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Dean's Wine and Food Notes - Portugal - Port

Dean Gold (Dean)

Dean Gold and Kay Zimmerman own Dino, an Italian restaurant in Washington D.C.

There is quite a variety of port styles. Here is a quick introduction.

Port, properly called Porto, is produced by "Houses". There are two large syndicates which own most of the great port houses. It is produced in steep vineyards on the Douro River in Portugal. Anything else is Port as much as that green stuff in a can is Parmesan. It is the real thing in name only. Unlike the crud from Kraft, some of the port alternatives can be wonderful, especially from Australia. It just shouldn't be labeled Port!

Port is made from a blend of grapes including the tinto and souzao. It is harvested ripe but not late harvest in style. The grapes are worked over during fermentation; in the old days it was by foot and now it is by machine which extract tannin and color. Then it is aged in wood. It is finally blended for different qualities. The biggest and most intense wines go into Vintage programs. Then come the wood ports, aka cask aged.

Port falls into 2 basic categories with several subcategories:

  • Vintage (which includes True vintage, Late Bottled Vintage and Single Quinta)
  • Wood Ports or Cask Aged (which included Colheita and Ruby and Tawny)

Vintage

Aged 2 years in barrel, only "declared" in great years. Needs long term cellaring. Needs decanting and should be drunk in one sitting. These are the superstars of the port world and are what the collectors crave. Given their great ageability and their status value, they are almost an investment vehicle.

There is a subtype of vintage port: Single Quinta. Each house (Warre's, Fonsecca, Grahams etc.) owns large patches of vineyards. Certain portions of the vineyards produce great grapes even in off years. These sections are kept separate in off years and bottled as a single Quinta port. Grahams has Malevedos as their Single Quinta, Warre's has Quinta di Cavadhina. In an off year, this is a shorter lived but still vintage style port and a good bargain. They can be aged well after release but not for as long as a true vintage port.

Vintage ports are declared. That is each house chooses whether to make one or not. With the climate change of the day, more vintages are being declared. You can sometimes get a feel for how good a vintage is by how many houses declare it. Usually you get about 3 declared vintages a decade, but this is increasing. Much Vintage Port gets drunk way too young, while its tannic and rough. But aged 20 years or so it becomes a soft and sensuous experience. While each house has its own style, the Vintage Port process allows for vintage variations to show through. Late Bottled Vintage Ports will also have vintage variation but they tend to be more uniform. As in Vintage ports, they are not made every year.

Late Bottled Vintage

Aged for a longer period to make it more drinkable on release. Can age a little but may or may not improve. Can stay open for a few days with some fall off in quality. If aged, may need decanting.

Port of the Vintage (Colheita) - Port from a single vintage aged for extended periods of time, usually 20 years or more. This is basically a vintage tawny. It is somewhat like a wood port (see below) in that it is a long term aging product but it is from a single vintage. Port of the vintage is getting very rare. Each winery will have a house style, but it is the age itself that makes them different. Port of the vintage will be released several times over the wine's lifetime as barrels are bottled and sold a few at a time. Some vintages produce wine that can age for a long time and others produce short lived wines so that is the vintage variation you see. Colheita ports are basically a single bottling of one of the elements of an old tawny. Port of the vintage does not age after it is bottled; it has done all its aging in the barrel. They are expensive. They do degrade after opening and are best in the first 7 days, but they will last longer. They are very special. Nieport is the best known producer.

Wood Ports

Various blended wines in either a "ruby" (red style) or tawny (golden brown with hints of red to amber, depending on age). Wood Ports are a different kettle of fish entirely. They are a blended product. They are wines aged for 6 to 50 years in barrel. Each house has several styles. Warre's, for example, offers:

  • Heritage Ruby
  • King's Tawny
  • Warrior Special Reserve
  • Optima (Lighter Styled 10 Year Old Tawny)
  • Sir William 10 Year Old Tawny
  • 20 Year Old Tawny

All of these wines are aged in wood for various numbers of years. The Warrior is a ruby port designed to appeal to a vintage port drinker. It is fuller and richer than the Heritage ruby. It may be from younger or older wines than the heritage; the selection process of the wines that go into a lot of the Warrior is probably based on intensity rather than just age. All of these wines are available every day so they are made a batch at a time. The winemakers blend various barrels and batches in order to keep the house style constant. In fact, the final approval of a batch will probably rest with one individual who is tasked with keeping the product nearly identical from batch to batch. Since the raw products do vary, you have to create each batch individually. That is why port houses tend to be large concerns. The more grapes you have, the easier it is to blend to your house style. You have more flavors to work with.

Since most port today is drunk by the glass in restaurants, having a consistent style is of paramount importance. Once opened, a wood aged port can be consumed within 30 days with little or no apparent change in quality, and longer with some degradation. Cask Aged or Wood Ports do not age further in the bottle. They are ready to drink upon release.


Dean Gold lives in Maryland, when he is not in Italy, and owns the Washington DC restaurant Dino, www.dino-dc.com. See Dean's Slow Travel Member page and more of his food and wine notes.

© Dean Gold, 2004

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