Port, or Porto, if you want to be technically correct, can be confusing. There are varying levels of quality, ranging from the wine you cook with in your kitchen (odds are it’s not a true Port), to exquisite vintage Ports costing hundreds of dollars. There are also different styles of Port with vastly different flavor profiles.
What Port Is: The base wine is “fortified” with wine brandy to stop fermentation, thus the use of the term fortified. When fermentation is stopped, some of the sugar in the juice is left in the wine. This natural sweetness remains in the finished product.
To be a true Port the product must come from Portugal. A variety of grapes are used to create Port, including Touriga Francesa, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, and Tinta Barroca. Approximately thirty different grapes may be used in making Port. Port was one of the first wine regions to be officially demarcated way back in 1756.
This fortified wine is classified as either bottle aged Port or barrel aged Port. Bottle aged Ports are, as their name indicates, aged in the bottle for most of their life. Bottle aged Ports are categorized as ruby Port, late bottled vintage (LBV) Port and vintage Port. Barrel aged Ports are known as Tawny Port and Colheita (cuhl-YAY-tah) Port.
Ruby Port: Ports for beginners. It's perfectly acceptable to start with these easy to enjoy sweet wines. “Baby” Ports, they’re composed of blends of various grapes, usually aged in vats for two or three years prior to being bottled. These wines are young, sweet, fruity, strong (compared to other wines), and ruby red in color. They are the most affordable, simplest and most straightforward of all Ports.
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port: From a single year (vintage). They are known as the “poor person’s vintage Port” because they offer many of the same characteristics as vintage Ports for a fraction of the price, LBV Ports are excellent values. Bottled between the fourth and sixth year from harvest, they mimic some of the depth and elegance of vintage Port. LBV Ports will hold up for about a month after being opened. As with all wine, keeping the bottle in the refrigerator will extend its enjoyability.
Tawny Port: Aged in the barrel instead of the bottle. When aged in barrels, oxygen softens and mellows the wine. This oxidative aging also changes the color of the wine, hence the characterization of the wines as Tawny Port. The term Tawny is frequently used as a description of color. These wines lose their bright reddish purple color and turn Tawny in color! Tawny Port is very different than Ruby Port, LBV and vintage Port.
Standard Tawny Port is aged in wood for up to six years and is blended with wines from other vintages. Aged Tawny Port is mellow and rich. Made from top grapes from excellent years these wines are bottled as 10 year, 20 year, 30 year, or even 40 year wines. They are labeled according to the average age of the Ports in the blend. These soft and sensuous fortified wines are dessert all by themselves.
Vintage Port The best of the best. Made only in “vintage years”, these wines are some of the finest in the world. While vintage Port is the most famous of all Ports, only about three per cent (3%) of all Port is vintage Port. This is part of the reason it is expensive. A note on the cost of vintage Port. It is truly underpriced when considered with other great wines of the world. A little goes a long way, it keeps when stored properly and is an extremely luxurious glass of wine.