Port was first introduced into this country as a result of the Methuen Treaty, between England and Portugal, in 1703. Anglo-French relations were hostile and British merchants, encouraged by the lower rate of duty on Portuguese wines, were searching for an alternative to Claret.
Although they did not succeed, their attempts laid the foundations for an entirely new style of wine. In order for the wines of the Douro Valley in northern Portugal to survive the long sea journey to London and Bristol, a bucketful or two of brandy was added for good measure. Winemaking in the Douro Valley today is, of course, much more precise and a wide variety of styles of Port have evolved to cater for different tastes, occasions and pockets. Though Port has been much emulated the world over, nowhere does it reach the complexity and depth of the real thing.
The majority of Port is red (though a little white is made). Grape brandy is added to the wine before fermentation has ended, killing the yeasts that convert sugar into alcohol and leaving a wine that is sweet and high in alcohol (around 20%). What happens to the wine next is key in determining the eventual style.
This is the best of the bunch, and the most expensive. Produced from an exceptionally successful single harvest, it is a blend of wines usually from different properties. The grapes have to achieve such high standards of quality that a vintage declaration is rarely made more than three times in a decade. The only full declarations (agreed upon by the majority of shippers) so far in this century have been 2000, 2003, 2007 and 2011.
The different lots of wine are aged in cask for two winters after the harvest before blending takes place to assemble the finished wine. This will usually require fifteen or more years in bottle before being approachable, and should then last for forty years or more. The wine is not filtered before bottling, and, with time, throws a sediment or deposit. It should therefore be decanted before serving, and is traditionally enjoyed as an after-dinner drink.
Single Quinta Vintage Port
Made in the same way as Vintage Port, but with two differences. Firstly, it is made from a single property, quinta being the Portuguese word for a farm. Secondly, it is usually produced in years when a vintage declaration has not been made, but the grapes are good enough to make an earlier-maturing wine, coming as they do from the best vineyards. Single Quinta Port is usually approachable after ten years or so, and will not have the depth and final concentration of a full-blown vintage wine. Nevertheless, it can be exceptionally good and close to Vintage Port in quality and will last for about twenty-five years. Like Vintage Port, it needs to be decanted off the sediment that will have formed in the bottle.
Late-Bottled Vintage Port (LBV)
As the name suggests, this wine comes from a single vintage, but spends four years in cask, rather than the usual two. It therefore matures more quickly, and is ready to drink soon after bottling. Most LBV Port is filtered prior to bottling and need not be decanted. However some wines are bottled without filtration; labelled "traditional" or "bottle-matured", they require decanting.
Made to resemble a Vintage Port in style, this is a blend of wines, usually assembled from different vintages, which has to be bottle-matured in Oporto for three years before being shipped and sold. It will last for ten years or so, is unfiltered, so throws a deposit (or 'crust') and requires decanting.
Aged Tawny Port
A Port matured in cask for ten, twenty, thirty or forty years, and labelled accordingly. Much lighter in colour than ruby, or bottle matured red Port, it takes on a brown or amber hue with age, and has a nuttier, more delicate taste which responds well to being served chilled.
Colheita is the Portuguese word for "harvest" or "crop". This is a Tawny Port from a single vintage, with the year of the harvest on the label. By law, a Colheita Port must remain in cask for seven years prior to bottling. It does not require decanting.
Supposedly named because of its youthful colour, this is a basic blend of wines. It can be quite fiery and does not have excessive tannic grip. Made to be drunk in its youth, a superior blend of Ruby Port, such as The Society's own-label bottling is often referred to as Special Reserve or Fine Old Port.
A non-vintage Port made from white grapes, and best drunk as a chilled long drink, topped with soda or tonic and a slice of orange.
Looking after Port
Vintage Port and any other Port sealed with a driven cork should be stored on its side. This ensures that the cork remains damp and a tight fit in the bottle neck. Store the bottles in the dark, undisturbed at a steady temperature (approx 13º - 15ºC) and humidity (approx 70 to 75%). Port stored in this way will mature gently at its own unforced pace. The temperature-controlled Members' Reserves cellar at Stevenage provides optimum storage conditions.
How to decant
Remove any wax or capsule from the bottle top so that the cork is accessible. Stand the bottle upright for 24 hours in advance, 48 hours if you can, so that the sediment sinks to the bottom of the bottle. Approximately an hour before serving, carefully remove the cork. On an old wine, it may be soft and crumbly so take great care and use a corkscrew with a hollow, long "worm thread" (shaped like a pig's tail) as opposed to a "sharp thread" (shaped like a household screw), such as The Society's Waiter's Friend.
Pour the Port slowly and steadily into a clean decanter over an upturned torch or lamp. The light will enable you to see any sediment approaching the neck of the bottle. When the sediment reaches the neck of the bottle, stop pouring. You should have only a centimetre or two of Port with sediment left in the bottle. Don't throw it away; it makes a fine addition to the gravy.
An alternative method is to decant the Port through a sieve or filter to remove sediment, especially useful if the cork has crumbled into the bottle.
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