Why Your Grandpa Was Right About Port

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The creation of Port is surely one of the happiest accidents in the world of wine. Without going too far down the rabbit hole, this mishap was the result of a late-17th-century trade war between England and France, during which King Charles II forbade the import of all French goods, including wine, into the United Kingdom. Charles was married to Catherine of Braganza, the sister of Peter II, King of Portugal, and their marriage solidified trade between the two European powers. Wine from Portugal became a replacement for French wine, but the colonial English and Scottish families who were making it in the Douro Valley were not as skilled as their counterparts in Bordeaux and Burgundy, so many a cask of wine re-fermented on the voyage to England, rendering it undrinkable.

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It was discovered that the addition of brandy or aguardiente destroyed the remaining yeast in the barrel, which stopped fermentation and resulted in a sweet wine with a higher-than-normal alcohol level. A new style of wine was born that would eventually be consumed around the world before declining in popularity in recent decades. (Port had a moment of acclaim on TikTok last fall, but we suspect that the cross section of Robb Report readers and TikTok enthusiasts depicted on a Venn diagram may be rather small.) Although wine from Portugal in general is becoming more and more fashionable in the United States, Americans are increasingly drinking dry Portuguese wines each year, both white and red, and leaving the Port for the U.K. and Europe. When we visit British friends there is always a bottle on hand, and we have no idea why they should have all the fun.

We recall a time when restaurants brought the wine list back around when desserts were ordered, offering the opportunity to request a glass of Ruby or Tawny, but today there seems to be a rush to push espresso and cappuccino rather than sweet wine at the end of the meal no matter the hour. However, with all the cookies, candy, and cake being bandied about this time of year, we hope you can get on board with having a bottle or two of Port around the house to pour for guests this holiday season.

where port wine grows
Malvedos terraced vineyards

Port wines are produced in the north of Portugal in an area known as the Demarcated Region of the Douro, located approximately 50 miles upriver from the cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia—both of which are just inland from the Atlantic Ocean. The beautiful, terraced vineyards of the Douro have been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While you may see wines from elsewhere in the world, especially California, South Africa, and Australia that are labeled “Port,” it’s important to note that due to E.U. legislation, Port only comes from the Douro Valley. Five main red grape varieties are used, but 80 varieties are allowed. While in years past many Ports were “field” blends, with multiple varieties picked and vinified together, replanting in the last 20 years has allowed for single variety vineyard blocks and the return of forgotten grapes.

Producers to look for include Graham’s, Taylor Fladgate, Quinta do Noval, Kopke, Fonseca, Croft, Quinta de la Rosa, Warre’s, Dow’s, Quinta do Vallado, and Quinta do Crasto. But before you go out and get a bottle, it helps to know a little bit more about the types of Port you’ll find.

Types of Port

Graham vintage port
Graham vintage port

RUBY: Ruby Ports are deep red to violet in color, with aromas of blueberry, cherry, and cassis.  In the mouth they have great weight and heft on the palate. Sweet with delicious ripe red- and black-fruit characteristics and notes of licorice, clove, and anise, they are full textured and offer heft on the palate. The two we are most concerned with are Vintage and Late Bottled Vintage (LBV). LBV Ports are from a single harvest year and are aged four to six years before bottling. Vintage Ports are made from the best wines from a single exceptional harvest. They are aged in wood for approximately two years prior to bottling and will continue to age in the bottle for many more years. The finest are from single estates called quintas; the label will include the producer’s name, quinta name, and vintage year. Vintage Ports come only from “declared” years, meaning they are not made every year. Recent standout vintages include 2020, 2017, 2016, 2014, and 2011.

Ruby Port, whether LBV or Vintage, goes great with pungent cheese such as Stilton or Époisses. After dinner, it’s terrific with dark chocolate and desserts made with it, like Black Forest cake, flourless chocolate cake, and brownies.

TAWNY: Tawny Ports are wines that have been aged in either vats or barrels. They pick up their tawny color and oxidative character both from time and wood. The four types of Tawny Port are Tawny, Tawny Reserve, Tawny with an Indication of Age, (10, 20, 30 and 40 years old) and Colheita. Only Colheita is from a single harvest year and must be aged in wood for at least seven years. The other three types may be a blend of different harvest years. Aged Tawnies have remarkable complexity due to the long barrel aging.

Their name comes from the amber “tawny” color they receive from years in barrel. They have nutty, oxidized aromas, especially of toasted almonds and hazelnuts. There are also rich aromas of caramel, leather, and butterscotch. Tawnies are sweet yet subdued and sophisticated, offering flavors of dried fruits, nuts, and caramel. Tawny Port wines pair perfectly with creamy desserts like crème brûlée, cheesecake, and ice cream. This style is also amazing with chocolate, be it in mousse, bar, or truffle form.

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