Know your Port styles – The Decanter guide

With the onset of winter and 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...

Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Decanter magazine.

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 Port styles, 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.


View all of Decanter’s Port tasting notes


Vintage Port

The pinnacle of the Port pyramid: many shippers have built (and occasionally destroyed) their international reputation on the back of vintage Port. The skill in making a great vintage Port comes from the painstaking selection of small lotes (parcels) of wine from the very finest locations made from grapes picked at optimum ripeness after an outstanding growing season. These grapes need to be very well worked during vinification, either foot trodden in stone lagares or increasingly subject to careful piston extraction or robotic treading. Graham’s 2000 was the first classic vintage Port to be partially made by robotic feet.

After the harvest these wines are monitored for a potential vintage. The decision to ‘declare’ a vintage is made independently by the shipper and it is not one that is taken lightly. There is no law about the regularity of Port vintages but there are usually three or four a decade. Over the past decade 2011, 2007 and 2003 were fully declared by nearly all shippers.

Quantities are limited and a major shipper may declare between 8,000 and 15,000 cases depending on the year and circumstances. Sometimes the quantity declared is much less. In 1994, Quinta do Noval (anxious to improve its standing) declared 1,000 cases and in 2009 Warre’s declared just 500 cases of outstandingly powerful wine.


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There is also a recent trend towards declaring a super-lagar (often alongside a classic declaration) from a site-specific plot in a particular vineyard. Quinta do Noval Nacional, from a tiny plot of ungrafted vines, is the historic prototype for a sub-category of wines which now include Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas Vinha Velha, Graham’s Stone Terraces and Quinta de la Rosa’s Vale do Inferno. The total quantity declared of each wine is usually no more than 250 cases, and prices are commensurate. These are the ultimate collector’s wines!

Before a Port can be bottled as a vintage it must be submitted to the IVDP (Port and Douro Wine Institute) for approval, anytime between 1 January and 30 September in the second year after the harvest. Once the wine has been bottled it continues to evolve slowly over a period of at least 15 to 20 years before it is considered ready to drink. Rather like the seven ages of man, vintage Port enjoys a short, fragrant bloom of youth before it shuts down and goes through 10 to 20 years of surly adolescence. Then it slowly emerges as an adult gaining in gravitas until it reaches its peak, often between 20 and 40 years of age. For the finest wines the peak becomes a long plateau and old age may not be reached for 80 years or more. Anyone born in one of the great post-war vintages of 1945, 1955, 1963, 1966 and 1970 has a wine to accompany them for life!

Since the early 2000s, a dramatic improvement in the quality of the fortifying spirit (which, it is easy to forget, makes up 20% of the wine) may well have changed the flavour profile of vintage Port. The spirit being used to fortify vintage and single-quinta vintage Port has a much more vinous character than in the past.

This means that it interferes much less with the fruit in a young wine than the coarse, rather oily spirit of yesteryear. Certainly recent declared vintages like 2007 and 2011 are notable for the purity and clear expression of fruit, even at this early stage. David Guimaraens, head winemaker for The Fladgate Partnership, maintains that the transition from youth to maturity will be much smoother in future, with less of that awkward adolescent stage. This should make vintage Port easier to broach at an earlier stage but the best wines should still age for a lifetime.

Single-Quinta Vintage

With huge improvements in winemaking from the 1980s onwards, the production of a good vintage Port is much less of a hit-and-miss affair. Unless the year is a total washout (eg 1993 and 2002), wines of potential vintage quality can be made every year. Consequently wines from good years (in between declared vintages) are bottled by the major shippers as single-quinta vintage Port (SQVP). The same rules apply as to vintage Ports, the only difference being that the wines come from a single quinta or estate with the recommendation that they may be drunk earlier, after 10 rather than 20 years.

Without the collector’s cachet of a vintage Port, these wines are excellent value and by building up a vertical collection you can follow a specific Douro terroir. A handful of independent quintas are now producing their own SQVP nearly every year, along the lines of a Bordeaux château. Though this is a relatively new category, look out for properties that already have a good track record: Quinta do Vesúvio, Quinta de la Rosa, Quinta do Roriz, Quinta do Passadouro and Quinta do Vale Meão.

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.

Crusted Port

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!

Aged Tawny

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 (‘Colheita’) but as the shipper makes up new blends followed by blends of blends, the characteristics of individual wines gradually meld into the house style.

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.

Colheita

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.

Simpler Port styles

Reserve

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.

Ruby

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.

White

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.

Pink

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.


Richard’s top Port examples:

Listed by style


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