A guide to port

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
What's in name Ruby

Ruby, the lowest level of quality, spends a short time in wood before being filtered and bottled for immediate consumption. It is not made from the finest wines, it is deep ruby in colour, it will not improve, and while some may be better than others, none will ever be very serious. Though sweet, it is a popular aperitif in France. Great for cooking.

Vintage Character

Vintage Character has no legal status and no fixed definition. It is a blend of ruby ports, from different vintages, that have probably but not necessarily had more time than usual in the bottle and therefore gained more character from exposure to air and wood. The producers themselves use the term less nowadays, preferring to distinguish their better wines with names such as Ferreira's "Director's Choice" or Graham's "Six Grapes" (both good basic ports), but is still popular for retailers' own brands. Think of VC as a superior Ruby, rather than a cut-price Vintage.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)

LBV truly has been left in the wood for longer: four to six years. It is then bottled (almost always after filtering) for immediate consumption. Leaving the wine in wood for extra time effectively speeds up its progress towards maturity, so it is ready for drinking earlier than a true vintage port. But the gain in speed means a loss in quality, and in any case, the pipes chosen for LBV treatment never contain the finest wine of the vintage. On the other hand, if you get something from one of the good houses, it can be a very satisfying wine - and at prices which won't scare the bank manager.

To make things just a little more confusing: The "Traditional" LBVs from Smith Woodhouse and Warre's are not filtered before bottling. Once bottled they are matured in Oporto for another nine years, so the current release for these wines is 1984, as opposed to 1991 for most LBVs.

Crusted

Crusted port is blended from several vintages, bottled without filtration and then given a few years in the bottle. Because they're unfiltered, crusted ports throw off a sediment; this gives a little extra complexity plus the thrill of decanting. When they're good, crusted ports are very good - and a reasonable alternative to vintage.

Tawny

Port can be a tawny colour for two reasons: it's a blend of red and white wines, or it's given long ageing in oak over a decade or more. If you see a bottle sold as tawny with no age given, ignore it. An aged tawny is a different story - for my money, one of the greatest drinks anywhere. Ageing enables the wood gradually to draw the colour from the wine, going from ruby to reddish to a pale brown. Flavour changes too, with sweet freshness of fruit giving way to a gorgeous tang dominated by nuttiness and sometimes a hint of dried fruits. Tawnies are usually sold as 10-, 20- or 30-year-old; 40-year-olds are there but rare. They are necessarily made in small quantities, using blends of over a dozen wines, and they are very expensive once you pass the 10-year mark. But the good ones (Niepoort, Taylor's, Dow's etc) are worth it for special occasions. Colheita wines are tawny ports with the date of a single vintage. They too are rather rare.

Vintage

Eighteen months after the harvest, the producers taste their wine in its pipes to evaluate quality. If quality is deemed high enough (and the Port Wine Institute agrees), the house may then "declare" a vintage. They select the best barrels only, which will typically be something like five per cent of the wine made, and can bottle it starting from the July of that year. Some producers bottle as fast as possible while others - such as Niepoort - prefer to give the wine more time in wood.

Vintages in port are confusing because not all producers "declare" in the same year. When they do all choose to declare, as occurred in 1994, it's a sign of exceptional quality. And exceptional prices follow. But even "bad" vintages can yield good wines: the Churchill 1982 (a widely criticised vintage) has elegance and finesse with a basket-full of mingled fruit flavours and hints of chocolate.

The problem with vintage ports is time: they need years to mature, with 10 a good figure for the minimum. The port producers are fretting about reports that Americans (who have become major port-lovers in recent years) are drinking vintage wines at infanticidally early dates. My enquiries suggest that they're right to be alarmed. At Beekman Wines in Manhattan, they have sold Taylor's 1994 ($150) to people who drank it immediately. Even allowing for normal differences of taste, I would suggest that these people are deranged.

Single-quinta

A Quinta is a farm, and a single-quinta port is one made solely from grapes grown at a single farm. They are normally made in sub-vintage years, i.e. those that aren't "declared", but that doesn't mean they are inferior wines. These wines come from the producers' best properties, which in vintage years may feed the blend its best wines.

When bottled on their own, as is done with some of the quintas, regardless of whether a vintage is declared, they can be of fantastic quality. Some of the quintas to watch for are: Vesuvio, Vargellas (Taylor), Agua Alta (Churchill), Crasto, Cavadinha (Warre), Bomfim (Dow), Passadouro (Niepoort). 1995 was declared by only two houses, so most of the wines from that year will be single-quintas, and they will be pretty damned good.

White Port

This oddity is made from white grapes. With one extremely notable exception, white port is rarely worth taking seriously, even though the good ones can make a refreshing aperitif, if mixed with ice and tonic or soda. The exception is Churchill White Port, which is completely different in character. Made in small quantities of around 2,000 cases, Churchill's has a fine nuttiness with sweetness and acidity well balanced from nose to finish. An outstanding aperitif. I'd drink it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Comments