- Steven Kolpan
- Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.
Port: Wine by the Fireside
"It should feel like liquid fire in the stomach; should have the tint of ink; it should be like the sugar of Brazil in sweetness and the spices of India in aromatic flavour."
-Association of Port Wine Shippers, 1754
Port is a largely misunderstood and undervalued pleasure. Few of us drink it with any regularity, but when we do we wonder why we usually don't. Port is the perfect example of a mystery; a riddle wrapped inside an enigma. Port is hard to figure out, and when we do comprehend it, the facts are just as surprising and just as confusing as blissful ignorance.
Port is not one wine; it is many, and yet each port is singular. Port is not made from one grape; it can be made from 48 different legal varietals, and yet only six find their way into the finest wines. True Port must come from the Douro valley of Portugal, and yet the wine is not made in the namesake town, Oporto; it is shipped from there, but not all of it. In addition, "port" is produced in California (pretty awful, except for Quady and Ficklin ports) and Australia (pretty good export versions, especially Yalumba and Peter Lehmann).
We often think of Vintage Port as the only Port that matters, but less than two per cent of the port produced in the Douro is Vintage. Most Port ages in wood (Ruby, Tawny, Vintage Character, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), Colheita, and Crusted Ports), one Port ages in the bottle (Vintage) and some age in both cask and bottle (the finest LBV). White Port does not age at all.
Port is a flavorful, sweet fortified wine, but it is not really fortified with flavorful high-quality brandy; it is fortified with aguardiente, a clear, flavorless grape distillate that is 77% alcohol -- brandy is usually only 40 to 45% alcohol.
The perfect time to drink a fine Port during the course of a meal is after dessert and before coffee, but it is most often served with blue-veined Stilton and Cheddar cheeses before dessert. Port can be a wonderful, warming, luxurious, sensual and expensive drink on its own in the winter in front of a fireplace, but suffers from an image of cheap White Port cut with lemon juice as a warm-weather "street" wine. "ripple" is exactly that: California-made Gallo generic white port cut with lemon juice.
So, the purpose of this column is to debunk Port, and depending on how fast you read, make you a 1, 2, 3, or 4 minute Port expert. You need only taste a fine Port during or after reading to make the experience complete.
The six best grapes for port are all red, and five are native to the Douro: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Francesa, and Tinta Amarela. The sixth, Tinta Roriz, is actually the finest red grape of Spain, Tempranillo, transplanted to the warmer Douro vineyards.
The Douro valley is planted with 82,000 acres of grapes, and there are 80,000 individual vineyards - quintas - owned by close to 30,000 growers. Each quinta is classified according to a complex system of points given or subtracted for vineyard location; grape varieties; microclimate; slope, altitude, and aspect; soil types, age of the vines; vine density; vineyard maintenance. A is the highest classification, F is the lowest, and indicates the level of benificio -- the official price the vineyard receives for its grapes, and the yield per acre (hectare in Europe) permitted at each vineyard.
The fermentation of the base wine stops at a low six to eight per cent alcohol, because the most important reading in the wine is not really the amount of alcohol produced, but the amount of residual sugar in the grape must. The winemaker can always get more alcohol from the aguardiente, but once the sugar turns to alcohol, it cannot be retrieved. Since all ports are sweet, residual sugar is the key to the base wine.
For every 97 gallons of base wine produced, approximately 24 gallons of aguardiente is added, and the blend measures about 18%-19% alcohol. 121 gallons (or 550 liters) is the size of a Port pipe -- the size of the barrel traditionally used for shipping Port.
The producer then decides if and how much white, ruby, or tawny port to make. White Port, made from inferior white grapes, is a largely disposable drink. If you can find this style from Niepoort or Ferreira, they are worth investigating, but otherwise take a pass on White Port.
All red Port starts as either Ruby or Tawny Port. Depending on how the Ruby Port is aged, it may become:
• Basic Ruby: The least expensive of all Ports are the Rubies with less than one year of age in wood. They should be consumed immediately, and do not improve in the bottle. The best Ruby Port is made from various vintages and aged fro up to four years in casks. This style, though still fruity and fresh, has better balance than the cheapest Ruby. Some of the best Ruby Ports: Cock burn's Special Reserve, Fonseca Bin 27, Graham's Six Grapes and Warre's Warrior.
• Vintage Character: These are older Ruby Ports from different vintages that are blended together, but really bear no resemblance to true Vintage Port, except that the color is blacker than most Rubies. Avoid most of these, except for Cálem, Churchill's, Ferreira, and Sandeman's Signature.
• Crusted Port: The best styles are made from the best multi-vintage Rubies, aged for about four years in the cask, and then three more in the bottle before release. This Port needs to be decanted and really does through a crusty sediment throughout the bottle, most especially in the neck. It should be open with Port tongs, which have been heated over a fire. The tongs neatly crack the neck of the bottle, so that the wine need not be poured over the neck sediment while decanting. Good Crusted Port will improve for up to about eight years in the bottle. Best examples: Churchill's and Smith Woodhouse.
• Late Bottled Vintage (LBV): These are wines made from a single year's harvest, but not a great, or "Vintage" year. These are pretty light wines which have been aged for up to six years in the cask. Most of the wines are then filtered, and so have nothing left to work with to further mature in the bottle. The best are unfiltered, and will improve in the bottle, but not more than five years. "Invented" for restaurants who want to sell a vintage-dated product, but doesn't have the clientele for the much more expensive true Vintage Port. My least favorite style of Port, I would avoid any that do not have a driven cork, rather than a wood or plastic-topped stopper. Some of the best LBVs: Niepoort, Ramos-Pinto, Graham's, and Warre's.
• Single Quinta: This is wine from a single vineyard, and often among the most interesting Port styles. Single Quinta can be a classic Vintage Port, but most are non-vintage, and aged in cask until ready for release. They are almost never filtered, and need decanting. Increasingly popular as a boutique wine, because of its exclusive nature; some of these quintas are quite small. Single Quinta wines age for at least seven years, and the finest will improve in the bottle for up to 20 years. Often more expensive than classic Vintage Port. Look for Cálem Quinta de Foz, Ferreira Quinta do Seixo, Fonseca Quinto do Panascal, Ramos-Pinto Quinto da Urriga, Taylor-Fladgate Quinta de Vargellas, Niepoort Quinta do Noval, and Warre's Quinta da Cavadinha.
•Vintage Port: Each Port producer decides if it is a "vintage" year, and they don't always agree. By law, the producer must declare the harvest year a vintage between the first and second year following the harvest, and the wine must be bottled between the second and third year from the date of harvest. This means that Vintage Port spends very little time in the barrel, and the overwhelming majority of its life in the bottle. It is not unusual for a Vintage Port, depending on the quality of the vintage, to take 20 to 30 years to mature (the 1970 is just now ready to drink, but the 1977 was ready more than five years ago). Decanting is essential, and Port tongs are a great help in the decanting process. If you drink this wine young, it is harsh, tannic, and sweet. As it matures, and the tannins turn to sediment, the harshness fades, and the wine is warming, spicy, fruity, and balanced. A favorite in Great Britain; the Brits have controlled a large piece of the Port trade since battling the Spanish Armada, and granting the equivalent of most-favored-nation status to Portugal. Best vintages: 1994 (almost impossible to find and really expensive; about $100 per bottle), 1985, 1983, 1977, 1970, 1966, 1963, 1955, 1948, 1945, 1935, 1931, 1927. Even the oldest wines will bring great pleasure to the Vintage Port lover.
Depending on how Tawny Port is aged, it may become:
• Basic Tawny Port: The cheapest Tawny styles are blends of White and Ruby ports, and although the blenders do a pretty good job, this style suffers by comparison to a true Tawny, which is aged for seven years, and released in it eighth. These wines are very good values. True Tawnies include: Dow's Boardroom and Warre's Nimrod.
• Designated-Age Tawny Port: I love the aged Tawny Ports, because they are so mellow, nutty, smooth and silky. The labels read 10, 20, 30, or 40 Year-Old Tawny. Theoretically, the youngest wine in the barrel should be no younger than the age designated on the label, but in practice, the Port Wine Institute tastes the product and says, "OK, That's what a 20 year old Tawny should taste like," and allows its release. The best producers release only those wines that are close to the designated age, but sometimes the tasters can be fooled by good blending of younger wines. This wine is ready to drink; it's been aged for you, so it won't improve in the bottle. Some of the best producers: Cock burn's, Croft, Dow's, Fonseca, Graham's, Niepoort, Offley, Ramos-Pinto, Smith-Woodhouse, Sandeman, Taylor Fladgate, Warre's.
Some single-quinta designated-age Tawny Ports are also produced, as well as a very small amount of vintage dated Tawny Port, which may have spent as much as 50 years in the barrel; these are often called Colheita Ports.
Fine Port is a meditation on sweetness, richness, opulence, even decadence. Whether or not we know anything about the Port is not really germane to a discussion of its pleasures, but is always nice to know a bit about why and how such rare treasures come to life.