Last Tuesday we tasted through 5 ports:
Port is fortified wine from Portugal; it takes its name from the city of Oporto, where the wine is made and stored (although the grapes come from futher inland in the Douro region). Like Champagne, only the wine from that region can be called Port; everything else is just fortified wine made in the style of Port.
All Port is made in basically the same way – neutral grape spirits or brandy is added during fermentation; the alcohol kills the yeasts and stops fermentation, leaving residual sugar, and also adds alcoholic strength. The result is a strong (about 20% alcohol), sweet wine. From there, there are several categories:
Ruby: A blend from multiple vintages; usually doesn’t see much if any time in oak. At its best, it’s simple, fruity, and a good introduction to Port. (Lesser-quality Ruby is often pasteurized for stability, resulting in stewed flavors.)
Late-Bottled Vintage: A significant step up from Ruby. The grapes come from a single vintage, and the wine spends 4-6 years in oak (hence the term “late-bottled” – vintage port only spends 18-20 months in oak). They’re ready to drink sooner than vintage port because the extended oak aging softens and smooths the wine. Generally they don’t improve in bottle as much as vintage port. The best LBVs are unfiltered (look for it on the label); they do have the potential to improve somewhat in bottle.
Vintage: Also from a single year, using the best grapes from the vintage (LBV gets the grapes that don’t make the cut). Generally vintages are declared only in excellent years, but it’s at the discretion of each winery. Because the wine only spends 18-20 months in barrel, it needs extended bottle aging to soften up and will improve significantly in bottle.
Tawny: Port from a blend of vintages that’s been aged in barrel for an extended period, giving it a tawny color and nutty flavor. There’s a lot of bad artificial tawny made; look for wines with an age designation. Tawny generally starts getting good at 10 years (the age designation refers to the average time the wine has spent in barrel); there are also 20, 30, and 40 year versions, plus colheita tawnies, which are from a single vintage.
The first wine we tried was Ferreira’s Ruby Port ($16.50). Exactly what ruby should be – grapey, juicy, fruity, with a kick, but everything in balance. Not complicated, but very well made.
Next was Quinta do Noval’s 2003 LBV, unfiltered ($21.95). A nice step up from the Ruby. I think good LBV is the best value in port – almost as good as vintage but at a fraction of the price. The Noval was exceptionally smooth, with licorice, dark fruit, integrated spicy oak, nice balance.
We moved onto vintage for the third wine, starting off with the 1995 Smith Woodhouse “Madalena” ($39.95). 1995 was a mediocre year for port, and most producers didn’t declare a vintage. Smith Woodhouse did, but used the Madalena designation, which is its line of “lighter” vintage ports from lesser vintages. The upside to vintage port in off years is that although it’s not as concentrated and won’t age as well, it is ready to drink sooner and is significantly less expenseive. At 13 years in, this wine is drinking beautifully now – very elegant and refined, with more depth and intensity than the LBV.
Fourth was the 2000 Warre’s vintage ($61.95). Unlike 1995, 2000 was a great year for port and every producer declared the vintage. This wine is simply awesome; it’s a baby right now and will be ideal in 10-15 years, but was still delicious. Much more concentrated and richer than the Smith Woodhouse, with layers and layers of flavors. Fruit is still tight, but there’s enough there now to justify cracking open a bottle. Black currant, anise, black cherry, dried herbs, spice, minerality. Just wonderful.
We finished off with the Quinta do Noval 10-year tawny. Unlike the first four ports that have more red and black fruit flavors, tawny is much more nutty and cararmely. The Noval is a great example of 10-year tawny. Hazelnuts, a bit of orange peel, caramel, toasty oak, exceptionally long finish. A great way to end the tasting (or any evening).