There is one fortified wine that captures the spirit of Christmas in a glass and it must be port, writes Clive Platman.
such is the vast range of styles, compounded by confusing labelling, that I guarantee your head will be spinning before you’ve tasted your first drop of port.
To find out a little more, I went over to the Fladgate Partnership, one of the oldest and largest port houses, at its headquarters in Vila Nova de Gaia.
Founded in 1692, the house now owns the brands of Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft’s, and ships the complete range, including vintage, tawny, ruby, late-bottled vintage and white.
Before describing the various styles, it is worth understanding how port is made. After the grapes are pressed, the juice is only allowed to ferment for a few days until the alcohol level has reached 6-8 degrees ABV.
The fermentation is then arrested by the addition of a neutral grape spirit, approximately one-fifth of the volume, in a process known as mutage.
This allows the wine to retain its natural sweetness from the unfermented grape sugar, resulting in a fortified wine between 18-20 degrees.
Essentially, there are two main types of port: rubies and aged-tawnies. Rubies are the cheapest and simplest types as they are seldom aged in cask for more than six years, but generally less, perhaps three or four for the lesser wines.
At worst, a ruby can be coarse and fiery, but at best, polished with upfront spicy red and black-fruit flavours.
To digress, Taylor’s and Fonseca produce a white port, from white grapes.
The fermentation for the Taylor Chip Dry is allowed to continue for longer, to create a drier character.
I was particularly taken with the Fonseca Sirocco, which was a little more elegant, with flavours of pineapple and cream.
A more recent innovation is pink port, and Croft’s Pink shows a deft hand, with flavours of strawberries, pink grapefruit and cream.
For reasons of marketing, rubies are often made to seem much grander than they really are, with names such as Reserve, Special Reserve and Vintage Character.
These terms carry no official standing. The Fonseca Bin 27 is a great example which delivers black fruits and liquorice flavours. I was also impressed by the Fonseca Organic Terra Prima, which had extra freshness and length.
A crusted port is a ruby bottled without filtration and, like a true vintage port, throws a sediment as it ages. The year on the label is the date of bottling and not the age of the wine, as illustrated by Fonseca’s Crusted 2006.
Taylor’s is accredited with the invention of the Late Bottled Vintage style. These are wines of a single year, but bottled after four to six years in vat.
As it spends longer in barrel, it matures more quickly, so it can be enjoyed immediately on release. The Fonseca LBV 2005 was very satisfying.
Vintage port is only released in the very best years and generally no more than three times a decade. The wines spend no more than two years in cask before bottling and required 12-15 years or more in bottle to mature, though they will continue to develop over decades.
2009 was a year marked by drought and heat and has produced concentrated powerful wines. Not all shippers have declared, but the Fladgate Partnership is confident the wines are built for long-term ageing. At the Lodge, I tasted the firm and meaty Taylor’s, the more elegant and supple Fonseca, and the more spirity and fiery Croft’s.
Vintage ports are generally a blend of several estates, so, in those years when a vintage is not declared, the shippers release a single quinta. The Taylor’s Vargellas 2001 is such an example – rich, velvety and chocolatey. The Croft Rueda 1997 is fresh, vibrant and drinking superbly. The Fonseca Guimaraens 1996 uses the same quintas to source its grapes as the vintage port and now demonstrates fully mature characters.
Basic tawnies are blends of rubies and white port, but aged tawnies are matured in wood for upwards of 10 years.
As the wines age, the colour and primary fruit character fades, to develop flavours of orange-peel, butterscotch, dried fruits and nuts. The Taylor’s 10 Year Old is always good value.
As the wines age further, they become more mellow and smooth. The Taylor’s Twenty Year Old had developed a sublime length. The Forty Year Old, though, was in a different league, showing raisins, cream, toffee and walnut flavours, resulting in an amazingly smooth and never-ending finish.