A Short Course in Port


By Steve Siciliano

A bottle of Dow’s 1997 Vintage Port has been aging in our home wine cellar for about twelve years now. Every so often I’ll pick that bottle up and think about opening it but I always place it back on the rack. I know the wine is ready to drink now and if I was to succumb to temptation we would be entranced by its dark purple color, the aromas of licorice, chocolate and roasted coffee, and by flavors of maple syrup, blackberry and plum. But I also know that it has the potential to age gracefully for at least twelve more years and a wine like that is best enjoyed when marking a special occasion. Maybe I’ll open it when my son Chris and his fiancée Gena get married, or when Barb and I celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, or when the Lions win the Super Bowl.

While there are many fine port style wines made throughout the world, the wines that can legally be called Porto are produced only in Portugal. The grapes are grown in the upper Duoro Valley in the north where the blazing hot summer temperatures allow them to attain high levels of sugar. Winemakers add neutral grape spirits at a certain point during the fermentation. This stops the yeast from working and results in a sweet, fortified wine. Which part of the Duoro the grapes are from and the quality of the harvest determine the style of port that’s produced—a ruby, an aged tawny, a late bottle vintage or, like that bottle aging in our cellar, a vintage porto. Vintage ports are wines of extraordinary depth and complexity that are produced only in exceptional years.

Ruby ports are the least complex and the least expensive. They are blends of young wines that are aged in oak for two to three years and are made from grapes that come from the less prestigious vineyards. While a good ruby port is a simple, straightforward wine that will not benefit from extended aging, it will entice you with it fresh berry aromas and nice red fruit flavors.

Aged tawny ports are blends of wine from several, non-vintage years that are aged in barrels until they develop nutty, brown sugar and vanilla flavors and a soft, silky texture. The extended barrel aging transforms the wine from bright ruby red to the light brown, tawny color from which it gets its name. An aged tawny will usually have a ten, twenty, thirty or forty year designation on the label. This does not necessarily mean that the wine has been barrel-aged for the specified time but rather is an indication of the target age profile. In other words a forty-year-old tawny tastes like it is made from wines that are forty years old.

Late bottle vintage ports (LBVs) are unblended wines from a single vintage that was a good but not great year. They are aged in oak barrels four to six years and then filtered and bottled. Thanks to the barrel-aging the wine matures more quickly, giving it to some extent the nuances of a vintage port. But LBVs lack the depth and complexity of vintage port and because they are filtered they will not benefit from extended aging in the bottle.

On average, about three times a decade the Duoro will experience perfect growing conditions resulting in young wines that are almost perfectly balanced. Samples of these wines are sent to the Port Wine Institute and, if approval is given, the year is declared a “Vintage.” Vintage ports are only made from grapes grown in the best vineyards. They are aged in oak barrels for two years and are then bottled unfiltered. As the wine matures the flavors and aromas become deeper, more refined and more complex.

Vintage ports are extraordinary wines that should be saved for those most special of occasions (providing you have the will power). It doesn’t look like the Lions will win the big one anytime soon, and since our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary is a still silver speck on the horizon, I guess the date Barb and I crack the '97 Dows depends on Chris and Gena.

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