Your guide to port wines, and why this sweet digestif deserves a home in your collection

Updated on January 15 2018

Port, a sweet fortified wine from Portugal, is one of the beverages most associated with Christmas. In the U.K., quaint traditions like “pass the port”, where a decanter of port is passed around the table, and everyone takes turns to pour a serving for the guest on the left, is a communal emblem for the festive period.

The consumption for port is assuredly not as high as the U.K., but with the end-of-the-year looming, it makes for an interesting addition to the dinner table, especially in a country where port barely has a reputation.

Before you rush to order yourself a bottle to close off your yuletide feast, here is a concise guide to port wine and all its varieties, as well as some pairing recommendations.

guide to port wine
A glass of tawny port.

What exactly is it?

Port is a syrupy dessert wine with its origins in Portugal’s Douro Valley. In order to be labelled port, it must be produced in Portugal, although other fortified wines made in a similar style are produced outside the country. Another defining characteristic is the grapes used to make the wine, namely a blend of indigenous grapes like Touriga Franca, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, and 49 other strains. Each brings a distinct flavour to the resulting wine.

The making of port

It is made in a similar fashion as other still wines, though many makers still adhere to some outlandish traditions that return to the early days of winemaking. Many ports are still pressed by the foot-stomping method, where people tread barefoot on grapes in large, open air tanks called lagares. This extracts the juice and begins the fermentation process. Technological innovations have resulted in mechanical presses modelled after human feet, which many port makers have since adopted.

guide to port wine
The foot-stomping method.

The pressed grape juice, skin and seeds will then ferment for a few days. Once the alcohol levels hit seven percent, a neutral grape spirit called aguardente, a type of brandy, is added to fortify the mix. This halts the fermentation process, retaining much of the natural sugars from the fruit, which creates a very sweet, almost raisin-like wine with a higher ABV.

Then, the port is aged in oak casks for a minimum of 18 months. Like wine, the ageing process helps intensify and add complexity to the flavour of port wine, allowing the sugars and tannins to soften, lest it be too cloying. The liquid is then blended with other port wines to achieve the final product. Premium port is typically aged in the bottle after its time in the cask, acquiring a vintage.

Like its Spanish fortified wine counterpart, sherry, ruby port-seasoned barrels can also be used to mature whiskies. Big-name distilleries like Bowmore, Ardmore, and Glenmorangie have adopted this alternative finish to their single malts, infusing the whisky with a pronounced berry touch.

Types of port and pairings

Port has four main styles. These are red port, tawny port, white port, and rosé port.

Ruby port, self-explanatorily red in colour, is ripe with berry and chocolate notes, slightly less sweet than its lighter counterparts. It is aged for three years, no more, and filtered so it won’t be tarnished by contact with oxygen. Because ruby port houses such youthful and sweet characteristics, it is best enjoyed with something dense and milky, like a dark chocolate tart with a kiss of bourbon or a wedge of blue cheese.

guide to port wine
Ruby port and Stilton.

Tawny port wine is ruby’s refined cousin. Aged seven years, minimum, in oak, tawny port attains a burnished amber hue that is telling of the buttery caramel and vanilla notes you get once you sip. Some tawny ports flaunt hints of jammy figs or pecan nuts for added decadence. Pair a tawny port with a nutty delight like maple pecan shortbread or walnut biscotti to bring out that particular note, but don’t feel limited as tawny port is so versatile, it can hold its own against most desserts and strong cheeses.

Unlike the headier dark wines, white port is a drier style of the fortified wine usually drunk as an aperitif. It goes down like a medley of zesty citrus peel and stone fruit, but older reserve white ports tend to adopt the smokiness of roasted hazelnuts. In Portugal, white port and tonic is a popular summertime beverage, much like a refreshing G&T. Kopke is Portugal’s main producer of this category. The company, founded by a German in 1638, remain one of the oldest existing port wine makers in Portugal.

guide to port wine
A rosé port sangria.

Rosé port is the latest variation to the port family, pioneered by Croft Port in 2012. A number of other makers, like Dalva and Quinta da Pachea have followed suit due to its popularity as a summer tipple. It is fermented like rosé wine, with limited contact to red grape skins, imbuing it with a blush pink hue. Rosé port demands to be consume chilled, preferably around 10 to 15 degrees celsius. Because it is so light-bodied, serve it up with tart desserts to boost its acidity.

Premium ports

Those with an already-seasoned palate for wines ought to head straight for vintage ports — rare, collectible gems that represent the finest of Douro Valley, and account for the top one percentile of port purchases. These are made of a blend of red grapes for at least twenty years and more, with mellowness and low acidity governing the end product. Vintage ports tend to sing with buttery raisins, berry jams and honey, but is a bit punchy on the nose thanks to extended ageing. Serve it at cellar temperature with a platter of strong cheeses like gorgonzola or roquefort, and perhaps some bitter dark chocolate on the side.

Premium port wine acquires a vintage only during the years of the best harvest, often three years out of every decade. A year is only declared a vintage through consensus from all port houses. Notable years over the past decade include 2007, 2003, 2000, and 1997.

guide to port wine
Vintage ports can bottle age for a century or more.

Aside from vintage ports, there are two other types that fall under the premium category: late-bottled vintage and crusted ports. The former, abbreviated as LBV, are port wines that are released four to six years after its vintage, meant to be drank straight after, not collected because of its low ageing potential. LBV wines are bright expressions with sweeter tannins and pronounced touches of oak. Some would call them an affordable luxury, less expensive than vintage port, but still harbouring an exquisite profile due to its longer maturation.

Despite crusted ports’ off-putting name, this category represents some of the most unique wines there are. Usually blended from wines across two or three vintages, this is a wine that is unfiltered, allowing sediments to build in the bottle. This enhances its complexity and bouquet. Fonseca makes one of the very few and most renowned crusted ports available.

On to drinking

Delving into a new beverage category is all about experimentation. Feel your way around port wines with ample research and sampling. They may not be the most accessible wines to purchase in Asia because of its low popularity in our region, but any wine merchant worth their credentials will have a selection of port on hand, even vintages for you.