An Overview of the World’s Greatest Fortified Wines – Part Two
Port is Portugal’s most famous fortified wine and one of the world’s most admired. The vineyards and some of the maturation facilities are in the Douro region; the trade is based in the cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. Vila Nova de Gaia, situated just south of Port, is also where the historic Port maturation lodges are located. Unlike Sherry, Port is always sweet and based on a blend of red grapes, which results in a purple, ruby, or tawny color depending on the aging process. Five red grapes used to produce port, Touriga Nacional (the finest), Touriga Franca (the most widely planted), Tinta Roriz (also known as Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão. A small quantity of white Port is also produced from white grapes.
Quick extraction of color and tannins is critical in the production of Port. Traditionally, this was achieved by foot treading in lagares (shallow granite throughs); today, extraction is achieved mainly by using mechanical methods such as autovinifiers, piston plungers, or robotic lagares. Once enough color is extracted, grape brandy is added to arrest the fermentation early to retain high sugar levels and reach a final alcohol content of about 19-20% abv.
The Styles of Port
As for many fortified wines, what defines the different styles of Port is the aging process. There are three major style categories, Ruby, Vintage, and Tawny.
Ruby includes Ruby Port and Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV). Ruby Port is a basic, inexpensive, non-vintage style of Port. It is typically matured for one to three years in inert vessels. These are simple, straightforward, fruity wines with deep color, soft tannins, and moderate acidity. Reserve Ruby Port is a step up in quality and character compared to Ruby. It is made from higher quality grapes, and it is aged for longer (up to five years) than Ruby in large oak casks, resulting in better alcohol integration and complex flavors of black and red fruit with sweet spice notes. Late Bottle Vintage Port resembles Reserve Ruby Port in style and quality, but grapes come from a single vintage. LBV is aged four to six years in casks and can be considered a more approachable and affordable alternative to Vintage Port. All the wines in the Ruby category are ready to drink as soon as released and do not require decanting, except for unfiltered LBV, which, similar to Vintage Port, benefit from bottle aging and require decanting.
Vintage Ports are at the top of the Port quality pyramid and represent Port's finest and longest-lived examples. Vintage Port is made only in the best years, and the grapes are sourced from the best vineyards. Following a short period of aging (two to three years) in large oak vessels or stainless-steel vats, Vintage Port is bottled unfined and unfiltered. Traditionally, Vintage Port was meant for aging in bottle to smoothen out its fiery and sturdy tannic character. Recent vintages, however, have become increasingly more approachable when young, with softer tannins and a great concentration of fruit. Vintage Port benefits from bottle aging, gaining balance, harmony, and greater complexity (prune, leather, coffee, cooked fruit). Due to the intense color and the high levels of tannins, Vintage Port tends to throw a heavy deposit with bottle age, requiring careful decanting. A Single Quinta Vintage Port is a Vintage Port made from a single estate (quinta).
As the name implies, Tawny Ports are paler, yellowish-brown in color. Wines labeled as Tawny Port are aged only for a short period (similar to Ruby Port), and the lighter, pinkish color is achieved by using lighter wines or blending white Port. Tawny Port is an inexpensive version of Tawny with sweet fruit aromas and notes of toffee and caramel. As for Ruby Port, there is also a Reserve Tawny Port that is higher quality than basic Tawny; it is aged for longer in oak vessels (at least seven years), resulting in more complex flavors of walnut, caramel, and chocolate. The best Tawny Ports are those that go through a long period of oxidative aging in large oak casks (pipes), known as Tawny Ports with Indication of Age. They are labeled as 10, 20, 30, and 40 years old (the number of years represents an average of the aging period rather than the minimum aging required). Extended aging in oak casks results in a lighter, brownish color, more intense oxidative character, and greater complexity and concentration of flavors (walnut, toasted almond, dried fruit, raisin, coffee, toffee, caramel). As Ruby style, all Tawny Ports do not require decanting. They are best consumed soon after bottling and served slightly chilled.
A discussion about the most celebrated fortified wines of the world would not be complete without mentioning Madeira. Produced in the evocative Portuguese island of Madeira, located in the North Atlantic Ocean, some 600 miles southwest of Portugal, Madeira is considered the world’s longest-lived wine. It is produced from five main grapes, the red variety Tinta Negra (the island’s workhorse grape) and the four noble white varieties, Sercial, Verdelho, Boal, and Malvasia.
Madeira is fortified to retain sweetness and to reach about 19-20% abv. The style and character of Madeira are shaped by the unique maturation process known as maderization, where heat plays a fundamental role. After fortification, the wines are either matured in estufas or canteiros. When aged in estufas, the wines are heated in vessels (called estufas) at 113-122 F for at least three months. When aged in canteiros, the wines are matured for at least three years in old oak casks on racks (called canteiros) in lofts heated by the sun. All the best wines are matured in canteiros, while the estufa method is used for more commercial wines. The heat accelerates the maturation process and caramelizes the sugars, resulting in the typical ‘maderized’ character with intense oxidative aromas of burnt sugar, molasses, caramel, cooked fruit, roasted nuts, smoke, and dried fruit. Another prominent feature of Madeira is its vibrant, racy acidity that perfectly balances the wine’s sweetness. Unlike any other wine, thanks to the maderization process, Madeira is virtually indestructible and, even after opening, the wine will not deteriorate, keeping much of its character and taste.