Port Wine: To Ruby Or Not To Ruby

Date November 5, 2008

Learn About Port Wine
You might wonder if the Portuguese knew what they were doing when they made Port wine. First of all it can be made from about eighty different varieties of wine grapes, though there are only five that are considered to make the best Port. Whichever grapes are used, they can come from different vineyards and then to make it more convoluted, they can come from different vintages. And after all that you’ve still got to make a choice among White Port, Ruby Port, Tawny Port, Aged Tawny Port, Vintage Character Port, Late Bottled Vintage Port, Traditional Late Bottled Vintage Port, Vintage Port, Single Quinta Vintage Port, Crushed Port and Garrafeira Port, all in all about ten styles. Dump a little Brandy in it and viola, you’ve got a full-blown, made in the demarcated Douro region of Portugal, officially a really, really real Port.

When I say real Port I mean real Port as in true Port, like how true Champagne is made in France and everything else is called sparkling wine. Anything else labeled Port is port-like in style, like American Port.

The final result, however, is an alcohol fueled fruit bomb of rich penetrating viscosity the likes of which you will never question again.

For those interested, the five most common grape varieties used in Port production are:

  • Touriga Nacional: considered the best grape in the Douro, it imparts intense color, flavor and aroma
  • Touriga Francesca: the most widely planted grape, it contributes floral aromas
  • Tinta Barroca: imparts alcohol, body and aroma
  • Tinta Roriz (Spain’s Tempranillo): imparts flavor, body and aroma
  • Tinta Cão: has a delicate character. It imparts spiciness

These are red grape varieties, but there a couple white grapes used to make White Port. These are Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Cõdega, Rabigato and Viosinho.

The main styles of Port fall into two categories: wood-aged or bottle-aged. Wood-aged Ports as the name suggests are aged in wood their entire maturation period and are ready to drink once they hit the market but once opened they only keep for about a month before they start degenerating. Bottle-aged Ports on the other hand age in barrels for about two to three years before being transferred to bottle, where they mature and age and can be quite long-lived. However, once opened they last for about a week. Usually a long aging will cause sediment to form, so it’s best to decant bottle-aged ports before drinking.

Let’s talk about the different styles, starting with White Port.

White Port

Some would argue that this isn’t really a Port at all since its made from obscure white grapes and accounts for a fraction of Ports made but it is indeed a Port and styles range from super sweet called lagrima (or teardrop) port to a light dry port or leve soco. This is a sort of austere Port if you can say that about Port. But it has harsh sour taste nonetheless. Regardless, you typically chill white Ports or serve them over ice with soda water and a lime

Ruby Port

Fruity and straight forward, ruby Port is Port at its simplest form. It is blended from young wines and has almost no bottle age, but ruby Ports are deep in their ruby color, hence their name, and have intense red fruit flavors of plums apples and strawberries. You might see the term “fine ruby” on some Port labels. I’m not sure if it denotes anything particular about the Port or if it’s just a selling ploy as not all Ports make it to tawny status. This style of Port is a perfect sweet wine for beginners in that its sweetness is enough that the alcohol content won’t be overpowering.

Tawny Port

Like ruby Port the grapes used in tawny Port come from the western end of the Douro, where the terrain produces lesser quality grapes. At your basic level tawny Port is young, meaning unaged, like ruby Port, and is pale colored like onionskin from little contact time with the grape skins during fermentation and sometimes from being blended with White Port if the flavor is dull.

Aged Tawny Port is a blended Port of many vintages. On the label it will say it is 10-, 20-, 30- or 40- years old and are coveted by Port lovers across the planet. These are the Ports of finesse. A Port with 10 years old on the label is marked as such because it tastes like it is made of wines that are ten years old. Aged tawny Ports have a nutty flavor with brown sugar and vanilla notes. Soft and silky in texture a long barrel aging imparts their “tawny” color.

Vintage Character or Reserve Port

Before I explain this classification, let me clarify something about Port styles. There is a loose hierarchy to the styles. Ports are a confusing lot already but their classification system is even more confusing as it jumps forward, then back, then in between and so on. Wedged between ruby and tawny Port is vintage character Port. The term vintage is misleading because it’s nothing like a vintage Port at all; its character is rich and elegant as opposed to light and delicate as are Vintage Ports. It’s more a reserve ruby. A super ruby, if you will. They are made of good wines but not great wines and they spend about four to six years in barrel.

Late Bottled Vintage Port

Here’s another one to confuse you. Late bottled vintage Port (or LBV) is made from a single vintage aged in barrels for four to six years before it is bottled. On the bottle are two years, one the harvest date, the other the bottling date. It’s not even a vintage Port but a lesser quality wine. LBVs are filtered and thus won’t have sediment and they are about half the price of vintage Port. While they are full of character and flavor they lack the complexity and sophistication of vintage Port.

Traditional Late Bottled Vintage Port

Not quite an LBV, not exactly a vintage Port, a Traditional LBV is aged in wood for about four years, two years longer than vintage Port, but is made the same way as vintage Port. It is not filtered so it will produce sediment and a traditional LBV has the ability to age for two decades.

Vintage Port

This is the holy grail of Ports. Made only in years when a vintage is declared, vintage Port comes from one vintage and from top vineyards. It accounts for a mere 2-3% of Port production. It isn’t fined and it isn’t filtered and a decade or more is common for aging. What you get when it is ready to be drunk is an intense and rich, viscous wine that will definitely need decanting to avoid a mouthful of sediment. Though that would probably add to the pleasure.

Single Quinta Vintage Port

Here’s a godly Port. It’s made the same way as vintage Port, but it comes from one farm or one quinta whereas vintage Port can be made of blends. Saying Quinta is like saying Chateau when referring to French wine. The vineyards are in prime wine real estate, within special microclimes and produce exceptional wines every growing season. They produce sediment so need to be decanted and are released after two years upon which the buyer must cellar them for a decade or more to attain that vintage Port quality.

Crusted Port

Here’s a port made of several vintages of three to four years of age. It produces a simple hearty Port that leaves a crust or sediment in the bottle. It is the average Joe’s full-bodied Port.

If you actually read all of this I commend you. It was a lot to absorb, I know. In my next post I will go into another Portuguese wine, Madeira. Just to stick with the region. I hope, though, that you took from this what you needed to learn about Port wine.

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