10 best ports for a taste of the Portuguese wine: From vintage ruby to tawny

The celebrated drink isn’t just a Christmas tipple

John Clarke
Tuesday 22 December 2020 11:58
<p>Some of the world’s greatest fortified bottles are produced in Portugal’s Douro Valley</p>

Some of the world’s greatest fortified bottles are produced in Portugal’s Douro Valley

Few will remember 2020 as a vintage year, so perhaps we’d be forgiven for investigating places where vintage years have been celebrated – such as Portugal’s Douro Valley. 

For it’s here, in serried terraces that the grapes that go towards making one of the world’s greatest fortified wines, port, are grown.

Vintage ruby ports, with their deep and rich fruit flavours, produced during a declared “vintage” year mature in the bottle and are often at their best and most mellow 20 years or so after bottling.

Tawny ports, lighter in hue and slightly nuttier in flavour, are matured in oak casks for 10, 20 or even 30 years.

LBV or late bottled vintage ports have often been filtered to avoid the sediment found in crusted or unfiltered ports.

All of them offer what can only be described as the finest after-dinner drink there is – rich, textured and elegant and a fruitful reminder of better times.

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Fonseca Terra Prima organic, 20%, 75cl

Organic wines have been a big growth area in recent years and fortified wines are now following the trend. Fonseca's Terra Prima was the first port to be made entirely from grapes grown organically in the Cima Corgo area of the Douro Valley. Aged in oak vats, it has a full-on fruitiness with rich dark fruit and blackberry flavours, a lush sweetness and a long and satisfying finish.

Sandeman unfiltered LBV 2015, 20%, 75cl

A traditional unfiltered late bottled vintage from Sandeman that has enjoyed an extra two years of ageing, giving it a richer and more rounded flavour. Lots of dark fruit here along with sweet cocoa notes and hints of spice and tobacco. Enjoy it with a chocolate-based dessert such as profiteroles or a soft and creamy cheese. It’s ready to drink now but there will be sediment in the bottle and it will need decanting.

Vista Alegre Reserve ruby decanter, 20%, 75cl

Looking for a suitable Christmas gift? Then this ruby port in its own stylish decanter could fit the bill. Ruby port is among the younger styles of port with a fruitiness and vitality that impresses plus a silky smoothness that’s the result of ageing in oak. Obviously no need to decant. Just serve directly from the bottle for an impressive seasonal treat.

Cockburn’s 2015 Bicentenary vintage, 20%, 75cl

It’s more than 200 years since Leith wine merchants Robert and his brother John Cockburn set up a branch of their firm in Porto. This vintage port, made from grapes harvested in the year of Cockburn’s bicentenary, is one of their flagship wines, and rightly so. Sourced from their quintas (vineyards) at Canais, Vale Coelho and Cachao do Arnozelo, it’s bursting full of rich and sumptuous fruit flavours, with damson and cherry to the fore. If you can resist the temptation, leave it unopened. It should taste even better in a few years' time.

Taylor’s 10-year-old tawny, 20%, 75cl

An aged tawny is made from red grapes that have been slowly matured in oak casks where the wine gradually oxidises, resulting in the characteristic tawny colour. The flavour also becomes richer and deeper with notes here of fig, dark berries and dark chocolate. A wonderful drink for long winter evenings, it pairs superbly with a blue cheese or a rich chocolate dessert or can be enjoyed simply on its own.

Quinta do Noval Colheita 2005 tawny, 21%, 75cl

Pricey perhaps, but you’re paying for something rare and precious here. While most tawnies are sold as blends ranging from 10 to 40-years-old, a colheita (meaning “harvest” or “crop”) is made from grapes from a single vintage. Like other colheitas, this example from Noval’s own vineyards deep in the Douro Valley has been matured in oak casks for at least seven years until it’s decided that the port is ready to drink.

As you’d expect, the flavours here are big and impressive with elegant but lasting notes of black fruit, nuts and caramel. It’s produced in limited quantities, so get it while you can.

Fonseca crusted, 20%, 75cl

A crusted port is a blend of several different vintages which is bottled without being filtered. As a result a deposit or crust forms in the bottle so that it has to be decanted before serving. But don’t let that put you off. What you’re getting are the best characteristics of several of the finest vintages in a single bottle. This example, bottled in May 2015, has continued to mature, resulting in a full-bodied and generously-flavoured port with a rich nuttiness and vibrant notes of plum and dark fruits. 

Sandeman 20-year-old tawny, 20%, 75cl

Here's a tawny port that has been aged for at least 20 years in oak casks, with lashings of rich and intense dried fruit, fig and nut flavours backed by enticing notes of spice and honey. In its elegant glass-stoppered bottle it looks good too. Serve it slightly chilled as a splendidly impressive aperitif or pair it with some rich starters or freshly prepared fruit.

Warre’s 2016 vintage, 20%, 37.5cl

Warre’s is the oldest UK port company established in Portugal with a history that dates back to 1670. Its 2016 vintage was blended from mixed vines from its Cavadinha and Retiro vineyards containing as many as 30 to 40 different varieties, some of which are between 80 and 100 years old. The yields from these vineyards are small but the resulting taste and the flavour is huge, with ripe plum and black fruit notes and hints of spice and blossom. Another one that you can drink now but will be at its best in the late 2020s.

1999 Vau vintage, 20%, 75cl

Despite its 20th century date, this is actually a modern-style vintage port, designed to be drunk earlier than the more traditional vintage ports produced by Sandeman. Made from grapes picked at its top-rated vineyard at Quinta da Vau in the Douro Valley, it was fermented in stainless steel tanks before maturing for two years in oak casks. The result is a rich and luscious port with deep aromas of plum and red fruits and a hugely attractive and enticing mouthfeel. Enjoy it by itself or with a rich chocolate dessert.

The verdict: Ports

The choice may be wide but the quality of these ports remains consistent. Whether it’s the excellent Sandeman unfiltered LBV at under £20 or the hugely impressive Quinta do Noval Colheita at under £50, you’re getting a fortified wine that’s the end result of years of careful maturing and blending and centuries of history and tradition. Some, such as the beguiling Fonseca crusted may need decanting, others such as the majestic Cockburn’s 2015 bicentenary vintage will get even better with age. 

The best buy is a relative newcomer that’s easy on the pocket – and the environment. The Fonseca Terra Prima organic, made from organically grown grapes, is rich, fruity and eminently drinkable. As such, it deserves a place at any dinner table.

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