There’s something about Christmas that brings the port onto the table. It could be the classic port and stilton combination or maybe it’s the air of celebration. Whatever the reason, sales of port soar in the approach to Christmas and many people who would normally never touch this fortified red wine find themselves happily quaffing away during the festive season.
Many of these once-a-year port drinkers will pluck a bottle off the supermarket shelf without much thought, in a way that they would never choose a bottle of red wine. Unfortunately, very cheap port can often be disappointing and even unpleasant to drink yet in many cases we continue to buy bottles of port that are cheap and easily available because we feel we should have port at Christmas.
However, the best port can be a seriously delicious drink. Think plums, rich fruitcake, black berries, chocolate, herbs and spice and you get an idea of the complexity and character of good port. Even the cheaper ports have a fresh, youthful character but avoid the bargain basement bottles.
Port is produced in the Douro Valley in the north of Portugal. The vines clinging to the rocky slopes here don’t grow any of the well known international red wine grapes – these red wine grapes are Portuguese varieties such as Tinta Roriz and Touriga Nacional.
The grapes are crushed by foot or machine and then left to ferment for a period before the process is stopped by adding grape spirit. This is why port is so sweet as the grape spirit prevents any more sugar from turning into alcohol, leaving the remaining sugar to sweeten the red wine liquid.
The liquid is then either bottled early and allowed to age in glass, which results in ruby or red port, or it is put into oak casks for aging resulting in tawny port. Ruby port and tawny port have very different characteristics so it is worth trying both to see if you have any preference.
The cheapest port is usually labelled as “Ruby”. It has usually spent a couple of years in the cask before being bottled and is generally expected to be drunk young. It can be fresh and lively with cherry characteristics and, like most red wine, is best served at room temperature. Drink it within a few weeks after the bottle has been opened as it won’t keep. If you want to step up from a basic ruby port the slightly better examples are usually labelled as “Premium ruby” or “Vintage character port”.
Late-bottled vintage port is usually a good value and reliable ruby port. Unlike the basic ruby it is made from a single year’s red wine production and is aged for longer in the oak casks, usually for five or six years, before bottling. Whilst LBV port is worth cellaring for a short period don’t leave it for too long before drinking as it won’t age as well as a vintage port. Stick to reputable producers such as Dow, Graham, Taylors, Noval, Warre and Neipoort as otherwise you may find your LBV port is little better than a premium ruby. Be careful as you pour the port as there may be some sediment in the bottom of the bottle.
Vintage port is what serious port drinkers aim for. Vintage port isn’t produced every year, only when producers decide the quality of the red wine grapes is good enough to declare it a vintage year. This may happen only about three times a decade and in most cases all the different port producers will agree that a certain year should be declared a vintage. However, occasionally individual producers may make a solo declaration, often for commercial reasons, so try to find out if a vintage is generally recognised before spending a large amount of money to purchase a bottle of vintage port.
Vintage port is expensive and needs to be cellared for at least 10 years, preferably 20 or 30 years, before drinking but the end result is worth it. Vintage port is usually bottled after a couple of years in the cask and if drunk young will be full of tannins and taste unpleasantly tough. However, once properly aged the port becomes lusciously smooth, soft and complex.
If you would like to try a vintage port but your finances won’t stretch to the price, look out for a single quinta port. This is port produced in a non-vintage year from a single estate or quinta. As the red wine grapes used are the same as those used in a vintage port the quality of the resulting port is generally still excellent. A single quinta port would still benefit from cellaring but is likely to be less tannic than a vintage port. Both vintage and single quinta port will need decanting as there will be a lot of sediment in the bottle.
The alternative to ruby port is tawny. Tawny port is aged in oak barrels for much longer resulting in a soft, lightly spiced and nutty character and an amber colour. The best tawny ports are aged for at least 20 years giving them a lovely mellow character. Brands to look out for include Fonseca, Sandeman and Ramos-Pinto.
Image by Jon Sullivan from PDPhoto.org.