taste of apricots. Others are much sweeter, such as the Lágrima variety.
White ports generally aren’t aged for very long. While a ruby port is often served as a dessert wine, a white port might be poured as an apéritif. It also makes a popular base for cocktails.
Rosé Port. The berry flavors are the main note of a rosé port, which is heavier than a white but less complex than a ruby. Rosé port is a relatively new style, and not as popular as the other varieties. However, if you can find a bottle, it makes a fun introduction to port wine.
Enjoy it over ice, while soaking up the sun.
How To Drink Port Wine
Getting started with port wine doesn’t have to be difficult. Although it may come with a variety of types and complicated distinctions, the best way to enjoy port is as you would any other wine. Get yourself a bottle, and take some time to savor the flavors.
When deciding on a port wine to get you started, ruby is the best option. This gives you a taste of the complexities of a good port, and a decent option can be purchased for a lower price.
The fruit flavors that are heavy in a ruby port give a smoothness, elevating the viscous finish to a sweet elegance.
Start by pouring yourself a smaller measurement – roughly 85ml. Remember, port has a higher alcohol content than the average bottle of wine.
A typical port glass is smaller, but a larger glass will help it to oxidize quicker, and release the berry aromas. Enjoy alongside a square of dark chocolate.
If the ruby feels too heavy, try mixing up a cocktail instead. Port makes a fantastic base for a jug of sangria, and the other ingredients can help round out the flavor. If you’re mixing up a sangria, a cheaper bottle of ruby will often work well.
Next on your list should be an aged Tawny. A young Tawny port is nice, but lacks the depth that makes this drink so special. An older Tawny will introduce notes of butterscotch and hazelnut, while those that are older again have a heavy fruit base.
When buying a Tawny, there are two ages you need to look out for – the barrel age, and the bottling age. The longer apart these dates are, the richer the port. Tawny port should be drunk soon after bottling.
Enjoy just below room temperature, to bring out the sweetness. It’s worth paying a bit more to get a Tawny port with a bit of age. Only a small amount needs to be drunk at a time, and it can sit open for a few months without the flavor diminishing.
A crowd-pleaser, a 20-year Tawny is perfect for dinner parties.
By now, you should have got a taste for port. It’s time to start moving on to the expensive bottles – reserves and vintages. These are port wine at it’s finest, so expect a price tag to match.
A vintage will need to be decanted, so the wine has time to breathe, and the flavor can deepen. A bottle of vintage port is a perfect buy for the holiday season – the complex sweetness makes an incredible finish to a heavy meal.
Port is a wine that’s closely linked with food, especially as it’s often enjoyed after a meal. If you’re wondering what to eat with your port, there are quite a few choices.
A strong cheese is a popular combination, as the saltiness brings a counterpoint to the fruit-filled port. Salted nuts also pair well, particularly with a Tawny port. And you can’t go wrong with a good dessert – dark chocolate or caramel, and a glass of ruby port is a particular delight.
Ruby and Tawny port stay good for several months after opening, but if you do find yourself with a little left, try cooking with it. A splash of port adds depth to tomato based sauces.
To Get You Started
The fruit forward nature of this reserve makes it a great choice for first time port drinkers, while the 5-year aging process helps temper the sweetness. A balanced drink, the playful freshness evens to an elegant finish.
An affordable reserve that’s sure to delight at the end of any meal, or served slightly chilled on a hot day.
A 10-year Tawny has accessible dessert flavors, developed over a shorter aging process. In this bottle you’ll find lots of mellow honey sweetness, with classic caramel and dried fruit overtones.
The toffee finish lingers on the tongue, for a drink best sipped slowly. Serve alongside strong cheeses.
A vintage or crusted port needs decanting, as a layer of sediment forms in the bottle. To decant, sit the bottle upright for several days, so the sediment sinks to the bottom.
Then, slowly pour the wine into the decanter. Hold a light underneath to see when the sediment reaches the neck. In the decanter, wine has a chance to breathe.
Port wine is a stronger drink, due to the alcohol added in the fortification process. Although it can be served in regular wine glasses, smaller port glasses help open the flavor without losing the drink. This set is simple, allowing the color of the wine to speak for itself.
The slight bitter edge of a mature dark chocolate complements the fruity sweetness of the best ruby ports. The smooth texture is matched by the viscous nature of a good port, leading to a finish that lasts.
Port can initially seem intimidating, but it’s an easy wine to love. The unique flavors are ideal for cool evenings, warm days, and rounding off a meal.
A decent ruby or Tawny port can last for several months, making it a must-have in any wine cellar. Although, once you’ve had that first sip, we doubt it will stick around that long.