PORT SPEAKERS NOTES – WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 8, 2014
Port is made by running off partially fermented red wine, while it still contains at least half its grape sugar, into a vessel a quarter full of (often chilled) brandy. The brandy stops the fermentation so that the resulting mixture is both strong and sweet. But the wine also needs the pigmentation of the grape skins to colour it, and their tannin to preserve it. In normal wines these are extracted during the course of fermentation, but since with port the fermentation is unnaturally short, pigmentation and tannin have to be procured some other way – which traditionally in the Douro means by treading.
Treading is a means of macerating the grape skins in their juice so as to extract all their essences. The naked foot is the perfect tool for this, being warm and doing no damage to the pips, which would make the juice bitter if they were crushed. Rhythmically stamping thigh-deep in the mixture of juice and skins in a broad stone trough (lagar) is the traditional treatment for giving port its colour, its grapiness and its ability to last and improve for many years.
Most port producers, or shippers, have introduced some sort of mechanical substitute for treading, either computer-controlled mechanical paddles or an autovinifier, a specially adapted closed fermenting vat which automatically pumps new wine over the skins.
Perhaps three years out of ten conditions are near perfect for port-making. The best wine of these years needs no blending; nothing can improve it except time. It is bottled at 2 years like red Bordeaux, labelled simply with its shippers name and the date. This is vintage port, and it is made in tiny quantities, there is never enough of it. Eventually, perhaps after 20 years it will have a fatness and fragrance, richness and delicacy, which is incomparable.
A great vintage port is incontestably among the world’s very best wines. Most other port from near-vintage standard to merely moderate, goes through a blending process to emerge as a branded wine of a given character. This wine aged in wood, matures in a different way, more rapidly to someth8ing much mellower. A very old wood port is comparatively pale (“tawny” is the term) but particularly smooth. The best aged tawnies, usually labelled 20 years (although other permitted age claims are 10, 30 and Over 40 years), can cost as much as vintage ports; many people prefer their gentleness to the full fat fieriness which vintage port can keep for decades. Chilled tawny is the standard drink of port shippers.
Ports labelled Colheita (Portuguese for “harvest”) are wood-aged ports from a single year, expressive tawnies which are usually drunk as soon as possible after the bottling date, which should appear on the label.
Vintage port has disadvantages. It needs keeping for a very long time. And it needs handling with great care. As the making of the wine does not reach its end until after bottling, the sediment forms a “crust” on the side of the bottle, a thin, delicate, dirty looking veil. If the bottle is moved, other than very gingerly, the crust will break and mix with the wine, so that it has to be filtered out again. Vintage Ports are usually chalked to show the side to face up while storing.
“Ports” Around the World – so-called Ports are made in the U.S., South Africa and Australia among other places. These fortified wines, while they may be quite extraordinary (as they are particularly in Australia) are not true Ports. Like authentic Champagne or Sherry, real Port comes only from its historic demarcated region.
The Styles of Port There are 10 different styles of Port, each one unique, though their similar-sounding names make it difficult to remember them all. Before examining the different styles, it’s important to note that all Port falls into one of two major categories, those that are aged predominantly in wood (or in a tank() and those that are aged predominantly in bottles. Predominantly wood aged Ports are ready to drink right after they are bottled and shipped.
Vintage Port is the most famous type of bottle aged Port. After this long aging, bottled-aged Ports throw a sediment, which, of course, should remain in the bottle. Most bottle-aged Ports therefore need to be decanted.
The 10 styles of Port are described beginning, as much as possible with the simplest styles. Regrettably, organizing the styles of Port into a logical progression isn’t as easy as it might seem since many styles of Port are interdependent in the sense that the prerequisite for understanding one style is understanding another. Therein lies the rub!
White Port is the simplest type of Port – so simple, it’s barely considered Port by many Port lovers. It’s also a bit of an aberration, being made from indigenous but fairly obscure white grapes. It represents only a small amount of the total production of Port.
This is the least complex style of the red Ports, and its inexpensive. It receives almost no bottle age before release. Fruity and straightforward ruby Port is a blend of young wines from different years, all of which have been in barrels or tanks for 2 or 3 years.
YOUNG TAWNY PORT
There are 2 widely different types of tawny Port: young (unaged) tawny and aged tawny. Young tawny Port, like ruby Port, is basic and uncomplicated. It is less than 3 years old.
AGED TAWNY PORT
Usually designated on the label as either 10, 20, 30 or more than 40 years old, aged tawny Ports are among the best-loved Ports in Portugal, Britain, and France. They are drunk both as aperitifs and at the close of a meal.
The wines used for aged tawnies are of the highest quality. In fact these wines often go into vintage Port in the years when a vintage is declared. However, because they are made in completely different ways, aged tawnies and vintage Ports taste nothing alike. Aged tawnies are about finesse; vintage Ports, about power.
LATE BOTTLED VINTAGE PORT
Late bottled vintage Ports – LBVs – are also somewhat confusingly named. These are Ports from a single vintage that have been aged in the barrel for four to six years and then bottled. They are ready to drink when the shipper releases them. Though LBV’s have been barrel aged for four years (as opposed to vintage Port’s two), they are usually not substantial enough wines to have the potential to age for decades more in the bottle (which vintage Port can). But don’t be misled. Late bottled vintage Ports, despite their impressive sound name, are not the equal of vintage Ports. They are wines of very good quality from good, not great years, but they lack the richness, complexity, and sophistication of vintage Port.
TRADITIONAL LATE BOTTLED VINTAGE PORT
Only a few Port shippers still make a traditional late bottled vintage Port which is closer to vintage Port than to the standard LBV. Traditional late bottled vintage Ports are made like vintage Ports, but they come from good, not great (declared) years.
No Port is more sought after- or expensive. Vintage Port represents only 2 – 3 percent of the total production of Port. It is made only in very good years when Port shippers declare a vintage. All of the grapes in the blend will come only from that vintage and from top vineyards in the best parts of the Douro.
Vintage Ports are first aged two years in a barrel, to round off their powerful edges, and then can age a long time in bottle. During bottle aging the Port matures slowly, becoming progressively more refined and integrated. A decade’s worth of aging is standard, and several decades used to be fairly common.
To maintain the intensity and richness of vintage Port, it is not filtered. It therefore throws a great deal of sediment as it matures in the bottle and must be decanted.
The U.S. is the largest market in the world for one sty of Port, vintage Port.
Vintage Port can only be made in exceptional years when the young wines show near perfect balance. In these years the shipper must first declare a vintage. In years not declared for vintage Port, Port shippers take the grapes they might have used for vintage Port and blend them into other styles.
According to historical record, the first Ports from a single vintage were made around 1734
CRUSTED PORTCrusted Port is designated as such because it leaves a heavy crust, or sediment, in the bottle. This is simply a basic good hearty Port, made form a blend of several different years (the average age of the wines in the blend is 3-4 years), that has been bottled unfiltered. As a result, it throws a sediment and must be decanted. Gustsy, full- bodied, and moderately priced, it’s sometimes described as the working man’s vintage Port.