What's the difference between Vintage Port, Late-Bottled Vintage, and Colheita?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

I’d like to know what are the main differences between Vintage Port, a Colheita and a Late-Bottled Vintage, please. This has always confused me.

—Mauricio, Mexico

Dear Mauricio,

It’s no surprise if you’re confused—Port, the famous fortified wine, comes in 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 have been “declared” vintage-worthy, which usually happens just a few times a decade. Beyond that, the wines are made similarly to other Ports, fortified with spirits to arrest fermentation and preserve residual sugar. Vintage Port sees only two years of aging at the winery before each producer decides on its own whether to declare a vintage. 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 potential.

“Late-Bottled Vintage” or “LBV” Ports aren’t bottled until up to four to six years from the vintage date. This means they spend about twice as long in wood as Vintage Ports, and so they’re usually more accessible at an early age. Some producers cold-stabilize and filter their LBVs, which is supposed to eliminate the need to decant the wine, but I’ve found that it can strip away the flavors. If you’re looking for LBVs made more like Vintage Ports, look for the word “Traditional” on the label. 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 just shadows of the real thing.

You skipped over tawny Ports, but I’ll let you know that their distinguishing feature is oxidation. Tawny Ports are paler and browner and, uh, tawnier than traditional Ports. They have a mellow, nutty, slightly woody, dried-fruit character, derived from contact with air during long maturation in porous wooden casks. And a Colheita—which you did ask about—is a vintage tawny Port, made in a single year. A Colheita may have spent 20 years or more in barrel before it was released.

—Dr. Vinny

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