The range of Port
I've devoted so much of my writing from Portugal this month to the exciting realm of non-traditional, dry table wines that some of you might be wondering whether Portugal still makes good old-fashioned Port, and if so, whether I noticed.
Well, of course!
The robust red wines of Northern Portugal's Douro ("Doh-ru") River valley were dosed with brandy to stabilize them for an ocean voyage, a procedure that had the happy side effect of creating a wine that's sweet and strong and capable of long-term aging. Shipped down the rough and rapid river to the city of Porto on the Atlantic coast (which gave Port - or Porto - its name), the wine was assembled and put on shipboard by shipping firms, many of which exist to this day, with names that reflect their British ownership: Dow and Taylor and Warre and Graham, among many more.
The tip of the Porto iceberg is Vintage Port, made entirely of grapes from a single year (vintage) and aged only briefly in wooden barrels before being bottled, so it retains its dark color. Representing only about 2 percent of Port production - but the most expensive 2 percent - this is the Port that collectors prize. Produced only in "declared" years when the weather cooperates, Vintage Port can be drunk with enjoyment when it's young and full of fruit, but most experts agree that it's best held in the cellar for decades while its tannins soften and its flavors gain the complexity that comes with 20 years of maturity or more. (We'll feature a fine, good-value 2003 Vintage Port in this week's Wine Advisor Premium Edition, which is going out a day or two late because of my travels.)
Save for the niche category of White Port, which is usually lightly regarded and served most often as an aperitif or in the popular summer "Port-tonic," a blend of White Port and tonic water with lemon in a tall glass over ice, all the other Port styles are called "Wood Ports" because they spend time in oak before bottling.
The basic form, however, Ruby Port, doesn't spend much time in the barrel. The simplest and usually the least expensive of Ports, Ruby is ready to drink when it hits the market and won't improve substantially with bottle time, although it will keep well for up to several years. It contains no sediment and need not be decanted.
Tawny Port, so called because it stays in the barrel long enough that its red color fades to reddish-bronze or even mahogany, is usually a non-vintage blend. It may, however, be labeled according to the number of years it spent in casks: 10 years, 20 years, 30 or even 40 years. Typically, the longer the aging, the smoother and more complex. Tawnies may be enjoyed as soon as you buy them, "throw" no sediment and don't need decanting.
Colheita ("Cole-yay-tah") is similar to Tawny in that it sees long aging in oak until it loses its red color, but the wine all comes from a single vintage. (It can't use the word "vintage" on the label, though, to avoid confusion with the high-end wine.)
Finally, Port bargain-hunters often troll the sale bins for two special styles of Ruby Port that kick the quality level up a notch. Vintage Character Port is a Ruby Port that's purportedly made from special lots of good wine in a non-vintage style that's billed as an approximation of Vintage Port.
Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV), a bit more credibly, is Port made from a single vintage, but held in wood for four to six years, long enough to soften and mellow the wine without fading it to tawny. This makes a relatively affordable wine with a lot of the style of a Vintage Port and some ageworthiness, but it can be drunk young and needs no decanting. To my tastes, LBVs (like the Noval 1998 LBV that I reported in the Dec. 12 Wine Advisor) offer a good compromise between quality and price, particularly if you don't want to have to wait 10 or 20 years to enjoy your bottle at its finest.
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Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2005