A Petaluman’s guide to port wines here and abroad
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series exploring ports.
Like most wines, ports fall into two main categories: red and white. The whites, from white grape varietals, are fairly rare here in the US. The reds are made from grapes with names like Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Touriga Nacional, most of which are rarely grown here. White ports come in both dry and sweet varieties with ages that range from 10 to 40 years. Pink port is fairly new, but unlike some pink wines, it is of no lesser quality. In fact, it’s harder to make.
Reds are split into ruby and tawny. Both start life the same way. They are crushed, either mechanically or by foot, in large open-topped lagars, made of either stone or neutral concrete so the grape skins get plenty of exposure. After roughly three days, the fruit is moved into fermentation tanks. When the sugar levels are right, fermentation is suspended by the addition of aguardente. All port must then age for a minimum of 2 years before it’s sold. There are other restrictions regarding how much of a port lodge’s stock is allowed to be sold in any given year, which helps guarantee the future supply.
In the spring of the second year of aging, each port lodge determines whether to declare that year’s port a “vintage.” Unlike most table wine, port vintages only come around two or three times a decade. “Vintage” ports are the rarest, and usually most profitable, but a lodge will only bestow the title on ports that meet their own stringent standards.
Their name is their reputation, and with port, reputation is everything. Due to this philosophy, there is no bad port. There are those that appeal to different palettes. But port is not like, say, beer, where you can find lousy versions of a good style. If a lodge is willing to put its name on a bottle of port, it will be good.
With port, price will be your guide. Base ruby and tawny ports, which are usually under $20, can be a bit plain, especially when a good late bottle vintage is only $30, and great aged tawnies range from $30 to $60.
A vintage port is bottled unfiltered and so it will continue to age. There are ports from the early 1900s that are still improving with age, although that is not the case with every vintage. Thus, it is important to check a chart to see when each vintage should be drank, held or both (there are several such charts online).
Ruby port is usually dark in color, with strong fruit flavors and is aged in vessels other than wood prior to bottling. Bottling is generally done and is where a ruby does most of its aging.
Tawny ports do all the aging in barrels and are filtered at bottling. Once bottled, they are ready to drink. As the name implies, these ports are tawny in color and range in flavors from nutty to orange peel to tobacco. Tawny’s rarely show any of the fruit flavors common in a ruby. While it’s a style that is rare to find in U.S. producers, Sonoma Portworks, right here in Petaluma, offers a couple of excellent aged tawnies.
Ruby ports are bottled after two to five years of aging, although reserve blends get a few more years prior to bottling. Common vintages go into the bottle earlier and require more time to age, where late bottle vintages are allowed more ageing, so they require less time in the bottle before sipping.
Those labeled reserve or special reserve have been aged about six years before bottling, and thus they tend to cost more. There are also crusted ports, although it’s uncommon in the US, likely because these ports are quite similar to late vintages. Crusted ports are an unfiltered higher quality ruby, often called a “poor person’s” vintage.
The number on the bottle – usually 10, 20 or 30 - designates the average number of years the port remained in barrels prior to being bottled. These ports are blended from dozens of barrel-aged ports, each from different harvests, to come up with that particular port lodge’s proprietary blend.
The unique character of each lodge is what sets ports apart from most wines. It isn’t the vineyard, but the port lodge that determines the flavor. For tawnies, it isn’t the year picked or produced, but the port lodge’s preferences that determine the taste.
The blender chooses from dozens of aged tawny barrels in order to make sure that port tastes the way that lodge’s aged tawny has always tasted. Because of this, a bottle of Graham’s or Taylor’s 10-years-old tawny opened today should taste the same as the ones produced 50 years ago. That is the blenders job (usually a lifetime appointment) – to make sure that a particular port lodge’s character remains consistent.