While uncomplicated to make, Port is made in a bewildering variety of styles, ranging from wines designed for immediate enjoyment to those that require as long as twenty years of cellaring. They can be found at prices under $10 or sometimes hundreds of dollars a bottle.
Two Styles of Port
There are two general styles of Port with several sub-styles in each: “Wood-aged” Ports and “Bottle-aged” Ports. Bottle-aged Ports receive limited maturation in cask, cement, or stainless steel before bottling. They are intended to mature in the bottle, usually after you buy them. The less expensive bottle-aged Ports—Ruby, Reserve, and Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) are intended for consumption soon after purchase. True quality Vintage Port, on the other hand, is bottled without fining or filtration and will need decades to properly mature. These are among the world’s longest-lived wines and will always require decanting.
Wood-aged Ports are aged by the producer in casks over a long period of time, during which they take on a completely different flavor profile and turn slightly brownish in color. These are Tawny Ports. Tawny Ports can be found at bargain prices, but these are best avoided. Inexpensive tawnies are often made from inferior fruit and blended with white Port to achieve a pinkish cast. Quality tawnies take decades to make and are necessarily much more expensive, but with the prices of quality red table wines typically falling in the $20-50 range, a great Tawny Port costing $35 isn’t such an extravagance.
About three times in each decade the organization of Port wine producers “declares” a vintage. The wines from lesser vineyards will be made in an early drinking style. LBVs will carry the harvest date on the bottle, but do not confuse LBVs with Vintage Ports. Taylor-Fladgate released a 1994 LBV that retailed for around $15; its 1994 Vintage Port earned 100 points from the Wine Spectator and is priced at $200-250.
Many great vintages go undeclared for commercial reasons. For example, it is extremely rare for two consecutive years to be declared. The great Tawny Ports are typically made from the best non-declared vintages.
Quality Tawny Port
Great Tawny Ports are made from the finest fruit in undeclared years. The winemaking process is very simple and straightforward. It’s all about the quality fruit and cask aging. Most tawnies are aged for 10 years. The best tawnies are aged for 20, 30, or even 40 years. These wines are masterpieces of grace and complexity, carrying intriguing aromas and flavors of roasted nuts and dried fruits.
Unlike Vintage Port, which sleeps for decades in your cellar, Tawny Ports receive all their aging before bottling. The label of every quality Tawny Port will declare the approximate age of the wine and the year it was bottled. Tawny Ports are not intended to age in your cellar. They are ready to drink as soon as they are released and will not improve with further cellaring.
Once opened, Tawny Ports quickly fade. Ten year old tawnies should be consumed within a few days and should be stored in the refrigerator. Twenty year olds are sturdier, and thirty year olds even more so.