Port Wine Basics
All port starts life as a red or white wine grown in the Duoro valley in Portgual. The basic wine is then fortified with grape spirit taking it from a lowly 7% alcohol to a robust 20%, which is typical for port and dessert wine.
Foot Treading Vintage Portdrin
Making port wine can involve foot treading of grapes in granite lagars although these days that is mainly limited to the production of vintage ports. The port wine maker will tell you that the bare human foot cannot crush a grape seed and thereby introduce any bitter notes to the port.
Vintage, Ruby, Tawny - Port Styles
Port wines come in several different varieties, the main differences being driven by the quality of the original harvest and the method chosen to age the wine. All port wine will spend at least two to three years aging in wooden vats - those which are deemed ready for drinking become the ruby and white port that is the bulk of port sold.
Vintage Port Years
The best wines will be deemed worthy of vintage port only 2 or 3 times every decade - these will be aged in the bottle for 10 to 50 years. Tawny ports are aged in wood for their entire life - the interaction with oxygen that the wood allows ages the port into a smooth, tawny coloured wine.
How is white port made?
White port is made from white grapes like a white wine but is then fortified just before the end of fermentation like any other port with the addition of grape brandy. The port is then aged in oak casks for two to three years before being bottled, although some white ports are aged for up to ten years.
Drinking white port
White port is a fine aperitif drink, perfect before dinner or for relaxing in the garden on a summer's evening. White port can be drunk chilled on its own but I prefer it as a long drink mixed with ice and tonic and a sprig of mint.
Food & white port
For white port think nibbles like smoked almonds and olives, or try it with seafood.
How is ruby port made?
Ruby port is a blend of wines from various vineyards and several different years. Like all ports it becomes "fortified wine" when grape brandy is added at a critical point in the process, stopping fermentation and making the wine around 20% abv. Ruby ports are typically aged for three years in wood before being bottled and they will last a few years in the bottle, but not too long. "Vintage Character" and "Reserve" are ruby ports aged for four to six years.
Drinking ruby port
Most people start their love of port with ruby port, usually after dinner. Ruby ports should not need to be decanted so it's a no-fuss port and easy drinking. Serve around 18-20C.
Food & ruby port
Ruby port is a good port for after dinner with the cheese and coffee.
How is tawny port made?
Tawny Port begins its life as red port that has been selected for laying down in oak casks for extended aging - years of gentle oxidation in the wood turns the red port a lighter brown colour known as tawny. Aging of between 10 and 40 years produces tawny ports characterised by their smoothness and the aroma and taste of spice, dried fruit and nuttiness.
Drinking tawny port
Tawny ports can be drunk after dinner with cheese and dessert or, if served slightly chilled, they make a superb aperitif wine. Tawny Ports do not need decanting and once open tawny port will keep for 3-4 weeks when you keep the stopper cork in & store it in the fridge.
Food & tawny port
Try tawny ports as an aperitif with salted mixed nuts, olives or canapes. After dinner try it with dessert and coffee - sticky toffee pudding full of dates makes good company for tawny port.
How is Colheita port made?
Colheita (pronounced col-yate-ta) is a variant of tawny port. What is different is that it is the product of a single harvest (Colheita in Portuguese) so it has a year indication. Like tawny port, colheita ports are aged in oak casks for a minimum of eight years, often for much longer, before being bottled - the oxidation in wood is where they acquire their tawny colour.
Drinking Colheita port
No decanting is required and the port will benefit from being slightly chilled, around 16-18C serving temperature. Colheita port will keep for several weeks after opening if the cork is replaced.
Food & Colheita port
Colheita goes extremely well with crème caramel or desserts that contain nuts or even dried fruits. Try it with a starter such as foie gras or paté
Late Bottled Vintage
How is LBV port made?
Late Bottled Vintage or LBV means a vintage style port from a single year that has been aged in wood for longer than a ruby port - usually four years. Vintage port is aged in wood for only two years, hence "Late" bottled vintage. Most shippers bottle the LBV port after four years in wood and then age it for four more years in the bottle before offering it for sale. The benefit of this process is a vintage style LBV port that is ready for drinking now.
Drinking LBV ports
LBV's have generally been filtered and stabilized to a greater degree than true vintage port meaning they should not need decanting. However a lable with "Traditional" or "Bottle Matured" LBV port may be unfiltered and will require decanting. Just to make it confusing for us!
Food & LBV port
LBV should be drinkable like a fine red wine so try it with the meal, roast beef or steaks for example, or after dinner with a strong blue cheese, stilton or roquefort.
How is vintage port made?
Vintage port is the product of an exceptional year – vintage ports are not declared every year by any means, and any decision to do so by a shipper must be ratified by the Instituto do Vinho do Porto. Vintage port is bottled after just two years in casks and continues to mature slowly in the bottle for years - this is the alchemy that creates this splendid port wine. Vintage Port is very full and fruity with high tannin levels when young and it will generally not reach its peak for 15 to 20 years.
Drinking vintage port
Vintage port will throw a sediment in the bottle so it will require decanting first – it also won't last long when opened, one to two days, so plan on enjoying vintage port quickly with friends!
Food & vintage port
This is the king of after dinner wines, so it has to be strong cheese or dark chocolate desserts to go with vintage port. It is also good company for strong coffee and the odd cigar.
How is crusted port made?
Crusted port has always been a peculiarly British speciality, a product of the first wine merchants who brought port into this country in bulk and then bottled it here. Crusted port is a very high quality ruby wine that has been bottled after three years in casks unfiltered - this means the port continues to improve in the bottle where it will throw a "crust" - sediment just like a vintage port.
Drinking crusted port
Crusted port will require decanting and will benefit greatly from opening a few hours in advance of drinking. Serve around 18-20C
Food & crusted port
An after dinner port at its best with strong cheeses, very mature cheddar or the kind of camembert you have to keep outside in the shed!
Sherry - Fino
A lighter and drier type of sherry with a pale straw colour – light but still a 'full' wine. Its bouquet is fresh, delicate and fragrant from the flor (the type of yeast which develops through sherry fermentation), which develops on its surface. This style of Sherry is gaining popularity here as a chilled aperitif wine to serve before dinner or with canapés.
Sherry - Palo Cortado
This is rather a rare style of Sherry that combines the aroma of an amontillado (dry, nutty, full bodied), with the flavour of an oloroso (sweeter, darker, walnuts). In colour it is dark amber or light brown.
Sherry - Pedro Ximenez (PX)
The best sweet wine used in Jerez - the grapes are picked very ripe and sun-dried and left for up to 20 days before being pressed. Their sugar content is therefore greatly increased and as a result their fermentation is only partial, resulting in a sweet wine of low alcoholic strength. The wine is sweet, dense and dark in colour with a noticeable flavour of raisins.
Sherry – Manzanilla
Belongs to the Fino group of Sherries, produced in Sanlucar de Barrameda area where the sea air has a decisive effect on the wine, making it even lighter than Jerez Fino and providing it with a delicate and highly individual aroma. It is completely dry and leaves a clean but faintly bitter after-taste on the tongue, without being 'full' like a Jerez Fino. Manzanilla has a very pale straw colour, although with age, it turns the deeper amber of an Amontillado.
How is Madeira made?
Unlike port that enjoys peace and quiet as it matures, Madeira wines improve the more they are mistreated, something that was discovered accidentally when a shipment of Madeira wine returned unsold after an arduous journey at sea where the wine had "baked" in the heat of the equator. From that time forth, Madeira wine has been subject to the heat of the sun in the "canteiro" method to achieve its special qualities.
Drinking Madeira wine
Some Madeiras are best served slightly cool - Madeira wines can keep for 2-3 months after opening if you keep the stopper in.
Food & Madeira
It really has to be cake for me; a glass of Madeira wine with fruit cake is a personal favourite and makes for a slightly decadent supper.
How is Moscatel made?
Muscat is widely grown in Portugal and Spain, where the grape and the wines produced from it are known as Moscatel or Muscatel. The wine is aged for a minimum of 3 years in oak casks. The length and nature of the ageing process produces a topaz-coloured generous wine, with intense aromas of muscatel, orange blossom, tea and raisins, possessing a smooth, sweet and fresh taste.
Drink chilled with lemon rind as a refreshing aperitif or as a dessert wine.
Food & Moscatel
Excellent with fruit or caramel desserts.