Another Wine Byte 8: Any Port in the Storm

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shamrock Here is the eighth in our weekly series of Another Wine Bytes; information about wine you can use to impress your friends (but not in an obnoxious way, of course!)

After a weekend of Russian River Wine Road Barrel Tasting we thought we would take a little break from wine. And, it being St. Patrick’s Day, we headed to Chelsea Wine Bar for a little Irish. Madeleine treated us to Shepherd’s Pie and Scotch Eggs. Also on the menu was corned beef sandwiches, and corned beef & cabbage. I’m sure they had some sort of wine to pair with the Irish feast but Joe chose a glass of draught Murphy’s Irish Stout and I, a glass of Blackthorn cider. As usual, Chelsea’s holiday offerings were tasty and filling. Since  Joe’s mom has a flight out at 6:50 a.m. and we had Jake with us, we left much earlier than usual.

Once home, we began unpacking various wine club shipments that had arrived in our absence. Joe’s mom noticed a bottle of port, and asked “What do you do with port?” Joe pointed to the 10 lb. bar of Guittard chocolate he got me for Valentine’s Day, and we proceeded to open a bottle of Frog’s Tooth Tawny Portoad, we picked up in Murphys during our fabulous visit to Twisted Oak Winery. All for the sake of teaching Joe’s mom a little about port, and chocolate, of course.

AWByte #8 – What is Port wine?

portWhy “Portoad” and not just Port?  According to Gerry, the guy at the Frog’s Tooth pouring the wine, the laws have changed so that only wine from Portugal is allowed to be called “port,” and Frog’s Tooth was not “grandfathered” in.

Since I’ve yet to thoroughly research the law issue, let’s just talk about the basics of port.  Often served as a dessert wine, Port wine — also known as Vinho do Porto, Oporto, Porto, and often simply Port — is a Portuguese sherry from the Douro Valley in the northern provinces of Portugal. Port is a sweet red wine with about 20% alcohol (as opposed to table wine which is usually about 13%) and rather low acidity and tannin. Ideally a good Port should have a rich spicy flavor and in spite of its 20% alcohol, taste very smooth.

Wines in the style of port are produced around the world in several countries—most notably Australia, South Africa, Canada, India, Argentina and the United States. But under European Union guidelines, only the product from Portugal may be labeled as Port. In the United States, Federal law mandates that the Portuguese-made product be labeled Porto or Vinho do Porto.

Over a hundred varieties of grapes castas are sanctioned for Port production, although only five  are widely cultivated and used. These are Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Nacional.  Although Touriga Nacional is the most celebrated Port grape, the difficulty of growing it and its small yields result in Touriga Francesa being the most widely-planted variety within the Douro.White ports are produced the same way as red ports, except that they use white grapes—Esgana-Cão, Folgasão, Malvasia, Rabigato, Verdelho, and Viosinho.

Many port lovers know the two familiar ports — the ruby and the tawny; but there are a number of port varieties.

The IVDP further divides Port into two categories: normal Ports (standard Rubies, Tawnies and White Ports) and Categorias Especiais, Special Categories, which includes everything else.

Barrel-aged ports

Tawny ports are wines made from red grapes that are aged in wooden barrels, exposing them to gradual oxidation and evaporation. As a result, they gradually mellow to a golden-brown color. The exposure to wood imparts “nutty” flavours to the wine, which is blended to match the house style. Tawny ports are sweet or medium dry and typically drunk as a dessert wine.

When a Port is described as Tawny, without an indication of age, it is a basic blend of wood aged port that has spent at least seven years in barrels. Above this are Tawny with an indication of age which represent a blend of several vintages, with the average years “in wood” stated on the label. The official categories are 10, 20, 30 and over 40 years. For each category, the average age of the various vintage is at least that of the given category. It is also possible to produce an aged white port in the manner of a tawny, with a number of shippers now marketing 10 year old White Ports.

Colheita is a Tawny port from a single vintage is called Colheitas. Instead of an indication of age (10, 20…) the actual vintage year is mentioned. However, they should not be mistaken with Vintage port (see below); whereas a Vintage port will have been bottled about 18 months after being harvested and will continue to mature, a Colheita may have spent 20 or more years in wooden barrels before being bottled and sold, at which point it will no longer mature. A number of White Colheitas have been produced, such as one by Dalva in 1952.

Garrafeira is an unusual and rare intermediate vintage dated style of Port made from the grapes of a single harvest that combines both the oxidative maturation of years in wood, with further reductive maturation in large glass demijohns. It is required by the IVDP that wines spend some time in wood, usually between three and six years, followed by at least a further eight years in glass, before bottling. In practice the times spent in glass are much longer. At present, only one company, Niepoort, markets Garrafeiras. Their black demijohns, affectionately known as bon-bons, hold approximately 11 litres each. Some connoisseurs describe Garrafeira as having a slight taste of bacon, although many people will neither notice nor understand such a description; the reason being that, during the second phase of maturation, certain oils may precipitate, causing a film to form across the surface of the glass that can be tasted by those who are accustomed to the difference between Garrafeira and other forms of port.

Confusingly, the word Garrafeira may be found on some very old Tawny labels, where the contents of the bottle are of exceptional age.

Bottle-aged ports

Ruby port is the cheapest and most extensively produced type of port. After fermentation it is stored in tanks made of concrete or stainless steel to prevent oxidative aging, and preserve its rich claret color. The wine is usually blended to match the style of the brand to which it is to be sold. The wine is fined and cold filtered before bottling, and does not generally improve with age.

Reserve or vintage character – Reserve port is a premium Ruby port approved by the IVDP’s tasting panel, the Câmara de Provadores. In 2002, the IVDP prohibited the use of the term “Vintage Character”, as the wine had neither attribute.

Pink port is a relatively new variation on the market, first released in 2008 by both Croft and the Taylor Fladgate Partnership for Marks and Spencer. It is made with the same grapes and according to the same extremely strict rules that govern the production of vintage and tawny and ruby ports. It is technically a ruby port, but fermented the way a rosé wine would be, with a limited exposure to the grape skins, thus the pink color. Bearing the hallmarks of a light ruby with its taste being lighter in style and containing a fruity flavor, it’s commonly served cold in various ways.

White port is made from white grapes and can be made in a wide variety of styles, although few shippers produce anything apart from a basic produce that is similar to a standard Ruby. White Port can be used as the basis for a cocktail, or served on its own. There is a range of styles of white port, from dry to very sweet. When white ports are matured for long periods, the colour darkens, eventually reaching a point where it can be hard to discern (from appearance alone) whether the original wine was red or white.

Late Bottled Vintage (often referred to simply as LBV) was originally wine that had been destined for bottling as Vintage Port, but because of lack of demand was left in the barrel for longer than had been planned. Over time it has become two distinct styles of wine, both of them bottled between four and six years after the vintage, but one style is fined and filtered before bottling while the other is not.

The filtered wine has the advantage of being ready to drink without decanting, and is bottled in a stoppered bottle that can be easily resealed. This is designed to exploit the extended shelf life such wines enjoy by comparison with vintage port, once opened. However many wine experts feel that this convenience comes at a price and believe that the filtration process strips out much of the character of the wine.

The term Late Bottled Vintage was first introduced by Taylor, Fladgate and Yeatman in 1969, for the 1965 vintage, and the improved shelf life of the filtered and stabilized wine over vintage port was designed to appeal to the restaurant trade.

Unfiltered wines are bottled with conventional corks and need to be decanted and drunk immediately. Recent bottlings are identified by the label wording ‘Unfiltered’ or ‘Bottle matured’ (or both). Before the 2002 regulations, this style was often marketed as ‘Traditional’, a description that is no longer permitted.

If in doubt, a prospective purchaser can check the cork, and examine the top of the bottle to see if there is a stopper underneath the capsule; the serrated edge of a stopper is usually visible, or can be detected with a thumbnail. LBV is intended to provide some of the experience of drinking a Vintage Port but without the decade-long wait of bottle aging and the obligation to decant and consume the bottle contents within a day of opening. To a limited extent it succeeds, as the extra years of oxidative aging in barrel does mature the wine more quickly.

Typically ready to drink when released, LBV ports are the product of a single year’s harvest and tend to be lighter bodied than a vintage port. Filtered LBVs do not generally improve with age, whereas the unfiltered wines will usually be improved by extra years in the bottle. Since 2002, bottles that carry the words ‘Bottle matured’ must have enjoyed at least three years of bottle maturation before release.

Crusted Port may be considered a ‘poor man’s vintage port’. It is a blend of port wine from several vintages, which, like Vintage Port, is bottled unfiltered, and sealed with a driven cork. Like Vintage Port it needs to be decanted before drinking. Although Crusted ports will improve with age, the blending process is intended to make these wines approachable at a much younger age. The date on a Crusted Port bottle refers to the bottling date, not the year the grapes were grown.

Vintage Port. Although it accounts for only about two percent of production, vintage port is the flagship wine of all Portugal. Vintage port is made entirely from the grapes of a declared vintage year. Not every year is declared a vintage in the Douro; only those when conditions are favorable to the production of a fine and lasting wine. The decision on whether to declare a vintage is made in the spring of the second year following the harvest.

The decision to declare a vintage is made by each individual port house, often referred to as a ‘shipper’. The port industry is one where reputations are hard won and easily lost, so the decision is never taken lightly. During periods of recession and war, potential ‘declarations’ have sometimes been missed for economic reasons. In recent years, some shippers have adopted the ‘chateau’ principle for declarations, declaring all but the worst years. More conventional shippers will declare, on average, about three times a decade.

While it is by far the most renowned type of porto, from a volume and revenue standpoint, vintage port actually makes up only a small percentage of the production of most shippers. Vintage ports are aged in barrels for a maximum of two and a half years before bottling, and generally require another ten to thirty years of aging in the bottle before reaching what is considered a proper drinking age. Since they are aged in barrels for only a short time, they retain their dark ruby colour and fresh fruit flavours. Particularly fine vintage ports can continue to gain complexity and drink wonderfully for many decades after they were bottled, and therefore can be particularly sought-after and expensive wines. That said, compared with the very high prices of Bordeaux wines, vintage ports, even from the best years (at least from smaller concerns) are still affordable, albeit for many only for special occasions. Wine dealers, specialising in fine wines in the United Kingdom have, for example, excellent examples (some over twenty years old) at around £25/$51, with the very best starting at around £60/$122 per bottle (2008 prices)or even less. Examples of the famed 1963 vintage are available at time of writing (July 2008) for £61/$125 (Cockburns 1963, bottle, duty paid). Similar classics from Bordeaux and Burgundy are sold in the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pounds, even for recent vintages. The situation in the United States is much the same.

Single Vintage Port. This is a relatively new (at least in terms of marketing) development : it is vintage port produced from a particular vineyard and sometimes from a lesser “undeclared” year. However, some of the most renowned Vintage Ports are Single Quintas.

Much of the complex character of aged vintage port comes from the continued slow decomposition of grape solids in each bottle. However, these solids are undesirable when port is consumed, and thus vintage port typically requires a period of settling before decanting and pouring.

Vintage port should not be confused with ‘Late Bottled Vintage’

I found this cool site that shows in diagram form, the different designations of port. And here are some vocabulary terms associated with port:

Glossary of some Port Terms:

  • Baumé – the density scale used to determine the degree of sweetness of musts and sweet wines.
  • Benefício – the Portuguese expression used to describe the adding of grape brandy to fermenting wine.
  • Bouquet – the set of aromas that characterize a wine and that develop especially during fermentation and aging.
  • Crushing – action of smashing the grapes to release their juice.
  • Destemming – removing the stems from the grapes .
  • Draw off – to drain the juice from the tanks in which the wine is made, leaving the pomace behind.
  • Fortified wine – a special type of wine where, not excluding other situations duly defined in European Union legislation, the natural fermentation of the must produced by grapes is interrupted by adding grape brandy, as in the case of Port Wine.
  • Lot – the wine that is obtained by blending two or more wines.
  • Maceration – the prolonged contact of the must with the solid grape matter with a view to extracting the compounds that are responsible for giving it its color and aromas.
  • Must – unfermented grape juice.
  • Must fermenting - grape juice in which the alcohol it contains is fermenting.
  • Pomace – the solid matter from the crushed grapes that is impregnated with wine after the wine has been drawn off from the tanks in which it made or the dry matter that remains after the wet pomace has been pressed.
  • Pumping over - the procedure that consists of pumping the fermenting must from the bottom of the tank and pouring it in at the top of the same tank so as to air the must and encourage the extraction of the compounds responsible for giving it its color and to make it more homogeneous.
  • Racking from the lees – the process of transferring wine from one cask to another for purposes of separating it from the deposit it throws (lees) and airing it.
  • Treading – crushing the grapes by foot. from goodcooking.com

We could go on and on about Port; then this wouldn’t be just a wine “byte.” But since Joe’s mom asked about port, we thought maybe some of our readers might have some questions as well.

And that’s this week’s Another Wine Byte. Stayed tuned for extended posts about our adventured in Murphys, Twisted Oak, Occidental and Barrel Tasting in Russian River Valley!

Cheers to a Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Amy Corron Power, the WineWonkette ~ Amy Corron Power,
aka WineWonkette