A Guide to the Many Ports in a Storm
When it’s cold outside, I want comforting food and drink; after dinner, nothing hits my comfort zone better than a glass of Port.
Port is a fortified red wine that comes from the Douro region of Portugal and is made from indigenous Portuguese grapes, mainly Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tintã Cão.
Port comes in many styles—Ruby, Tawny, Aged Tawny, Colheita, Vintage, Quinta and Late Bottled Vintage—and is made by adding clear brandy to fermenting red wine. The alcohol in the brandy causes the yeasts in the fermenting wine to die, resulting in a sweet wine with about 10 percent residual sugar and about 20 percent alcohol by volume (40 proof).
Fortified red wines are made all over the world, and in California, we use the name Port for wines made in a Port style. Technically, calling a California-made fortified red wine Port is like calling a sparkling wine Champagne or (as we used to do) calling a bold red wine Burgundy. All are region-specific names, and should only be used to denote wines from those particular places.
There are two main types of Port: bottle-aged ports, which require years of cellaring, and wood-aged Ports, which are ready to drink upon release. Ruby, Tawny, Aged Tawny and Colheita fall under the wood-aged category; while Vintage, Quinta, and Late Bottled Vintage are bottle-aged. Wood-aged wines are generally less expensive than bottle-aged.
Vintage, Ruby, Quinta and LBV ports go well with strong cheddar cheese, Stilton and other blues; fresh fruit like raspberries, strawberries and plums; and dark chocolate. Tawny Ports are better served with foie gras and other patés, mild creamy cheeses, creamy desserts like tiramisu and cheesecake, milk chocolate, fruit tarts, marzapan, dried fruits and nuts.
Jeff Diamond owns and operates Farmstead Cheeses and Wines in Alameda and Montclair Village.
Ruby is the simplest (and least expensive) of all Ports, and this bulk-aged wine is bottled young while the wine still has a deep, red color and strong, bold flavors of plum, strawberry, currant and red apple. My current favorites are Warre’s Warrior and Graham’s Six Grapes and are available for around $20 a bottle.
Tawny is bulk-aged wine that has been aged for several years so that it loses its ruby hue and becomes tawny, or brownish. Look for simple, light caramel and butterscotch flavors without much depth or complexity.
Aged Tawny Ports are a different story. These are wines that have been aged for at least six years and are blended from different years, with the average age of the wines—10, 20, 30, 40 or VO (“very old”)—placed on the label. While younger wines add freshness and brightness to the mix, older wines bring complexity and layers of flavor and aroma. Look for vanilla, oak, spice, butterscotch, dried fruit, and nut meat notes. While most great aged tawnies come from Portugal, there are some amazing ones being made in Australia. I like the lighter style of Otima 10 or 20; but my all time favorite is the over-the-top Burge Family VO Tawny, a very expensive Australian wine where some of the juice is upwards of 100 years old!
Colheita (coal YATE ah) is simply an aged tawny that comes from a specific vintage that has spent at least seven years in barrel. Vintage Port is a bottle-aged wine and is made (or declared) only in years when the harvest is truly exceptional—on average no more than every three to four years. The fruit for vintage Port is the result of rigorous vineyard selection, and the wine is bottled only two years after fermentation. Once bottled, vintage Port ages slowly, sometimes taking as much as 20 to 30 years to reach an optimum balance between structure, richness, concentration and flavor. Vintage Ports are bottled unfiltered and need to be decanted before serving. The 2003 vintage is thought to be one of the best of the last 100 years, and Robert Parker rates the 2000 vintage a 92 (out of 100). Like any fine wine, vintage Port needs to be consumed within a few days after opening. Beware of ordering a vintage Port by the glass at a bar or restaurant; unless you’re in a very busy restaurant that moves a lot of Port by the glass, chances are the wine has spoiled, and you’ve wasted your money.
Quinta (KEEN tah) is a single-vineyard vintage Port or sometimes a single-vineyard Port from an undeclared year. Quintas are relatively recent additions to the Port market and are generally more expensive than their vintage brothers.
Late Bottled Vintage (or LBV) is Port from a single year, aged in cask for several years, then aged in bottle for several more. Like vintage Ports, some LBVs are bottled unfiltered (capped with a traditional cork) and deliver much of the richness and complexity of a vintage Port at a fraction of the price. Like vintage Ports, these wines need to be consumed within a few days after opening. Other LBVs are filtered (characterized by a stoppered cork) and will last for several weeks after uncorking.
—By Jeff Diamond