We love port at Grand Cata. And while we have many customers that ask for it specifically, we also get many curious inquiries about it. So, we figured we’d put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and give you a brief intro to port, to either pique your interest in this deliciously sweet, fortified wine, or help you fill out the picture if you’re already familiar.
Port can be broken down into two macro styles: ruby and tawny. They refer to the color, and also the flavor profile. Ruby tastes like chocolate cake drizzled with berry reduction, and tawny tastes like coffee walnut crumble cake topped with caramel.
Ruby spends less time in oak barrels, and can age for decades after bottling. In this case, you are tasting more the grapes than the process. For this reason, all "vintage" ports, where the grapes all come from the same year, are also ruby. Only about half of the last 50 years have been deemed good enough to be labeled "vintage ports." Producers only make them in exceptional years, similar to Champagne.
Tawny, on the other hand, will generally be labeled as a "5 year," "10 year," "15 year," etc, and you are tasting the process as much as the grapes. (Bare with us here, this next part is slightly confusing). These ports are neither exactly the age on the bottle, nor are they bottled that number of years after being vinified. Instead, producers employ a panel of tasters that determines when a particular blend of multiple years tastes like a 5 year, 10 year, etc. Blenders will take wine from dozens of different barrels, which themselves may have been blended together, until they get the attributes they want. The higher the year count, the more expensive the tawny. Since it takes age in the barrel to get color and flavor, you can be assured that most of the wine in a age-labeled port is in fact about as old as the label says.
Rubys can also be blended from multiple years, too, but they are generally bottled before the wine is more than a few years old.
The differences are mostly due to how much the wine oxidizes before it goes in the bottle. Tawny ports are heavily oxidized, and therefore will last much longer after being opened. Both rubys and tawnys can be aged in the bottle for a very, very long time, and often are. Ruby's last about a month after being opened, tawnys 6 months or more.
The grapes for both types are sourced from the Douro Valley, about 75km up the Douro River. Porto itself is situated at the mouth of this river. Some port houses now exist in Douro itself, but most port is made in Porto. The main grapes in port are also the same grapes found in dry table wines from Portugal: touriga nacional, touriga franca, tinta roriz, tinta barroca, bastardo, to name a few. There are dozens that can be used.
The sweetness in port is natural. Producers will fortify the wine - add a neutral flavored spirit, usually grape brandy - once the desired level of sugar remains during fermentation. Fortifying kills the yeast and stops the fermentation, while leaving the resulting wine with anywhere from 15% to 25% ABV.
If you're looking for where to start, we generally recommend starting with tawny. Good ones are a bit easier on the wallet, and the flavors are universally loved. While you can find a good blended ruby, we believe that if you’re going to go with a ruby, you should grab a vintage one.
Many of the more famous port houses actually have British names. British shipping merchants came up with port as way to keep the wine stable during transport back to Britain, which to this day remains an essential market for port producers. Recently, however, more and more native Portuguese producers are popping up, especially in the Douro Valley itself.
The final piece we’d like to leave you with about port is what to drink it with. Obviously, being so sweet, it works great as an after dinner dessert wine. In this context, we highly suggest that you grab some bleu cheese, even if you don’t normally like it. With both rubys and tawnys, the combination is sublime.
Another classic pairing with port is a nice cigar. You can also whip up some amazing cocktails with any style, though we suggest you save the nicest stuff for sipping on its own. Finally, if you’re feeling super adventurous, steak with a demi glaze creates an unreal pairing with vintage ruby.