A Port Primer

Ask Dr. Vinny 
Issue: February 28, 2010

Here at Wine Spectator, we get questions from readers about all aspects of wine, from the down and dirty of wine production to the finer points of white tablecloth dining. Since 2005, we’ve turned to our witty and tireless correspondent Dr. Vinny to find the answers to your toughest queries. Here, Dr. Vinny fills us in on Port. Do you have a question for our masked wine columnist? If so, go to www.winespectator.com/drvinny.

What is Port, exactly?
Port is a fortified wine. Grapes, usually red but sometimes white, are picked and crushed, then the must is fermented, just as in any table wine. But before the fermentation is finished, while strains of yeast are converting grape sugars to alcohol, distilled spirits (generally in the form of grape brandy) are added to the must. The spirits kill the yeast, thereby stopping the fermentation while some sugar remains in the must. This gives Port its two salient features: higher alcohol content (generally about 20 percent) and some residual sweetness.

Why is Port fortified?
The history of Port dates to the 17th century, a period when England and France were at war. The English needed to fill a void of French wines, and Portuguese wines were a good option. Eventually, Portuguese winemakers started experimenting with fortifying the wines to keep them stable during shipping.

So, all Port is from Portugal, right?
Genuine Port comes from the Douro Valley in Portugal, just as true Champagne comes only from the Champagne region of France. But other wine-producing regions have borrowed the term to refer to their own fortified wines. The European Union frowns on this unauthorized usage, though, so it's dropping out of fashion. Of course, there are many versions of wines made in the Port style all over the world, with varying names.

What grape varieties go into "true" Port?
More than 80 different grape varieties are authorized for Port production, an overwhelming number I can't list here. Instead, let me tell you the most widely used-and most highly regarded-grapes: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz (another name for Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão.

What's with all the different types of Port? There are so many categories, styles and price tags.
Vintage Port is at the top of the pile as far as price, aging potential and prestige are concerned. It's made only from the best grapes of a single vintage, and only in years that individual Port houses have "declared" vintage-worthy, which usually happens just a few times a decade. Vintage Port is aged only two years before bottling. Because the wines are so young upon release, they are usually tucked away in cellars for many years until they mellow and mature into their full potential.

Late-bottled Vintage (LBV) Ports are bottled four to six years after the vintage date. Because they spend more time in wood than Vintage Ports, they're usually more accessible on release. LBVs were originally intended to offer an experience comparable to Vintage Port but at a much lower cost. Many deliver the goods, but some of them can be mere shadows of the real thing. The best are usually unfiltered, and labeled as such.

Tawny Ports are aged longer in wood. The best are matured for between 10 and 40 years (the time is typically indicated on the label). They are paler and, uh, tawnier than traditional Ports. They have a mellow, nutty, slightly woody, dried fruit character, derived from contact with air during their long maturation in porous wooden casks. Colheita is a vintage tawny Port, made from grapes picked in a single year and bottled after a minimum of seven years aging in wood.

Ruby Port is the most basic (and usually least expensive) port. It is aged for two to three years before release-usually in neutral oak or stainless steel, which preserves its fruit-forward appeal. The wine is often blended with older versions to create a consistent house style.

How do you serve Port?
Port might seem like a fussy beverage, but serving it is actually very simple. Any good wineglass will do, though because of the high alcohol, a smaller-than-normal pour is appropriate. Ports are served at cool room temperature (tawny Ports can be chilled a bit more). Pair with nuts, any hard or blue cheese, or your favorite cigar. Port purists have a tradition of passing the port from right to left.

Serving a mature Vintage Port is a little trickier. It will likely have a lot of sediment, and in that case you'll want to follow normal decanting methods. Keep the bottle still and upright for a day or so to allow sediment to settle at the bottom, then pour slowly into a decanter, stopping when you see sediment appear.

Do I need a pair of Port tongs?
Probably not. Port tongs are an accessory used to open an old bottle of Port when it could have a crumbly cork. The tongs are heated until red-hot, then clamped around the bottle's neck right below the cork. After a minute or two of this heat, a cold, wet towel is placed in the same spot; the rapid change in temperature will cause the glass to break cleanly, removing the glass around the cork in one step. If it sounds like it might take some practice to get it right, well, it does. And you risk breaking the bottle and losing your precious Port.

How long will a Port remain drinkable after it has been opened?
Both the higher alcohol content (typically around 20 percent) and the residual sugar of Port help protect against degradation once the bottle is open; most Ports will remain fresh and vibrant for a week or so after being uncorked. However, oxidation begins the moment a cork is pulled on any bottle of wine, fortified or not, so the same rules apply for keeping your wine fresh: Minimize the surface area of the wine by transferring it to a smaller container, and store it in the refrigerator to extend its life.

I've noticed that many older bottles of Vintage Port have what appear to be streaks of white paint on them. Where do these come from?
This white mark is also called a splash mark, and it tells you which way the bottles were cellared (splash mark up). This way, all the sediment collects on the same side. Smart, huh?

How much wine is in a pipe of Port?
It was traditional in Victorian times for families to cellar a "pipe of Port" for their children. The term comes from the Portuguese word for barrel, pipa. A pipe is a large, lengthy barrel with tapered ends, and the sizes vary quite a bit-I've seen them anywhere from 350 liters to more than 600 liters. It seems the average pipe of Port is 550 liters (about 145 gallons), or about 61 cases. The Victorians had big families.

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