Port is the best known of the triumvirate of famed fortified wines. (The other two being Sherry and Madeira.) Port is sweet, almost always red, and usually enjoyed after dinner. The name is derived from the city of Oporto, Portugal's second largest. The name Port has followed the same plight of name larceny that has befallen the great wine regions of Champagne, Burgundy, and Chablis to name but a few. Fortunately, New World wine producers have for the most part stopped pirating the use of famous wine region names but for the glaring exception of fortified wines. This fact so troubled the original Portuguese shippers that in 1968 they began to specially label their wines destined for the US with the name "Porto." This was to no avail as the name Porto never really caught on, and wine producers in the New World continue to label their sweet red fortified wines as Port.

There are several different styles of Port, many of which are beyond value considerations. New World examples vary greatly in style and price; however, the US and Australia still offer the most bang for the buck, as highly rated wines from both nations are often in the $10 range. Portuguese values can generally be found in Vintage Character or Ruby style Ports.

In general terms Port is made by crushing red grapes and beginning fermentation in the usual way. In 3 to 4 days the fermenting crushed grapes have reached an alcohol content of about 6% with 10% residual sugar remaining. At this point the juice is drained to vats containing a very strong (over 150 proof) neutral spirit. The ratio of wine to spirit is typically 4 to 1. The high alcohol environment is very inhospitable to yeast, thus stopping fermentation. The resulting Port contains 19 to 21 percent alcohol and 9 to 10 percent residual sugar.

There are two basic types of Port, Vintage Port and wood aged Port. Vintage Port is the rarest, being made from selected lots of wine in only the best or "Vintage" years. A Vintage year is declared approximately 3 to 4 times a decade and is usually done in agreement by the major houses, but not always. The wine spends only two years in cask before it is bottled. It retains its fresh grapey character, having been affected minimally by wood. Vintage Ports are presumed to be aged in the bottle, as it is customary to enjoy them when they have matured for a decade or more. Fine examples can improve over the span of five decades and beyond. As one may suspect true Portuguese Vintage Port is expensive, starting at roughly $25 and rising sharply from there.

Wood aged Ports are influenced by extended periods of cask aging, resulting in a wine that is ready to drink upon release. They are most often a blend from several Port vineyards and vintages with the exception of Late-Bottled Vintage Port (LBV). Late-Bottled Vintage Port is a blend from various vineyards in the same vintage. These wines are handled much like Vintage Port but are typically aged for 5 to 6 years in cask before being bottled. Sadly, most LBV Ports have exceeded $15. Serve at room temperature and don't be alarmed by a little sediment, it is perfectly natural. You can minimize sediment in the glass by up-righting the bottle several hours before serving.

Ruby Port, and its finer incarnation of Vintage-Character Port, is a house styled blend. These wines are deeply colored, fruity, and sweet. Ruby Port typically sees 3 years of cask age while Vintage-Character Port is aged as long as an LBV. Vintage-Character Ports are the best of the Ruby Ports coming just shy of standards necessary for Vintage Port. These wines are often great bargains.

Tawny Port is an extreme departure in style from the others as extended wood aging alters both appearance and flavor. These wines are a blend of several vintages. The color ranges from ruby to soft amber or “tawny” for which the style is named. Tawny Port varies greatly in price, escalating with age. The best examples give an indication of age, typically in increments of decades from 10 to 30 years. Value priced Tawny Port rarely gives an indication of age and may be “made” by blending red and white Ports. Tawny is lighter and drier than other Port styles, exhibiting a wonderful nutty flavor. They may be ideal for those who generally find Port to be too grapey and cloying.

In Australia, Port is an important style with a long-standing tradition. In the earliest days of the industry Port was the primary concern of most every vintner. Until the 1960s, Port made up roughly 75% of domestic sales. Today, as in the past, Aussie Port is typically made with the nation's top red varietal, Shiraz. The variety is well suited to the task of fortified wine as its rustic brambly flavors are accentuated by the elevated sugars and alcohol. Be careful when pairing these wines with desserts or cheeses, as many examples are twice as sweet as their Portuguese counterparts.

US Port can be a great value, largely due to the fact that it is under-appreciated. This despite the fact that US Ports can be surprisingly good, as California’s interior and many other parts of the country provide the sort of sunshine and searing heat that these wines thrive on. In California the style accounts for about 3% of total wine production. Many varieties have been used, including a few stalwarts that persist with traditional Portuguese grapes. More often, however, Zinfandel or even Cabernet will find its way into the Port vat. In eastern states, Port varieties and subsequent styles vary greatly. Consult the accompanying tasting notes for flavor, sugar, and stylistic information.
It is likely that we will always have value Port, as the major Portuguese houses seem committed to offering an "every day" Port. Port in the value price range will not improve in the bottle and is therefore ready to drink the moment it is purchased. Typically these wines will not vary from year to year. Port is most often enjoyed after the meal, either with dessert or as a dessert. Serve at a cool room temperature. Be sure to try the classic pairing of Stilton, an English Blue cheese, and Port. (Wine/Appellations)