Port of Call

Enjoying a glass of port is synonymous with winter. Oohs and  aahs follow those first luscious sips of the season—sips that deliciously pair with nuts, Stilton cheese, a dessert course, or just by itself. Each variety of port has a different personality: some are bold and muscular, others mature and focused. But they are always sweet—and they always make a great gift.

Port of Call

Port is a wine from the Douro Valley in Portugal (authentic Portuguese port is labeled “Porto”) that has been fortified with brandy. The history of port dates back to the 17th century, when English wine merchants came to Portugal to look for new wines and encountered hearty reds infused with brandy as they fermented. Fortifying wines also kept them stable during shipping.

Port is either bottle-aged or barrel-aged, and with a few notable exceptions, it’s usually red in color. The best bottles are made with half a dozen highly regarded grapes blended together to give the wine an intense color, body, taste, and aroma. With the holidays upon us, here’s a guide to different port varieties along with a few selections available at local package stores.

Vintage is the top port as well as the most expensive. It’s made from a blend of the best grapes culled from top vineyards three or four times a decade—the years that port shippers declare to be vintage years. Vintage ports should age quite a long time before being served, and it’s best to buy a bottle that is at least 10 years old if you want to drink it right away. These are rich and dense with lots of tannins. They are also unfiltered, so expect sediment on the bottom.

Single Quinta port has a key difference from vintage ports: they are produced from grapes from one vineyard (quinta means “farm”) in a single, non-vintage year. The label displays the vineyard’s name. But single-quinta ports are crafted much like vintage ports, offering powerful berry fruit tastes that need significant bottle age to come together. They are a less expensive alternative to a port from a vintage year.

Also known as LBV, Late Bottle Vintage is a variety from a single vintage that’s aged in the barrel four to six years before being bottled. While they are not made in vintage years, they are robust, ideal for drinking right away, and usually half the price of vintage ports.

Standard Rubies are the most basic ports: young, sweet, simple, and inexpensive. These have tasty raspberry and cherry fruit flavors. You’ll find labels that say “Finest,” “Reserve,” or “Vintage Character.”

While the labels on Aged Tawny ports might say 10, 20, 30 or 40 years old, the bottles themselves haven’t actually aged that long. Rather, they are made with a blend of ports barrel-aged for different lengths of time. The age is an approximation of the taste; for instance, a variety labeled 20 years old tastes like it should be that age to the port maker. The blending and wood aging gives a pale color and silky texture with nutty, butterscotch, and dried-fruit flavors.

Lastly, Colheita is a tawny port from a single vintage that usually has woody and vanilla flavors. Port makers don’t usually keep them in large quantities. Colheita ports are usually aged at least seven years, but you might find a few that are 10 to 50 years old.


Ann Trieger is a freelance writer living in the Boston area.

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