Even people who profess not to know much about wine might feel reasonably confident about port. It goes with stilton, is served in a decanter, and should be passed from right to left round the table. All (partially) true, and yet that’s far from the full picture.
For a start, not all — in fact very few — ports need to be decanted, and there are a few styles that would make the august members of gentlemen’s clubs splutter into their soup.
Port, of course, comes from Portugal — the northern part, to be precise — and its name is protected ferociously, not least by an EU Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). It’s made from indigenous grape varieties such as touriga franca, touriga nacional and tinta barroca, grown on the steep slopes of the Douro Valley. These grapes are also used to make red wines, but in port’s case are fortified with grape brandy to bring the strength up to 19% or 20%.
There are two main types of port, ruby and tawny, the basic difference being that tawny spends most of its life in wood, whereas ruby is generally stored in concrete or stainless steel tanks. The confusion tends to be between late bottled vintage (LBV) — a four- to six-year-old ruby port, which is aged before it’s bottled — and vintage port, which, after an initial couple of years in cask, ages in the bottle, typically for many years. The latter needs to be decanted before it’s drunk. Beyond that, there’s a raft of cheaper ruby ports that go by names such as ‘finest reserve’ or ‘vintage character’; these are blends of different vintages.
Most tawny ports are classified in decades — most commonly 10- and 20-year-old. The younger ones are best served slightly chilled and are frequently drunk — in the Douro, at least — as an aperitif, rather than after dinner. You can also find rosé ports (Marks & Spencer has a rather lovely one), while white port and tonic is a popular summer drink. Think of it as a Portuguese twist on a G&T.
Over the past few years, many people have started drinking port ‘younger’ (aged in the bottle for a shorter time) — controversially, in the case of vintage port, which is designed to last for years. But the youthful fruit is glorious. Once opened, vintage port should be drunk within a month, and most other ports within two to three — not kept from one Christmas to the next as non-regular port drinkers might be inclined to do.
Back to that nomenclature, though. While the Portuguese are rightly protective over the term ‘port’, other countries do produce similar fortified wines. For example, in Australia — most famously in Victoria’s Rutherglen region — there’s a tradition of making ‘tawnies’.
These are also popular in South Africa, while in the Roussillon region of France they’re known as vins doux naturels, and have a slightly lower alcohol level, which may appeal if you find port too strong. Look out for bottles labelled Banyuls, Maury and Rivesaltes — these are all delicious with dark chocolate desserts, whether you choose to pass them to the left or the right.
Booths Finest Reserve Port
Made from grapes grown by the small Quinta de la Rosa port house, it’s beautifully rounded, smooth and plummy — perfect for mince pies. Great value for money too. £10 for 50cl.
Graham’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 2012
A reliable, well-priced LBV that’s aged in seasoned oak casks for between four and six years. Warm, spicy, rich and comforting — the ideal nightcap. £13.50 for 75cl.
Churchill’s 1997 Vintage Port
Gloriously deep, with boozy cherry fruit flavours. Delicious to drink now but predicted to be at its peak — if you can hang on — from 2027-37. Needs decanting. £82.79 for 75cl.
Corney & Barrow 20 Year Old Tawny Port
More expensive than a 10-year-old tawny port, but well worth splashing out on, with thrillingly complex flavours of toasted nuts, spice and orange peel. £32.95 for 75cl.
De Bortoli Old Boys 21 Barrel Aged Tawny
A fascinating alternative to port, this aged Aussie tawny is all luscious dried raisins, figs and treacle toffee. Sip it alongside a generous slice of fruit cake. £22 for 50cl.
Published in Issue 3 of National Geographic Traveller Food.