What is Port Wine?

From the Douro Valley in Portugal, comes Port Wine, a fortified wine renowned for its quality and depth of flavour. Fortification produces a drink sweeter, stronger in alcohol, and with a more dominant berry profile, than regular red wine; with a taste much admired amongst wine experts.

The uniqueness of Port Wine begins with the Douro Valley, The combination of cold winters, dry summers, and mountain topography creates a hardy landscape rich in nutrients. Grapes have been honed over 1000s of years to to thrive in this environment, seeking out water deep in the bedrock to produce rich, concentrated, juice.

Port Wine starts life like all wines, grapes are harvested from the vine and treaded (either crushed by foot, in the traditional style, or by machine) to begin fermentation. When roughly half the the sugars in the grape juice have turned to alcohol treading stops and the grape skins are allowed to rise to the surface.

The wine settling under the grape skins is poured into a vat, where brandy is added to fortify the drink. The brandy stops further fermentation, retaining the sugars to create the sweeter taste of Port Wine. Brandy also increases the overall alcohol content and helps develop a richer flavour profile.

The British are coming

The British have an important role in the popularity of Port Wine. The Portuguese and British have long had close trading agreements, dating back to the 1300s, and when the Napoleonic Wars (1803 - 1815) prevented the import of popular French wines into Britain, canny Scots and English traders based in Portugal saw an opportunity.

You will read tales of how it was the British that invented Port Wine by adding brandy to red wine on the long boat journey between the two countries. This, sadly, isn’t true. Instead British traders realised fortified wine would be an excellent drink to survive the journey around the Atlantic and knew the taste of Port Wine would be popular as it resembled the rich French reds the British already enjoyed.

Today, the British heritage is seen in the names of some Port Wine brands including Taylor’s, Croft, and Sandeman.

Types of Port Wine

There are several categories of Port, each with its own flavour profile, which can prove to be the first stumbling block for the uninitiated. Don’t be put off though as we’re here to point you in the right direction with our guide to the main categories.

Bottle or barrel?

The first way of categorising Port is into bottle-aged and barrel-aged. Bottle-aged Port are matured in the air-tight glass bottles limiting the rate the liquid loses colour and creating a smoother taste, with less tannins.

In contract, barrel-aged Ports are matured in in oak vats, where the exposure to (minimal) oxygen causes greater colour loss and some evaporation - for a thicker, more full-bodied taste with some tannin.

What is Ruby Port?

Casa Santa Eufemia Ruby Port bottle

The most affordable Port Wine is Ruby Port. Aged between 2 - 3 years in large barrels / stainless steel tanks, and ready to drink straight away, the taste reflects its youth with plenty of colour and intense cherry, blackberry, and blackcurrant flavour.

What is White Port?

Casa Santa Eufemia White Port bottle

The sister drink to Ruby Port. Made with white grapes and aged for a short time before bottling. Goes well with tonic, ice, and lemon as an alternative to a G&T.

What is Tawny Port?

Taylor's 20 Year Old Tawny Port bottle

Made using red grapes and aged in smaller wooden barrels. This makes for Port with a lighter colour (more oxidation) and a flavour profile combining nuts, caramel, and berries.

The age shown on a bottle of Tawny Port reflects the flavour and ageing of the Port contained inside. Tawny Ports with no age have probably been aged for two years (the minimum required) and those marked 10 Year, 20 Year, 30 Year, or 40 Year, aged longer.

The year count does not mean the Port inside has been aged for that long, rather it is a ‘target profile’ for the flavour. Tawny Ports are made by blending different aged Ports together, so a 20 Year Old Tawny (often considered the best Tawny Port for balance between taste and price) may contain Ports aged 5 years, 10 years, and 50 years.

What is Vintage Port?

Fonseca Quinta Do Panascal Vintage Port bottle

Made using only the very best grapes in a single declared vintage year. Aged in casks for two years then transferred to the bottle for further ageing. It takes a minimum 20 years ageing in the bottle to produce a Vintage worth drinking, with a 40 year wait preferred by some.

Vintage Ports are bottles to be bought today and then stored for a generation. Sediment forms in the bottle whilst stored (lay down) and the correct ritual for consumption is to stand the bottle upright two days before opening, decant at least two hours before drinking, and finish within two days of opening.

What is Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port?

Taylor's LBV Port bottle

Due to a downturn in Vintage Port buying in the 1950s, Port producers were left with unsold stock. This spare Port was kept in barrels for between four to six years then bottled; creating Late Bottled Vintage Port — which is still the produce of a single vintage year, but can be drunk straight away.

The result is a Port lighter in profile than a Vintage Port with hints of vanilla alongside plum and blackberry.