- The Brits shall have their Wine
Political unrest in the 17th century between the two neighbouring nations of England and France had once again resulted in hostility. During this time of conflict and transition, the creation of what is unquestionably the most famous fortified wine and perhaps the greatest dessert drink happened by mere chance.
Britain’s trade embargo imposed on France prohibited the export of all wine to England. To continue the flow of alcohol into the English bloodstream, importers turned to Britain’s Atlantic seaboard ally of Portugal and whereby circumnavigating enemy lines, they were able to transport the Portuguese wines to their northern destination over 1300 km away. When, and if the barrels managed to land on English soil, the distance and time necessary for transport nearly always resulted in spoiled pleasure. Thus to protect the fragile contents for the turbulent journey and in all likelihood, to improve the offensive taste, the English introduced the addition of brandy spirits to the barrels to strengthen the wine. In doing so, they unknowingly invented what we commonly call Port – at least that is what they claim.
The name Port is in reference Oporto, the point of the wines’ departure for export and mouth of the Duero River in Portugal. The addition of distilled spirits during the production of the basic Portuguese table-wine halts the fermentation process which retains a noticeable amount of residual sugar and hence the sweetness of the style. The spirit also lifts the degree of alcohol to approximately 20%.
I like to categorize port in three ways: bottle aged, barrel aged, and blended combinations thereof. This is further subdivided to include Vintage port, Tawny port, LBV (late bottled vintage), Single Quinta, Ruby, Vintage Character, Crusted, and White port.
Vintage port is something very special and arguably the greatest of all dessert drinks. It is also an equally rare drinking opportunity. These wines are only produced (declared) in certain years – averaging three in ten – and not always by every port house/shipper. Though the fruit must all be sourced from the same year, Vintage port is normally a blend from various vineyards. Having spent less than two years in oak, Vintage port matures in the bottle after you purchase it and that timeframe, when stored under ideal conditions is typically 15 to 30 years after bottling – it is a serious wine and unparalleled investment of your time. These great potions also require decanting prior to drinking to remove the sediment deposit that will develop. Expect aroma and taste sensations of rich dark berries, figs, chocolate, and baking spices.
Single Quinta is the ‘next best thing’ to Vintage. Sourced from a single vineyard (quinta), these wines may be available in the same year that Vintage port is produced but are generally made in leaner years where the vintage is ‘not declared’. Single quinta requires intermediate aging and is typically ready to drink 10 years after bottling. These wines also need decanting prior to serving.
LBV (late bottled vintage) spends longer under oak influence (4 to 5 years) which softens the wine’s hard edges. These wines are approachable much sooner than their bolder siblings while still reflecting a similar style. LBV is a good point to start if you are a first-timer.
Crusted Port is another affordable alternative to Vintage port, though not very common on the store shelves. Crusted port is normally a blend of several lesser vintages. The wine must spend at least three years in oak prior to release. With time, a thick crust of sediment will develop in the bottle. Decanting is required.
Ruby port is basic, affordable, and nondescript, though it does hint at the style, providing a glimpse of something greater should you dare to venture…
Tawny Port is often the preferred taste of fortified wine enthusiasts, though few will admit to such favouritism in the presence of an old Vintage bottle. Tawny, unlike Vintage is barrel-aged and reflects a slightly oxidized drinking style and appearance. The time spent in oak imparts a golden-brown colour and offers softer aromas such as butterscotch, caramel, orange rind, and toasted nuts. Tawny is ready to drink when purchased and is not designed to improve with additional bottle age. Examples worthy of your attention are labelled with the targeted age-style of the contents: 10, 20, 30, and over 40 years. The definition of the number is vague at best but can be thought of as the average age of the contents becoming increasingly more expensive with each decade of investment. Tawny port from a single harvest is called Colheita and these wines must spend at least 7 years in oak prior to their release. Since the wine’s sediment is shed in the barrel during aging, Tawny port does not require decanting.
A less common but equally fascinating port style is White port which functions as an outstanding aperitif when served slightly chilled. All other styles are best enjoyed after the meal and at the warmer end of the temperature spectrum (18˚C/65˚F).
With the trend of sipping fortified wine after dinner seemingly relevant only in Hollywood classics and upper-crust English society, the popularity of Port wine over the last 50 years has seen a steady decline. Unfortunately, the rich, viscous drink is perceived as a bit stodgy and has given way to the more fashionable taste of specialty coffee and ultra-sweet dessert wines. I really can’t place enough emphasis on what enthusiastic wine drinkers are missing out on and during this full-scale assault of bitterly cold weather, I’d like to arm you with a glass of fortified goodness to fend off Mother Nature and her frigid intentions.
- Score some extra points for style when you open your older bottle of port like this: <Port Tongs Video>