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The Styles of Port Wine

Port is the world’s greatest fortified (alcohol-added) red wine. Port takes its name from the city of Oporto, situated where Portugal's Douro River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. But its vineyards are far away, in the hot, mountainous Douro Valley. Port wine is fermented and fortified in Douro Valley, and then most of it travels downriver to the coast.

Although all Port is sweet, and most of it is red, a zillion styles exist. The styles vary according to the quality of the base wine (ranging from ordinary to exceptional), how long the wine is aged in wood before bottling (ranging from 2 to 40-plus years), and whether the wine is from a single year or blended from wines of several years.

Following is a brief description of the main styles, from simplest to most complex:

  • White Port: Made from white grapes, this gold-colored wine can be off-dry or sweet. Served with tonic and ice, white Port can be a bracing warm-weather apéritif.

  • Ruby Port: This young, non-vintage style is aged in wood for about three years before release. Fruity, simple, and inexpensive, it’s the best-selling type of Port. If labeled Reserve or Special Reserve, the wine has usually aged about six years and costs a few dollars more.

  • Vintage Character Port: Vintage Character Port is actually premium ruby blended from higher-quality wines of several vintages and matured in wood for about five years. Full-bodied, rich, and ready-to-drink when released, these wines are a good value.

  • Tawny Port: Tawny is the most versatile Port style. The best tawnies are good-quality wines that fade to a pale garnet or brownish red color during long wood aging. Tawny Ports are appropriate both as apéritifs and after dinner.

  • Colheita Port: Often confused with Vintage Port because it’s vintage-dated, colheita is actually a tawny from a single vintage. In other words, it has aged (and softened and tawnied) in wood for many years. Unlike an aged tawny, though, it’s the wine of a single year.

  • Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV): This type is from a specific vintage, but usually not from a very top year. The wine ages four to six years in wood before bottling and is then ready to drink, unlike Vintage Port. Quite full-bodied, but not as hefty as Vintage Port.

  • Vintage Port: The pinnacle of Port production, Vintage Port is the wine of a single year blended from several of a house’s best vineyards. It’s bottled at about two years of age, before the wine has much chance to shed its tough tannins. It therefore requires an enormous amount of bottle aging to accomplish the development that didn’t occur in wood. Vintage Port is usually not mature (ready to drink) until about 20 years after the vintage.

    Because it’s very rich and very tannic, this wine throws a heavy sediment and must be decanted, preferably several hours before drinking (it needs the aeration). Vintage Port can live 70 or more years in top vintages.

  • Single Quinta Vintage Port: These are Vintage Ports from a single estate (quinta) that is usually a producer’s best property (such as Taylor’s Vargellas and Graham’s Malvedos). They’re made in good years, but not in the best vintages, because then their grapes are needed for the Vintage Port blend. They have the advantage of being readier to drink than declared Vintage Ports — at less than half their price — and of usually being released when they’re mature. You should decant and aerate them before serving, however.

Treat Vintage Ports like all other fine red wines: Store the bottles on their sides in a cool place. You can store other Ports either on their sides (if they have a cork rather than a plastic-topped cork stopper) or upright. All Ports, except white, ruby, and older Vintage Ports, keep well for a week or so after opening, with aged-stated tawny capable of keeping for a few weeks.

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