Port wine barrels in cellars

Port Wine - Fortified Wine from the Douro Valley

By Timo Torner / Last updated on August 7, 2022 
Port wine is a traditional Portuguese after-dinner drink. The sweetness and richness of the fortified wine make it an excellent choice when looking for a dessert wine.

Port wine is a traditional fortified wine from Portugal. The grapes for port are grown in the Douro valley. That is a large area in the Northern part of the country just north of Porto. 

And just as with regular wines, port wine comes in many styles and of made of different grape varieties.

Only wine produced in Portugal can be authentic port wine. However, similar to Champagne, this regulation does by no means limit the selection. 

There are plenty of brands to try. My favorites are Sandeman, Graham's, Taylor Fladgate, and Dow's. They all produce port wines of different types and qualities.

And, you might have guessed it, port wine also goes very well in cocktails. For example, the classic Porto Flip is an excellent after-dinner cocktail. 

Or you could try it in a Continental Sour, a variation of the New York Sour incorporating port instead of dry red wine.

What is port wine?

Port wine or Vinho do Porto is a fortified wine, like Vermouth or Sherry. The amount of alcohol by volume for port varies slightly between the different variants and brands. But on average, it contains around 20% ABV (40 proof).

It comes from Douro Valley, which is divided into three regions: the Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo, and the Douro Superior. Each of these zones has distinct characteristics and different average temperatures. 

Ruby and Tawny Port Wine

Grapes growing in the Cima (Engl. higher) Corgo zone are often considered the highest quality grapes. Therefore, they are commonly used for Vintage, Reserve, and aged Tawny ports.

In your local supermarket, you often find a selection of medium quality - usually the standard ports from the big brands. But beyond that, there are many fine ports out there. Some cost a few hundred dollars per bottle.

Additionally, you can find many port-style wines produced outside of Portugal, but only Portuguese products can be labeled port.

How to make port wine

Port is a regular wine at first. To enhance richness and increase the ABV, wine producers add a distilled grape spirit (e.g., Brandy) to the wine base shortly before all sugar is used up through fermentation. 

Once grape spirit and wine blend together, fermentation stops, and the port wine is "fortified". By that, the amount of alcohol remains higher and more sugar is left inside, making the wine sweeter.

The Portuguese call this grape spirit aguardente, deriving from the terms água and ardente, which translates to fiery water. 

Different types of port wine

In total, there are seven different main categories to differentiate port wines. And most of these categories have one or more subcategories. So, it can get a bit confusing. But we give you a comprehensive and comprehensible overview.

Different types of port - white, ruby, tawny

The different categories are all managed and divided by an independent Institution. The Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto -short IVDP- regulates all matters regarding port wine. 

They even introduced two additional classes to divide the seven types of ports into standard and special categories

The first are all standard rubies, three-year-old Tawnies, and white ports. The special ones, Categorias Especiais, comprise everything else.

1 - White port

White port is made from white grapes. Common types are Malvasia, Rabigato, Vioshinho, Donzelinho, Gouveio, Codega, and many more.

Additionally, white port can be available in a variety of subtypes. However, as its red counterparts are more popular, only very few producers put in the effort to make special white ports.

The color of long-aged white ports becomes comparatively dark when aged in wooden barrels. In rare cases, the color will become so dark that it will look similar to an aged Tawny or Ruby port.

2 - Ruby port

Ruby port is the most affordable option. Unlike most other port wines, it usually ages in concrete or stainless steel vessels to avoid oxidation. The resulting port keeps its bright, red color with a fresh and fruity taste.

Regular Ruby ports are not suitable for aging. That means they will not benefit from longer aging times, and the aroma won't evolve.

Reserve

Reserve is a premium subcategory of Ruby ports. Approved and monitored by the IVDP, reserve ports usually are a blend of different vintages of Ruby.

Rosé

The Rosé is another subcategory of Ruby port. First produced in 2008, it's the youngest of all port wine types.

The rose color is achieved in a similar way as rosé wines do. The brighter rose-colored wine is the result of limiting the exposure of grape skin during the fermentation process.

3 - Tawny port

Tawny ports are made of red grapes and aged in wooden barrels. This aging process allows for oxidation and evaporation, which is essential for developing the distinct nutty flavors in the port.

A standard Tawny with no further age indication usually has matured in wooden barrels for at least three years. A Reserve Tawny port, for instance, ages seven years.

Older Tawnies usually are labeled with 10, 20, 30, or 40 years. However, these are not single vintage Tawny ports but a blend of several vintages.

The age mentioned on the labels indicates the target age aimed for when blending the various vintages.

Colheita Barrels

Colheita

A Colheita port is a subcategory of the Tawny. A single vintage Tawny that's aged for at least seven years in wooden barrels. You won't find the age on the label but the vintage year instead.

4 - Garrafeira

Garrafeira is the rarest of all types of port. The unusual and long aging make this type so precious.

As demanded by the IVDP, Garrafeira ports must age in wooden barrels for three to six years and then in glass vessels for at least another eight years.

The result is an unusual aged port with exceptional notes. Port aficionados often state that Garrafeira offers hints of bacon. The reason for this extravagant taste lies in the second step of maturation.

5 - Vintage port

Vintage port gets pressed from the highest-quality grapes. It's only possible to produce Vintage port in years declared vintage. That is not super rare but nowhere near the case for every year.

But not only the grape selection is special. Vintage port is aged in either barrels or steel tanks for a maximum of two and a half years. 

That is way less than some Tawny ports age in their barrels. However, Vintage port is aged in bottles between 10 and 40 years to achieve a proper drinking age.

Single Quinta Vintage Port

A subcategory of Vintage port is the Single Quinta. As the name suggests, those port wines derive from grapes from the corresponding estate.

For comparison, a regular Vintage port can contain grapes from multiple estates.

6 - Late bottled vintage (LBV)

Initially, this type was a side product driven by lacking demand. But nowadays, the LBV lists as a separate category.

The wine used for late bottled vintage initially had been intended to become a Vintage port. But due to low demand, the wine was left longer in the barrels.

Instead of aging a maximum of two and a half years, LBV port ages four to six years.

LBVs are a clever alternative to Vintage ports as they don't need to age in bottles. Over time, two different types of LBV developed. One filtered and one unfiltered version.

Unfiltered

The unfiltered LBV port is bottled with conventional corks and requires decanting. Similar to a Vintage Port, this type can benefit from additional bottle aging.

Also, it's pretty hard to distinguish an old LBV from a traditional Vintage port.

Filtered

For the filtered version, decanting is not necessary. However, filtration also limits the benefits of the port from aging.

That, in turn, makes the whole product much lighter in body and taste -a fact that many port wine lovers criticize as they claim that filtration also removes essential characteristics from the wine.

7 - Crusted port

A Crusted Port is a blend of several Vintage ports. That means a Crusted voids the limitation of only using grapes harvested in the same year.

That allows the master port blender to create the best possible blend of Vintage ports available.

How does port wine taste?

The taste of a port ultimately depends on the respective type and, of course, the brand. But I still want to give you a general idea of the taste of port.

Predominantly, it is a lot sweeter than regular wine. Especially the red types of port, Ruby and Tawny, are rich in flavor and among the sweeter ones.

Standard flavors are berries (raspberry, strawberry, and blackberry), caramel, toffee, nuts, cinnamon, vanilla, and chocolate. Ruby tends to be more fruity, while Tawny offers intenser notes of caramel and nuts.

Port wine tasting

Aged Tawnies have a much larger spectrum of flavors, like green peppercorn, almond, hazelnut, and butterscotch. A general rule of thumb is, that the older the port, the more refined the flavor notes.

But despite that, if you're interested in the taste of aged Tawny ports, I recommend the Sandeman 20 years. For me, it is almost up to par with the 40-year-old but for a fraction of the price.

White port is lighter and drier than its red counterparts. And that, combined with its notes of citrus and stone fruits, makes it a beautiful fit for tonic water. You can find this refreshing mixed drink, served in grand Copa glasses, all over Porto.

The Rosé port is quite rare and has some unique notes to it. It is a bright mix of strawberry, violets, and caramel.

On top, there are some premium ports, each with a very distinct flavor profile. Vintage ports, Garrafeira, Late bottled vintage, and crusted ports, for example.

Detailed descriptions of tasting notes for top-shelf products in such price segments can be found on the label of the respective bottle.

Grapes for making port wine

Douro Valley in Portugal

The type of grapes for making port wine is heavily regulated. Only 30 types qualify as recommendable for making port wine of 82 different types permitted in port wine production.

To put this into perspective: there are more than 2.500 grape sorts for making wine. The port grapes are classified into "very good", "good", "average", "mediocre", and "bad".

To keep things manageable, I only list the 30 recommended types, separated by color and quality.

Black grapes

Exactly 15 different types of black grapes are advisable for making port wine. Eight of them are of very good quality, and seven are of good quality. 

Very good black grapes

  • Bastardo
  • Donzelinho tinto 
  • Marufo
  • Tinta Francisca
  • Tinta Roriz
  • Tinta Cão
  • Touriga Franca
  • Touriga Nacional

Good black grapes

  • Castelão
  • Cornifesto
  • Malvasia Preta
  • Mourisco de Semente
  • Rufete
  • Tinta Amarela
  • Tinta Barocca

White grapes

For the white grapes, there are also a total of 15 recommended grape types. Nine are of very good quality and six of good quality.

Very good white grapes

  • Donzelinho branco
  • Sercial
  • Folgasão
  • Gouveio branco
  • Bancho Grundel Taint
  • Malvasia Fina
  • Rabigato branco
  • Viosinho
  • Verdelho

Good white grapes

  • Arinto 
  • Cercial
  • Moscatel Galego branco
  • Samarrinho
  • Síria
  • Vital

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