Within the two main categories of bottle-aged and wood-aged ports, there are many types and styles, however. It’s important for the retailer to be able to explain these to the customer.
We’re talking about authentic ports from Portugal, produced in the demarcated region of the Douro River. It’s no wonder that Douro translates to ‘River of Gold.’ The grapes are all indigenous, and include the three principal grapes: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesca and Touriga Roriz.
When you think that port wines only ferment for about three days, the deep colors are amazing. Fermentation time is short because port is designed to be sweet, and the yeast must be stopped to retain the grape’s sugar. Yeast cannot withstand high alcohol, so winemakers add neutral grape spirits to stop the yeast’s work, leaving unfermented sugar behind. Those ports destined for intense sweetness are stopped sooner than wines that are designed to be drier.
All of the wines are first aged in wood, but the ‘bottle aged’ wines spend much less time in large wood casks. A Vintage port, for example, could be two years in wood and up to 50 in the bottle. These all fall into the Ruby category.
According to Louisa Fry, Director of Marketing and Communications at the Porto and Douro Wines Institute (IVDP), here are some of the most recent regulations:
Reserve Ruby, often referred to as a Premium Ruby, is young, fruity and aged for an average of four years. It is superior to the ‘standard’ or simple Ruby, and a good opportunity to get the customer to trade up. Churchill’s Finest Reserve, Fonseca Bin 27 and Graham’s Six Grapes are all excellent examples.
Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV) is a port from a single year, shown on the label. Because it is kept in cask from four to six years, most of the sediment has dropped out before the wine is bottled. This satisfies the customer who likes to see vintage dates, but is unsure of decanting and serving a true Vintage port. Cockburn’s 1997 LBV illustrates this very well.
A true Vintage port comes from an excellent year, and is bottled after only two years in cask. It is then up to the consumer to store the bottle for another 10-20 years at least. During this aging time, sediment drops out, and the bottle requires careful handling. While most Vintage ports are blends of different vineyards, Quinta do Noval Nacional is an outstanding wine from a single vineyard.
The wood-aged category, or Tawny Ports, are aged in smaller casks, for more contact with the barrel, and usually for longer time. A Reserve Tawny is aged for an average of seven years. The colors range from medium red to a lighter red-brown. Average ages are used, since it is very difficult to state the exact age of a blend. Taylor-Fladgate makes a fine Reserve Tawny.
Aged Tawnies, aged in older wood barrels, can be labeled with average ages of 10, 20, 30 or 40 years. These ready-to-drink ports have gotten more costly, as consumers realize that the port house has done the aging for them. Sandeman has consistently good Tawnies with age statements.
A Colheita Port (Single Harvest Reserve) is a seven-year wood-aged Tawny from a single year. Warre’s 1992 and 1997 Colheita’s make a great selling comparison.
One more thing: Portuguese ports have been called ‘Porto’ to distinguish themselves from generic ports. Many Portuguese producers do not like this, and are going back to ‘Port.’ The jury is still out on this one.
Harriet Lembeck, CWE*, CSS** firstname.lastname@example.org is a prominent wine and spirits educator. She is president of the renowned Wine & Spirits Program, the leading and first academically structured wine school in New York. She revised and updated the textbook Grossman’s Guide to Wines, Beers and Spirits. She was the Director of the Wine Department for The New School University for 18 years. (*Certified Wine Educator, **Certified Specialist of Spirits)