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Inside Knowledge: what is Port wine?

What is Port wine?

In Short:

Port is a fortified wine made in the Douro Valley, Portugal. It's typically a sweet red wine, but it can also come dry, semi-dry or made from white grapes.

Port is a fortified wine made in the Douro Valley, which is a region that surrounds the highest-flowing river of the Iberian Peninsula, in northern Portugual. Port-style wines are produced in many other countries, notably Australia, USA and Spain, but they cannot label themselves 'Port' due to European Union Protected Designation of Origin laws.

How is Port made?

More than 80 grape varieties can be used to make Port. But they all must be grown in the Douro Valley. The main varieties are Touriga Nacional, Tempranillo (which is here known as Tinta Roriz), Tinta Cão, Tinta Barroca and Touriga Franca.

The selection of grapes is picked, pressed and fermented just as they are when a still wine is created. But before all the sugar turns into alcohol, a neutral grape spirit is added. This stops the fermentation and retains some of the residual sugar, usually creating an off-dry 'fortified' dessert wine with an alcohol level around 20% ABV.

Many Ports are then aged in oak barrels – some for many years. This gradual, slow exposure to oxygen can create characteristics that many find desirable. And the oak influence gifts flavours of vanilla and cedar.

What does Port taste like?

There are four main styles of Port:

What is ruby Port? Ruby Port is the most common style of Port. It's usually stored in stainless steel to preserve the bright, fruity flavours. The lack of oxygen exposure also retains its ruby-red hue.

Try Fonseca's 'Reserve'

What is tawny Port? Tawny Port is aged in oak barrels, as opposed to stainless steel tanks. Wooden barrels are water proof but don't seal out oxygen – their microscopic holes allow just enough to come through. This small amount of oxidation doesn't spoil the wine but lends favourable nutty caramel flavours and a rusty, 'tawny' shade.

We recommend Croft's classic 'Reserve'

What is late-bottled vintage Port? Late-bottled vintage (LBV) Port is a ruby Port made from the grapes of a single high-quality year and aged for up to six years in the barrel before it's bottled. After its time in oak, it's usually ready to drink as soon as you've popped its cork. When you choose well, late-bottle vintage Port is fantastic value.

Get yours in a handy decanter size here.

What is vintage Port? Vintage Port is made only in the very best years. The estate must come to a decision to 'declare' a vintage before creating the Port and ageing it in the barrel. These vintage bottlings are then usually aged in the cellar – sometimes for a number of decades – and continuously improve with age. It's not uncommon for the greatest of these to keep for a century.

Taylor's 'Quinta de Vargellas' is one of the very best vintage Ports you'll find.

How long will your open bottle of Port last?

As Port is a fortified wine with a slightly higher alcohol percentage, it will keep for longer than a still wine. Interestingly, part of Port's initial popularity was down to this durability.

But it's ultimately a wine that will be ruined by too much oxygen exposure. As a rule of thumb, it's best to drink ruby and tawny Ports four to six weeks after you've opened them and finish late-bottled vintage Port within one to two weeks. The subtle complexities of vintage Port will dampen after 24 hours – so choose wisely and open it on a very special occasion. Make sure you store any style of Port in a cool, dark place to slow down oxidation.

What are the best Port houses?

There's plenty of fantastic Port producers in the Douro Valley. Some of our favourites are:

Taylor's one of the oldest, most-respected houses that's as traditional as it comes. In the 1720s, Peter Bearsley, the son of the founder of Taylor's, was the first person from the English wine trade to embark on the Douro Valley. Today, Taylor's is widely considered the gold standard of aged tawny port. Taste their limited-edition Historical Edition tawny here.

Croft is another of the most highly renowned Port houses. Although it's the oldest producer in the Douro Valley that's still active today, beginning in 1588, it continues to innovate – look for the house's Croft Pink, the first ever rosé Port, if you're after something quite different. But if you want a true taste of tradition, we'd recommend the 10 Year Old Tawny.

Fonseca began in 1840 and produces what's arguably the finest vintage Port. It was the first house to create a Port entirely from organic grapes. But, for many, it's best known for the Bin No.27, a reserve Port made from a blend of vintages to create a true house style.

How do you decant Port?

Decanting Port, particularly vintage Port, can allow the flavours to 'open up' and reveal some of its more subtle characteristics. And it's surprisingly straightforward. Just follow these two simple steps a few hours before serving.

- Keep the bottle upright for 15 minutes. If it's an older vintage (around 30 years old), make this 30 minutes.

- Pour the Port directly into the decanter and stop when you see the sediment approach the bottle's neck. Be careful not to pour any of this sediment into the decanter.

Whatever Port you're enjoying, we hope you've got the great selection of cheeses to pair with it – here's to a truly decadent glassful.