As the temperature drops and night falls earlier, it’s my natural inclination to reach for that glass of Port and usher in the new season. Ruby Port can be a great aperitif for that hearty winter meal and a Vintage Port in front of the fire (walnuts optional) is a time-honored finale to the day. And thankfully, when it comes to Port, there are countless captivating choices to enjoy.
Recently, I read an interview with Rupert Symington in the online publication Grape Collective on “The fight to keep Port relevant.” For the avid Port fan, this mission may seem a bit overstated, but in the international marketplace it’s quite a battle. Wine trends are in a constant state of flux with traditional producers under continuous pressure to hold their position in principal markets while stimulating growth in others.
Symington is the 14th generation CEO of Symington Family Estates that he manages in conjunction with several other family members who serve in various viticultural, production, management and sales positions. The company produces Port wines under several brands including, Dow’s, Cockburn’s, Graham’s and Warre’s along with others in the “red-hot” dry table wine segment that is expanding internationally.
Port’s history dates to the 14th century when the Hundred Years’ War interrupted England’s longterm relationship with France, and importers turned to other producing wine markets to quench the British thirst. Portugal became a favorite. As a result, many British families migrated to the Duoro Valley and city of Porto to manage all aspects of their newly established Port businesses.
While Port wines of the day were not fortified, brandy was added to the finished wine after fermentation to enhance stability for transit to England. The effect was higher alcohol but without any influence on maintaining residual sugar for balanced sweetness.
In the 18th century, England granted tariff reductions that strengthened their relationship with the wine trade. However, after the massive 1755 Lisbon earthquake the Portuguese government monopolized the Port business under the Duoro Wine Company.
British producers adapted to the change and continued working closely with the new company. Under English influence, Port houses also switched the brandy addition (fortification) to the mid-fermentation process retaining proper levels of residual sugar yielding wines of far greater character and quality that we continue to appreciate today.
Port wines can be produced only in Douro (the world’s oldest demarcated wine region) and its specifically designated 30 plus varietals, six of which dominate most blends. Fortification is accomplished by the addition of neutral brandy (77 percent alcohol) to halt fermentation at a pre-determined moment leaving the winemaker’s desired specific residual sugar level in accordance with the house style, and bringing alcohol up to an average 20 percent.
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This is an extremely tricky technique and differs greatly from dry wine production where fermentation normally proceeds on its own to dryness, leaving little or no residual sugar. The Port winemaker’s skill and tenacity are called to action as that precise moment of fortification can occur at any time of day or night; an hour or so of excess fermentation can be detrimental to the finished wine.
Port wines come in many styles, each expressing its own personality and place at the table. As the weather cools, look for Ruby, Ruby Reserve, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), White, Tawny, Reserve Tawny, Aged Tawny, Colheita and Vintage all breaking into two groups, bottle aged (Vintage Port) and cask aged (all the others).
Vintage Port (less than 3 percent of total production) is produced only in “declared” vintages by the house and the IVDP (Port regulating body) and bottled two years after harvest. Cask-aged Ports (with the exception of Colheita and LBV) are blends of vintages and aged in cask for a prescribed number of years.
Ruby Ports are held for a minimum of three years and up to seven for Reserves and LBVs. Tawnys are in cask for a minimum of seven years, and the 10-, 20-, 30- and 40-year bottlings are blends of various vintages averaging (by volume) the age on the label.
Colheitas are vintage dated Tawnys, and LBVs are essentially vintage dated Ruby Ports. White Ports are cask aged wines from indigenous white varietals grown in the Douro (less than 10 percent of the total crop) and blended in the same manner as Ruby and Tawny.
As you can readily see, choices abound when it comes to Port and it’s hard to go wrong. From a Ruby aperitif to a White Port with butternut squash bisque, on to an aged Tawny with Osso Bucco and a Vintage bottling with dark chocolate and nuts makes for a delightful winter feast.
In his interview, Rupert Symington astutely points out that, “Except for old Vintage Ports, you don’t have to drink [the bottle] in one sitting. Port is a sipping wine, not a chugging wine.” So don’t be shy and enjoy the season!