With the onset of winter and various festive celebrations looming, now's the time most wine lovers turn their attention to Port. But it's not just a wine for Christmas, says Decanter's expert Richard Mayson, who reviews the main styles and latest trends, and picks out his top 20 to buy.
There is a Port for all seasons if you know where to look. Often thought of as an after-dinner, fireside drink, Port can be enjoyed in multiple ways depending on the character of the wine.
There is a pyramid of different styles of Port extending from venerable vintage to vibrant ruby. It is often considered a macho wine, perhaps ever since essayist Samuel Johnson expressed the opinion ‘Claret for boys, Port for men’. But aged tawnies, colheitas and mature vintage Ports can be supremely elegant and refined. These wines have never been more in demand.
This style guide surveys the latest trends and will point you to the right Port for any occasion.
Vintage Port The pinnacle of the Port pyramid: many shippers have built (and occasionally destroyed) their international reputation on the…
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)
Late-Bottled Vintage means just what it says on the label: wine from a single year bottled between four and six years after the vintage. Produced in much larger volumes than either classic vintage or SQVP, two different styles of LBV Port have emerged.
The modern style of LBV was founded by Taylor’s in the mid-1960s and quickly became a commercial success. These wines are aged in large vats and are subject to fining and filtration prior to bottling. This prevents the formation of a crust or sediment in bottle, thereby removing the need to decant. During the 1990s there was a counter-trend towards so-called ‘traditional’ or unfiltered LBV: wines aged in the same way but bottled without any filtration. Unfiltered wines are more structured and full bodied than LBVs that have been treated, and have the capacity to age for five to 10 years in bottle. They are bottled with a driven cork (as opposed to the stopper cork for LBVs bottled for immediate drinking).
Since 2002, an LBV may also be sold as ‘bottle matured’. These wines must have been aged in bottle for a minimum of three years before their release. Warre’s and Smith Woodhouse have made a specialty of this style and the wines share something of the depth and character and maturity of a true vintage Port at a fraction of the price.
So-called because of the deposit that the wine throws in bottle, crusted Ports are a blend of wines from two or three harvests aged in large oak vats for up two years and bottled, like a vintage Port, without any fining or filtration. The only significant date on the label is the year of bottling. Most crusted Ports are ready to drink with five or six years of bottle age and will last for another decade. The British houses make a speciality of this style. Excellent value: crusted is poor man’s vintage Port!
Sharing the pinnacle with vintage Port, it used to be said that whereas vintage is the ‘king’ of Ports, tawny is the ‘queen’. The ageing process is of vital importance: whereas a vintage Port will mature in large wooden vats and then in bottle, tawnies will mature in small casks (lodge pipes of 600- to 640-litres capacity). The wines undergo a steady process of controlled oxidation and esterification as the colour fades from deep, opaque ruby to orange-amber-tawny.
The tasting and blending of an aged tawny is a continual process. Wines set aside initially are often marked with the year of the harvest but as the shipper makes up new blends followed by blends of blends, the characteristics of individual wines gradually meld into the housestyle. Tawnies may be bottled with an indication of age: 10, 20, 30 and 40 or over 40 years old being the categories officially permitted. These are obviously approximations and all wines have to be submitted for tasting by the IVDP for approval.
I adore the intricacy and delicacy of a well-aged tawny, a 20 Year Old being my preference for its complexity offset by freshness. Port shippers often opt for a gently chilled tawny after lunch in the heat of the Douro: think of aged tawny as a summer alternative to a fireside glass of vintage or LBV.
Meaning ‘harvest’ in Portuguese, colheita is a wine from a single year, aged in wood for a minimum of seven years before bottling, by which time the wine begins to take on the characteristics of a tawny. Most colheitas are aged for much longer and, with careful management, may be bottled after 50 or 100 years. Two dates appear on the label: the year of harvest and the year of bottling. The latter is significant as the wine won’t generally improve in bottle (although after prolonged ageing in wood it won’t deteriorate quickly either). Once the preserve of a select group of so called ‘Portuguese shippers’ (Barros, Buremster Cálem, Kopke, Krohn) colheitas have been taken up enthusiastically by the British shippers in recent years, sometimes bottled under the name ‘single harvest’. Serve cellar-cool, like a tawny.
A blend of premium-quality wines often aged for slightly longer than a basic ruby before bottling: giving a rich, satisfying Port. A reserve tawny is a blended wine that has spent about seven years in wood and is often excellent value compared to wines bottled with an indication of age.
Named after its youthful colour, a ruby Port will be a blend of wines from more than one year, aged in bulk for up to three years and bottled young to capture its strong, fiery personality.
Made from white grapes. Most are bottled young but some whites are capable of wood age and may now be bottled with the same age indications as tawny Ports or as a colheita.
Pioneered by Croft and adopted, not without controversy, by most shippers. Made by cooling fermenting grape must, which has had minimal skin contact. Serve over ice or use as a mixer.
Written by Richard Mayson