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A Port Primer

Ports are sweet and delicious, but the many varieties are also subtle and sophisticated.
By Julie Blacklidge |

Port is a sweet, dark red dessert wine originally from Portugal.

Port of Authority
From tawny to ruby, these wines have clout.


1963 Taylor (vintage), $350 at Pogo’s
1963 Croft (vintage), $199.99 at Centennial on Preston Road
1977 W & J Graham’s (vintage),
$195 at Pogo’s
1994 Cockburn’s (vintage), $69.99 at Centennial on Preston Road
2003, Niepoort (vintage), $99.99 at Centennial on Preston Road
2003, Quinta do Vesuvio
(single quinta), $69.99
Barros 20-year old Tawny, $59.99 at State Street Spirits
Ramos Pintos 40-year old Tawny, $149.99 at Centennial on Preston Road
1984 Kopke Colheita, $50.99 at
State Street Spirits
W & J Graham’s Fine Ruby, $17.99 at Centennial on Preston Road
Taylor Fladgate Fine Ruby, $15.99 at Centennial on Preston Road

Other top-shelf producers: A.A. Ferreira, Churchill, Dow, Fonseca, Osborne, Quinta do Noval, Sandeman, Smith Woodhouse, and Warre.

Every variety of wine, be it a merlot or a  shiraz, has its best vintages, its best regions port is no different.

The best port in the world is made in the small mountainous region of Portugal called the Duoro Valley. This wine-growing region was demarcated (Port DOC) in the 18th century about 180 years before the French standardized the Bordeaux region. Traditionally, port made its way to the rest of the world through Oporto, a port city on the west coast of Portugal. Ports from this region are still labeled Porto today.

While there are more than 90 different grape varieties classified as a port grape, five are considered the best Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cao, and Touriga Francesa. Touriga Nacional is the most popular. There are also several different types of port, but the four main categories are vintage, tawny, ruby, and white. The biggest distinction between each category is the way it’s aged  – either in casks or bottles.

Cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel are used to create port-style wines in the United States and Australia, and although many of these ports are tasty and worth every penny, a true port, the benchmarks, are made in Portugal.

VINTAGE PORT: Only the best grapes, in the best years, are earmarked for vintage port. It is generally the priciest of all the port styles and for good reason. All of the grapes come from a single harvest and will not be bottled as a vintage port unless the winemaker feels it lives up to the highest standards. After two or three years of cask aging, it is transferred to bottles where it can, and should, rest for 10 to 50 years. When shopping for immediate consumption, look for anything from 1970 and earlier. You don’t have to search long to find a 1963. If you’re shopping for your cellar, reviews of the recently released 2003 vintage are phenomenal. You can also still readily snap up a 1994. Every vintage port must be decanted prior to serving. (Click here to learn how to decant wine and vintage port.)

TAWNY: These golden, rose-hued ports are quite different from vintage ports in both flavor and appearance. Tawnys do not have the bright fruitiness of the vintage port and lose the ruby color as they age in the cask. This is not a bad thing, it’s simply different. Tawnys are often described as slightly nutty with notes of vanilla, caramel, sun-dried raisins, figs, and prunes.

The blends can include wine from any year and can be aged in wood casks up to 40 years and are ready to drink when bottled. The best tawnys will state the number of years on the label. Thirty and 40-year-old tawnys tend to be less sweet and show more wood. Some producers achieve the rich tawny color by blending ruby and white port. It’s not swill, but it is certainly disappointing to purchase by mistake.

RUBY: I don’t like to be rude, but ruby ports are not as good as vintage and tawny. They are generally made from lower-quality wine and aged two or three years. It’s young and fruity sort of the heavier sister of Beaujolais Nouveau. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, including several exceptional premium rubies.

WHITE: White ports can range from sweet, syrupy styles to a crisp, dry port that is often served as an aperitif. Common grapes include Esgana Co, Folgas, and Viosinho among others.

THE OTHERS: Single-quinta, or estate-bottled, ports are gaining popularity as more producers release single-estate and single-vineyard examples. While they have not reached the critical acclaim of vintage ports, they are not far behind. When a vintage port is not declared in a particular year, the grapes are often used for single-quinta ports. They generally take less time to mature and are less expensive. Late-bottle vintage and colheita ports are both made from single vintage batches of grapes. LBVs are considered a premium ruby port, and colheitas, aged in wood at least seven years, fall into the tawny category.

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