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Selecting the right Port for the right occasion with Richard Mayson

Contents

Richard Mayson Richard Mayson / 14 November 2019

Former Wine Society colleague, author and presenter, Richard Mayson is one of the country's leading experts on Port and Portuguese wine. Who better then to guide us through the different styles available of this king of the fortifieds?

Port Types

Now more than ever to choose from

When faced with an essay title 'Port Types', the late Bill Warre (then studying for his Master of Wine exams) decided to write about the personalities that he knew in the Port trade. Writing with good authority, he passed without saying anything libelous. The Port types that I am describing here are the different styles of wine available and there are many more now than there were in the 1950s when Bill Warre was starting out in the wine trade. Back then it was basically Ruby, Tawny and Vintage. Now after a couple of decades of heavy investment in vineyards and in winemaking, there has never been a time with so much good quality Port wine to choose from. With a number of divisions and subdivisions, the categories of Port can be confusing but this guide is designed to help you select the right Port for the right occasion.

Colheita Barrels in Portugal
Colheita Barrels in Portugal

Ruby Port

Simple yet satisfying

Named after its youthful colour, Ruby is the simplest and can be one of the most satisfying styles of young Port. The wines making up a Ruby blend usually present a deep colour, straightforward fruity aromas, some body and structure but not too much in the way of tannic grip. Ruby blends are generally made up from more than one year, aged in bulk for less than three years and bottled young to capture the strong, fiery personality of young Port. Better quality Rubies come under the Reserve category below.

Browse our Ruby Ports

Reserve

A higher quality Ruby or Tawny

The word 'Reserve' has been attached to Port and in use for many years (Cockburn's Special Reserve, created in 1969, was the first) but this category only became official in 2002. Most wines are a higher quality Ruby – though Reserve Tawnies can also be found (see below) – made from better quality grapes and given longer ageing in wood to round off the edges. However the Port and Douro Wine Institute (IVDP) – who approve all wines in their tasting room before they grant their seal of origin – state that the Reserve category is a function of quality rather than age. The Society's Port falls into this category though it veers towards a Tawny style.

Browse our Reserve Ports

Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV)

A happy accident?

LBV means what it says: a wine from a single year bottled between four and six years after the vintage (compared to a maximum of two years for Vintage Port). The style evolved largely by default. In the lean years from the 1930s to the 1950s, it was not uncommon for a Vintage Port to remain in wood for rather longer than normal while the wine was awaiting a buyer. A number of shippers therefore claim to have invented LBV, but it seems that the expression was first used by Quinta do Noval when they applied it to a wine from the 1954 vintage. In order to prevent the wines from turning Tawny in style, those destined to become LBVs are kept in large vats prior to bottling. Most producers filter their wines before bottling to prevent the wine throwing sediment or a 'crust' (see Crusted Port below). Those that are unfiltered (and therefore need decanting) usually say as much on the label. The Society's LBV comes from the Symingtons (owners of Cockburn, Dow, Graham and Warre) whose expertise in this style of wine is second to none.

Browse our range of LBV Ports

The Society's LBV comes from the Symingtons (owners of Cockburn, Dow, Graham and Warre) whose expertise in this style of wine is second to none
The Society's LBV comes from the Symingtons (owners of Cockburn, Dow, Graham and Warre) whose expertise in this style of wine is second to none

Crusted Port

A very British Port

So-called because of the 'crust' that the wine throws in bottle, Crusted Port is a relatively recent creation for the British market. Wines from two or three harvests are aged in wood for up to two years and bottled without any fining or filtration, just like a Vintage Port (see below). The only date that is of any significance is the year of bottling, which has to appear on the label and the wine may be released after three years in bottle. Most Crusted Ports are ready to drink around six years of age but some will keep for nearly as long as a fully-fledged Vintage Port, as I found in 2011 on opening a bottle of Noval Crusted – bottled in 1961! The Society's Exhibition Crusted Port was bottled by the Symington family in 2013 and is a blend of three earlier vintages. It can be drunk now or, if the bottle is stored on its side, at any time over the next decade.

Browse our range of Crusted Ports

Tawny Port

Two takes on the style

The word 'Tawny' is attached to two very different styles of Port. It implies a wine that has been aged in wood for longer than a Ruby, until it takes on an amber-tawny hue. But much of the Tawny Port that reaches the supermarket shelves (mostly in France and Holland) is no older than the average Ruby and it is not uncommon to see the two wines standing side by side at the same price. These inexpensive Tawnies are merely lighter wines, sometimes heavily fined to remove colour.

… but only one true Tawny

True Tawny is bottled with an indication of age, either 'Reserve' or at 'ten', 'twenty', 'thirty' and 'over forty years old'. With the exception of colheita, which forms a separate category (see below), all Tawny Ports are complex blends of wines from a number of different years. The indication of age found on the label is therefore an approximation which gives the gives the Port shippers considerable flexibility to make up blends according to their house style, fine tuning here and there with small quantities of younger or older wines to add dimension and finesse to the blend. The final blend or lote has to be submitted to the IVDP (Douro Wine Institute) tasting panel for approval.

Port tasting in the Duoro
Port tasting in the Duoro

A blend which starts in the vineyard

Although Tawnies are dependent on the art of blending, the selection process starts in the vineyard. Wines set aside to become part of the Tawny chain are chosen from among the finest Ports, usually after making up the potential Vintage and/or Single-Quinta Vintage lotes. Acidity is an important factor to ensuring that the wine will age in cask and that the initial sugar level is not too high as this is always increasing during the evolution of the wine. It is likely that there will be less of the touriga nacional and touriga franca in the final blend (although these varieties continue to be important) and more of varieties such as tinta barroca, tinto cão and tinta roriz, not to mention the pale-coloured mourisco, a variety that used to be favoured for Tawnies.

Ageing is key to this style

The ageing process is of great importance to the style and character of Tawny Port. In old seasoned casks (so called 'lodge pipes' of between 600 and 640 litres), the wine starts a process of gradual, controlled oxidation and as the colour fades aromatic characters develop in the wine. The formation of these volatile components is directly influenced by the ambient storage temperature and rate of evaporation. Consequently, a Tawny matured up in the Douro Valley undergoes a different (and more rapid) maturation process than that aged in the cooler lodges of Vila Nova da Gaia where annual evaporation (mainly of alcohol and water) is between one and two per cent as opposed to three per cent in the Douro. Provided the wines are well nurtured, a hint of so-called 'Douro-bake' can be a positive advantage in a mature Tawny.

In the realm of aged Tawny, as the shipper makes up new blends followed by blends of blends the characteristics of the individual wines gradually meld into the house style. Lighter, earlier maturing wines will go towards a ten-year-old blend with richer, more structured wines reserved for older Tawnies. Stocks of old Tawny Port are largely driven by anticipated sales and the onus is on the shipper to look over forty years ahead in order to put aside the correct quantity of wine.

Tawny Port are largely driven by anticipated sales and the onus is on the shipper to look over forty years ahead in order to put aside the correct quantity of wine.

A favourite of the Port shippers themselves

The Port shippers themselves often drink an aged-Tawny in preference to any other style of Port. The refinement, delicacy and poise of a well-crafted Tawny befits the climate and temperament of the Douro better than the heftier bottle-matured wines, which are more at home in cooler climes. Think of Tawny as a lunchtime or a summer wine. A glass of Tawny served cool from the fridge is positively refreshing, either as an aperitif or after lunch in the heat of the day. The Society lists Tawnies at 10 Years Old (The Society's Exhibition Tawny Port) and 20 Years Old (Graham's) which to my mind are the apogee of Tawny style.

Browse our range of Tawny Ports

Colheita

Not to be confused with Vintage Port

Often misunderstood, the Portuguese word colheita (pronounced col-yate-a) means 'harvest' and, by extension, sometimes gets confused with 'vintage'. Like Vintage Port, a Colheita is the product of a single harvest but the wine is aged in wood for a minimum of seven years by which time it will have started to take on a Tawny character. This happens to be around the time when the shipper will assess whether the wine should stay as a Colheita or be blended into a larger aged Tawny lote, (see above) thereby losing its identity. In practice most colheitas are aged for considerably longer than the minimum seven years, the casks or vat being racked and topped up periodically (with the same wine) to replace that lost by evaporation. Over time the wines take on secondary aromas and flavours, losing colour and gaining in richness, sweetness and intensity the longer they mature in wood. Two dates appear on the label of a Colheita Port: the year of the harvest (ie. the colheita) and the year of bottling. The latter is significant as the wine will not generally improve in bottle (although after long ageing in wood it won't deteriorate quickly either). Some shippers maintain stocks of wine still in wood, dating back prior to the introduction of colheitas in the 1930s, many of which have distinct volatile overtones known as vinagrinho ('little vinegar'). Niepoort have long made a specialty of Colheita and their 2007 is smooth and complex after ten years in wood. Quinta do Noval 2000 captures the richness of the successful millennium vintage. Neither of these wines requires decanting and will keep well after opening if stored in a cool place.

Explore our range of Colheita Ports

White Port

A new era for White Port

There was an old adage in the trade that Port has two duties: the first is to be red and the second is to be drunk. Much White Port used to be rather bland and Sherry was thought of as a more incisive aperitif. All that has changed, with the rules that apply to Tawny Port now applying to White. With assiduous winemaking and short ageing in wood White Port takes on a distinctive savoury-nutty character akin to Tawny although a Dry White Port always has more sweetness than a dry Sherry which is perhaps part of its attraction. White Port is usually served chilled as an aperitif, either on its own or with a twist of lemon peel to sharpen up the flavour. There is now a fashion for 'Portonic'; a long drink made by pouring White Port over ice and adding tonic water and a sprig of mint. Niepoort's Dry White Port is delicious on its own or as a mixer.

Explore our White Ports

There is now a fashion for 'Portonic'; a long drink made by pouring White Port over ice and adding tonic water and a sprig of mint
There is now a fashion for 'Portonic'; a long drink made by pouring White Port over ice and adding tonic water and a sprig of mint

Vintage Port

The pinnacle of production

I am deliberately leaving the best until last. Although Vintage Port only accounts for a tiny fraction of total Port shipments, for most shippers it represents the very pinnacle of production. The British-owned shippers in particular have built (and occasionally destroyed) their individual reputations on the back of their Vintage Port. In fact Vintage is one of the most straightforward of all Ports to produce. Wines from a single year are bottled, without any fining or filtration, after spending a maximum of two years ageing in bulk. The skill in producing a Vintage Port is in the selection the lotes made from the finest grapes, picked at optimum ripeness after a successful growing season. Until as recently as the 1980s this was in the lap of the gods. Poor vintages are rare in the Douro but good grapes were frequently spoiled in the adega (winery) through lack of temperature control. Added to this, with the major shippers sourcing an increasing proportion of their grapes from their own vineyards, it is now feasible to produce varietal lots from individual plots, picking these at optimum ripeness. Touriga nacional and touriga franca are the favoured varieties (tinta roriz is now largely overlooked) but grapes like sousão and alicante bouschet are now making a significant contribution to vintage lotes.

Declaring Vintage Ports

Grapes destined for Vintage Port need to be very well worked during vinification, usually either foot trodden in lagar or, as is increasingly the case, subject to computer-controlled robotic treading. After the harvest these Ports are put to one side and monitored as potential vintage lotes. Under the rules set out by the IVDP, the shippers have up to two years to decide whether to 'declare' the wine as vintage. A declaration is an independent decision taken by the shipper and one that isn't made lightly. More often than not there is a natural consensus but there are examples of so-called 'split declarations' where some of the principal shippers have opted for one year and others have plumped for another. Recent examples include 2009 (when Taylor, Fonseca and Croft surprised the trade with their declaration) and 1991–1992. There is no law of averages about the regularity of vintage declarations but, as a rule of thumb, three or four years are declared in a decade. 2017, 2016 and 2011 are the most recent vintage declarations.

How Vintage Port matures

When a Vintage Port has been bottled, it continues to develop and evolve over a period of fifteen to twenty years or more before it is considered as being ready to drink. Rather like the seven ages of man, Vintage Port customarily enjoys a short, fragrant bloom of youth before it shuts down and endures ten, even fifteen years of surly, spotty adolescence. Then it slowly begins to emerge as a fully fledged adult, gaining stature and gravitas until the Port reaches its peak, often at around twenty or thirty years of age. For the finest Vintage Ports the peak becomes a long plateau, lasting for forty or fifty years. As the wines are unfiltered they throw a crust (sediment) in the bottle and need decanting before serving (see below). Current classic vintages now ready to drink include: 1994, 1992, 1985 (The Society's Exhibition Vintage Port), 1983, 1980, 1977, 1970, 1966 and 1963.

Single Quinta Vintage Port

Often released in between fully declared vintages

With the steady investment in vineyards and winemaking that has taken place in the Douro since the early 1980s, the production of high-quality Port is much less hit and miss than it was. Unless the harvest happens to be a washout (the last such year being 1993), wines of potential Vintage quality can now be made every year. Good years in between fully declared vintages are often released as Single Quinta Vintages (SQVP); Port from a single estate and year. The shippers look after the wines in just the same way as they would a handle a classic vintage, the main difference being the wines are ready to drink after ten years rather than twenty and don't command the same rarity value. Just like a classic Vintage Port, a Single Quinta Vintage should be decanted off the sediment that will have formed in the bottle. From a lighter, fruit-driven vintage, Cockburn's Quinta dos Canais 2010 is already good to drink and will keep until 2030. Smith Woodhouse Madelena 2005 comes from a hot, dry year that was very nearly declared a classic vintage had it not been upstaged by 2004.

Explore our Single Quinta Vintage Ports

Bottles of Port in Storage
Bottles of Port in Storage

Cellaring and Storing Port

Vintage Port and any Port bottled with a driven cork (not a cork stopper) should be stored on its side. This ensures that the cork keeps its shape and provides an effective seal in the neck of the bottle over many years. Store bottles with the label uppermost (some Vintage Ports are also given a splash of white wash in case the label comes off). This ensures that the crust or sediment forms on the underside of the bottle. Storage conditions should be dark with a steady temperature of around 12º – 15ºC and good humidity. The Society's temperature-controlled Members' Reserves provides optimum storage conditions.

Decanting Port

Remove the wine from its laying down position as carefully as possible with the label upper most and stand the bottle up slowly. If you can, stand the bottle upright for 24 hours or more in advance so that the sediment sinks to the bottom of the bottle. Remove the capsule or wax seal without shaking the bottle to access the cork. An hour or so before serving (or before the start of a meal), carefully remove the cork. On an old wine, the cork 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). Pour the wine slowly and steadily into a freshly rinsed decanter using either a white background, an upturned torch, lamp or a candle if you are feeling romantic. This will enable you to see any sediment or cloudy wine as it enters the neck of the decanter. As soon as this happens, stop pouring. If you have a steady hand and the bottle has not been unduly disturbed you should find that no more than a centimetre or two of Port with sediment is left in the bottle. Don't throw it away; it makes a fine addition to a casserole or gravy. An alternative method is to decant the Port through a sieve or fine filter to remove sediment. This is especially useful if the cork has crumbled into the bottle.

Richard Mayson's Port and The Douro

Book Offer

On Richard Mayson's Port & The Douro and Madeira: the Islands and their Wines

We have negotiated a special price with the publishers Infinite Ideas for members to buy the latest edition of Richard Mayson's Port & The Douro and Madeira: The Islands And Their Wines online for £21 (rrp £30) including UK delivery, a discount of 30%. Order before the end of December at Infinite Ideas using the following promotional code: WSFORTIFIED30 at checkout.

Alternatively, Richard will happily sign and dedicate books ordered through his own website www.richardmayson.com

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