While there are a bunch of different styles of port most of them can be grouped together into related familes. The first of these that I’m going to witter about is the less oxidised trio of Ruby, Vintage and Late Bottled Vintage ports. Two of the main ideas behind port maturation are the allowing and restriction of air contact with the wine and this group are all about restriction. From last time, we’ve got wine that’s had its fermentation stopped early by the addition of neutral alcohol, creating a sweet grape based booze. It’s then transported to the port producer, at which point our story continues…
Ruby is the most common and generally cheapest form of port. When the wine arrives at the producer it is decanted into large vats or tanks of stainless steel, concrete or wood, where it is left for at least three years before being fined, filtered to remove any sediment, blended to maintain the house character and then bottled. The large storage containers mean that a smaller surface area is exposed to the air leading to less interaction with oxygen, so that the wine keeps its colour and also doesn’t change its flavour too much due to oxidisation. As the wine has been filtered it won’t change much in the bottle and isn’t consequently aged, leading to the cheaper price.
Vintage port takes the idea of ruby further by reducing the oxygen exposure even more. After an initial aging (in vat or barrel) of up to 2.5 years the wine is bottled unfiltered and then left to continue maturing under glass. The yeasts and other sediment allows the wine to develop over the years, often taking decades to reach its peak. In addition to this length of time before drinking the amount of vintage port produced is further restricted by the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP), the body that governs port production, both by regulating whether a port can be called a vintage and also by restricting the quantity of port that can be produced as vintage. In the spring of the second year after harvest each port house can choose to declare a vintage, at which point samples of the ruby port that they have been maturing with an eye to becoming a vintage are sent to the IVDP for quality control. If the IVDP accept the declaration then the port is bottled and left to mature. Vintage declaration doesn’t happen universally across all the port lodges in any given year, as it depends on the quality of the harvest in the house’s vineyards and wine that they have produced. Generally it happens a couple of times per decade for each house, although some declare more often.
The third related type is Late bottled Vintage, and these wines can be further split into two styles. They both start from the same place: wine from one year that has been matured in vats for longer than usual (4-6 years) is selected and bottled. The difference between the styles is that one is filtered before bottling and one not – the former will continue to develop in the bottle due to the sediment while the latter will be a more oxidised ruby. The trick with LBVs (with thanks to our guide at the Ferreira port lodge for the tip) is to buy unfiltered ones that are from the same year that the producer declared a vintage – the port is more oxidised, giving a different character, but if the base wine is good enough to be declared as a vintage it’ll probably make a good LBV. The fact that they are cheaper than vintages and are ready to drink earlier can’t hurt.
Other than the development in the bottle the main thing about the unfiltered wines, both vintage and LBV, is that they will contain sediment. As such they should usually be decanted to make sure that you don’t get too much of it in your glass, with the other intention of getting some air into the less oxidised wine to ‘let it breathe’. Sediment or no, these wines also don’t last as long after opening the bottle, as they will oxidise quickly, and not in the good way that I’ll talk about in the next post, although the higher alcohol content than unfortified wine should give a few days before they go stale.
On top of the general style classifications comes the concept of ‘single quinta’ wines, the quinta being the grape producer/vineyard. Rather than blending together wines from a number of vineyards, as as with most ports, the single quinta varieties are made from the grapes of one. For vintages this will generally be the best wines.
The ‘Finest Port Bar in Porto’ that I mentioned in the last post is, as Sjoerd rightly guessed in the comments, Vinologia – a bar good enough that we chose our hotel based on closeness to it. They offer a large range of ports, specialising in the smaller producers outside of Vila Nova de Gaia, and do flights of 3 or 6 glasses. Over the five occasions that I visited (in the four days that I was in Porto, including the one where I left before they opened…) I tried a few, starting with a flight of LBVs:
The first wine was a Quinta das Lamelas LBV 2005, a single quinta (as all of the ports naming the quinta seem to be) LBV that I assume is unfiltered (although as they weren’t decanted I’m not sure). Annoyingly I can’t find out much about the producer, especially as a bunch of their ports appeared during my trip, other than that they are probably (based on the names of some holiday accomodation) based around the town of Pinhão, one of the main centres of wine production in the Douro, and (from a now missing snippet on a google page) owned by João Guedes (a name attached to a number of people from actors to bankers to surfers). The port was a deep opaque red and had a nose of dry red fruit, light sweetness and some tannins. To taste it was nicely balanced between sweet and sour, with lightly sweet fruit and a woody finish.
The second was Quinta do Cachão LBV 1990. From what I can find online the producer is Sociedade de Agrícola e Commercial dos Vinhos Messias, based in Vila Nova de Gaia, and Quinta do Cachão is one of their prize vineyards that they produce their single quinta wines from. It was more transparent than the Lamelas and was purpley red. On the nose there was a hint of struck match sulphur, a soft fruitiness, light honey sweetness, red wine gums (both the fruit and waxiness) and freshly lit bunsen burner. To taste it was rich and much more consistently flavoured with a light alcohol burn. There was a touch of wood, liquorice root and sticky red boiled sweets balanced by sour wood.
The third of my flight was a 1982 Valriz LBV, produced by Aida Coimbra Ayres de Mattos & Filhos in Galafura in the Baixo Corgo. It was a translucent browny red and had quite a light savoury nose with a touch of sugary sweetness, light menthol and honey. To taste it was thick and fruity with buttered brown bread, with berry jam and a ripe grape finish – like a jam sandwich.
They had six vintage ports which we could choose from for a flight and I decided to slew towards the younger ones to try and see what the older ports develop from. The first for the vintage flight was the 2007 Quinta das Lamelas. The same quinta as the 2005 LBV I tried, this was quite different. The nose had Cherry and blackcurrant Tunes, a hint of sour tobacco, a light spice and a touch of red jam. To taste it was pure concentrated cherry (cherry jam and Luxardo cherries), ebbing away through a clean alcoholic hit.
Next was 2003 Quinta Seara d’Ordens, a small producer based north of the Douro near Poiares. They’re different to the other independent quintas that I’ve looked up so far in that they have their own website with a bunch of information about their history and wines. This port had a lightly tobaccoey nose, with dry red wine and cranberries. To taste it had more sweetness, with a bit of fresh cherry leading to a lightly wooded finish with a noticeable boozy burn.
The last entry in my vintage flight was 1989 Quinta de Val da Figueira. Again I can find nothing about the producer, with different webpages giving addresses in Pinhão and Porto, but as Vinologia specialises in the smaller producers this is not that much of a surprise. On the nose it had lots of wood (old cedar and oak cupboards), earthy smoke and lightly fruity berries underneath. The taste was grounded with a rich sticky cherry base, over which there was a chunk of wood surrounding a meaty middle. Over the 20 years of aging the port had lost a little of it’s bright red hew and gained some translucency – markedly more than the other wines in my flight. This, along with it not tasting quite as good as it had on one of my travelling companion’s previous visit to Porto, made us think that maybe it was a slightly dodgy bottle which had got a bit more air in through the cork than strictly necessary.
There was quite a lot of coordination in port choice between the various members of our party, as getting the widest range of wines out so that everyone could have a taste was our long decided plan, and my tablemate Phil also went for a flight of vintage ports. While we both jumped on the 1989, as it was the oldest vintage that was served as part of a flight, he chose a more sensibly varied range, picking a different 2007 and a 2000.
Phil’s first was 2007 Quinta de Retiro Novo, described by the barman as one that ‘has potential’. The quinta is owned by Wiese & Krohn and found near the town of Sarzedinho. Output is small and of high quality with production split between port and Douro wine production, with some of the top end wines still being made from foot trodden grapes. The nose on this was of sour red wine, tannic winey wood, strong tobacco (reminding me of the Drum/Duma I used to buy when I smoked roll-ups) and dried coffee cherries (a mix of leather, sour red fruit and coffee – I only know due to the bag I got as a bonus in an order from Square Mile Coffee). To taste it was much more restrained and simple than the nose – light cherries sweeping along to a woody end.
Next was 2000 São Pedro das Águias, another quinta that I can’t find much about online. The nose on this one was quite different to the others, with long stewed eccles cake raisins, dark chocolate and concentrated raspberry jelly cubes. To taste it was much lighter (as with a lot of the vintages we tried) with glacé cherries, although it did have a big jammy middle and syrupy mouth feel.
While vintages are the most lauded type of port, it’s the LBVs that interest me the most – I don’t have the patience to wait for a vintage to reach its peak (or the funds to buy ones that have already got there) but filtered and unfiltered LBVs from declared vintage years offer a chance to get a ready to drink or faster maturing bottle from those vintage years for a reasonable price. However, oxidation very much has its place in port maturation, which I’ll go into in my next post.