Vintage Port (or VP for short) is considered the crème de la crème or King of Ports. On average, VPs on average are only produced three times a decade, in the very best of years. A Port declaration only occurs when a shipper believes they have enough of top calibre grapes to bottle from a single harvest. VPs typically are created from a blend of grapes from several Quintas that a producer owns. Grapes can also purchased from other contracted vineyards.
After an initial vinification VPs are placed in large oak barrels (Tonnels) for at least two years. By law, VPs must be bottled between the 2nd and 3rd year after harvest. They are bottled unfined and unfiltered and left to age. They form sediment over time, so you should be decant the wine before drinking. VPs need many years of cellaring before they fully mature. There are strict controls on when a Port can be called Vintage, or 'declared' as it is known:
Late Bottled Vintage Ports are produced from a single harvest and the year will be stated on the label. LBVs can be filtered or unfiltered (formerly called “Traditional”). The year of bottling will also appear, typically on the rear label. Four to six years after harvest LBVs are bottled, following years of ageing in large oak barrels (balseiros). Filtered LBVs are ready to drink upon release. Filtered LBVs do not possess sediment and need no decanting prior to drinking. Most filtered LBVs do not print the term “filtered” on their label. Unfiltered LBVs will throw a “crust” (aka sediment) just like a Vintage Port and should be decanted prior to serving. Unfiltered LBVs can be cellared for longer-term drinking (5-20 years). The word “Unfiltered” will appear on the front or back label to indicate this designation of LBV Port style.
Whereas Vintage Ports are blended, with great skill, from different vineyard sources, Single Quinta Ports are, as the name suggests, made from a single estate. Essentially, they are treated the same as Vintage Port, bottled just two years after the harvest, and will also need decanting. In many cases, these wines are components of Vintage Ports during vintage years and released as Single Quinta wines in non-Vintage years. They might also be from independent estates that bottle their own Ports every year; an increasingly common practice.
Colheita (pronounced Col-yate-a) ports are tawny ports produced from a single harvest. Some producers prefer using the term Single Harvest Tawny on their labels. They are aged in small barrels called pipas for at least seven years before being released for sale. More often colheitas are consumed after 20 years of ageing. The producer will bottle the colheita port when they decide it is ready to drink. Unlike vintage ports, colheitas will not improve after being bottled, although they will keep for many years. The front label will indicate the harvest year and the rear label the bottling date. Each harvest can be bottled on different occasions. Colheitas can be either red or white. Red Colheitas become lighter in colour over time, whereas whites become darker. Colheitas change dramatically during extended time in cask and take on flavours of dried fruits, nuts, citrus and exotic spices while becoming very smooth and complex the older they become. There Colheitas from the 1800s still ageing in small oak barrels in Portugal!
Sometimes referred to as the poor man’s vintage port because they emulate the qualities of a vintage port at a fraction of the price. Crusted ports are blends of at least two or more harvests aged in wood for up to four years and at least three years in a bottle left unfiltered and are intended to be aged in a bottle for midterm cellaring (10-20 years). Crusted ports are rare outside of the UK, as LBVs have all but replaced them. They offer fine quality at typically reasonable prices. They require decanting like a Vintage Port to remove the sediment (crust).
Garrafeira is a very rare style port only produced by Niepoort. Many port lovers have never heard of it, and even fewer have tasted it. In the late 19th century Eduard Karel Jacob van der Niepoort bought 4,000 old pharmacy demijohns to mature the port in a new way. These distinctive squat glass bottles were very effective and produced something unique. The style combines both styles of ageing. Wine from a single harvest is first aged in oak casks for a period of four to eight years before being transferred into the demijohns and left to mature for at least a further 15 years. Although this unique technique was developed over a century ago, it was only officially recognised by the IVDP in 2021. The result of aging in demijohns is a very complex wine wicth both fresh fruity charactistics combined with notes of dried fruit and spices assocciated from the barrel.
Pink port is a relatively new variation on the market, first released in 2008 to appeal to a more youthful market. It is produced by using the same grapes and according to the same strict rules that govern the production of other ports. It is technically a ruby port but fermented with limited exposure to the grape skins, thus the pink colour. It bears the hallmarks of a light ruby with a lighter and more fruity taste. It is nice to drink chilled on a summer evening.
A designation of a higher quality version of a ruby port that was once called the “vintage character” port. A Reserve Ruby is typically a port made by blending a variety of vintages, with an average age of 5-7 years. They are still fruit-forward Ports but have more complexity and structure than a Ruby Port due to the extra time in the cask.
Ruby is the most basic of wood-aged ports and the youngest with a vibrant character. A ruby port is a blend of several years, typically averaging 3-5 years old. They are simple and fruit-driven given their young age. They are less complex than a reserve ruby or a late bottled vintage port. Ruby ports are vinified to be consumed upon release and are not meant to be aged.
Many people use ruby ports in cooking as they are less expensive than other types. Lightly chilled, these make a wonderful drink on a warm evening. Almost all Port producers make a reasonably priced bottle of ruby port. They are easy to find in a wine shop or on the shelves of your local grocer. Once opened, they last reasonably well, so there is no rush to finish the bottle.
It must first be mentioned that tawny ports, not vintage ports, are the most popular after-dinner wine in Portugal. Tawny production starts like a ruby port but then spends an extended period in wood to soften and round out its character. Because the large oak casks are somewhat porous, the oxygen that enters over the years will allow some wine to evaporate. This concentrates the flavours in the remaining wine and leaves a slight air gap at the top of the cask. Like a fine wine in a decanter with increased surface area exposed, the tawny port is allowed to oxidise during its time in the oak vessel. Constant racking allows for further oxidation. As this oxidation process takes place, the colour of the wine slowly changes from a purplish-red eventually to a tawny or reddish-brown. The more time the Tawny spends in wood the more complex its flavour profile, and the Tawny-er the colour becomes.
There are only four types approved in this category and they are 10 years old, 20 years old, 30 years old, and over 40 years old. These are a blend of many years where the average age of the bottle is at least 10, 20, 30 or 40 years old. They are typically produced in a house style that varies from producer to producer. It is the master blender's responsible for exhaustive work at blending these tawnies that maintains the reputation of the brand. The consistency of the particular house style is the primary goal of the winemaker and master blender, along with producing a wonderful wine year after year. These Tawny Ports often give an excellent quality-to-price ratio, allowing the buyer to get an older port at an affordable price. Tawny port with an indication of age is what most tawny lovers seek out. These wines offer a smooth and silky mouthfeel, with intense flavours and aromas varying from nutty, caramel and nutmeg, to spices, vanilla and chocolate.