I’ve always been a fan of dessert wines, and port is definitely one of my favorites. If you’re unfamiliar with port, it’s a sweet, red wine, usually fortified with a grape spirit (a brandy-like substance) to stop the fermentation early on. This then creates a high residual sugar content in the wine and raises the alcohol percentage. Port is generally produced in Portugal (from the Douro River Valley region), and, technically, only ports produced from Portugal may be called Port or Porto, although I don’t think this is that strictly policed. You can also find a lot of port-like wines from Australia, Argentina, and even the US. I found a lot of really amazing port-like wines in Australia, and they were dirt cheap for amazingly high quality wines. It’s a pity that they don’t import much of those to the States, but if you ever get the chance to go to Australia, I would definitely recommend trying some out there.
There are several common types of ports that you’ll see in the stores in the US:
- Tawny Ports are barrel-aged ports i.e., the red grapes are put into wooden barrels until they turn a golden-brown color. If there is no age labelled on the bottle, then it was probably in the barrel for around 2 years. Otherwise, they will usually label how many years they have been aged for. The characteristic taste for tawny ports is their nutty flavor (more of a hazelnut favor).
- Vintage Ports are made from grapes from a certain declared vintage year. In Portugal, the decision to declare a ‘vintage year’ is a decision made by each individual producer that year. Vintage years are generally declared only when the grapes produced that year are exceptional. Generally, only 3 out of 10 years are declared ‘vintage years’ by a producer. Vintage ports are often aged in the barrel for a maximum of 2.5 years and then aged in the bottle for another 10 to 30 years. They are known for their dark purple color and their fruity taste (both a result of the short barrel aging time).
- Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Ports are like Vintage Ports but don’t usually require bottle aging. Most can be drunk as soon as they are released by the producer, which means you can just buy one from a store and pop it open the same day. LBVs arose from Vintage Ports that were left in the barrel for longer than planned because of low demand. This then developed into a new style of port. LBVs are generally barrel aged for 4 to 6 years as opposed to the maximum of 2.5 years that Vintage Ports undergo. Of course, some commentators don’t think they’re as good as Vintage Ports that have been properly bottle aged.
- Ruby Ports are bottle-aged ports and are generally the cheapest and most mass-produced type of port. To make these ports, the grapes are stored in concrete or stainless steel tanks after fermentation, which prevents it from aging too much and keeps it ruby in color.
- White Ports are white in color as they are made from white grapes. Be careful when buying these for dessert as they can range from very dry to very sweet.
The bottle I enjoyed last night was a Vintage Port from 2000. I probably drank it a tad early as it’s only recommended for drinking after 2011, but it’s hard for any good wines to stay unopened in my apartment. This port has a great smell – full of blackberries, cherries, and maybe a touch of licorice. The taste isn’t as sweet as I like my ports to be, but there’s a lot of fruity taste to compensate for the lack of sweetness. And you can keep tasting that delicious faint grape/raisin/raspberry taste in your mouth for ages after swallowing. I think this port is great for people who like red wines but generally don’t like dessert wines that much, because it’s not super sweet or syrupy like many dessert wines.
This bottle was rated 95+ on Wine Advocate and 94 on Wine Spectator (if you care for ratings). Good ports are unfortunately quite pricey, and this one is $94.99 for a 750ml bottle (normal wine bottle size) at Astor Wine and Spirits. If you just want to try it, you might be able to find a half bottle (375ml) in some wine stores for around $45 to $50.