Red port comes from a blend of grapes that usually includes Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Roriz. It’s luscious and sweet, like blackberry and spice. The sweetness isn’t from dumping a bag of white sugar into the tank: when the grape juice is only partially through its transformation into wine, the winemaker adds high alcohol grape spirits to the mix. The yeast can’t keep working in that boozy environment, so the fermentation stops before all the grape sugar is converted into alcohol.
Ruby port is your most basic and least expensive port. Ruby ports are aged just a few years before being bottled and put on shelves. Foods that go well with Ruby ports are cheese, milk chocolate, and berry-based desserts.
Vintage port is pricier and only made in exceptional growing years. The final decision on a Vintage Port is not made until two years after harvest. It doesn’t spend much time aging at the winery. They leave that up to the buyer. Foods to pair with a Vintage Port: Blue and Stilton cheese, almonds and walnuts, chocolate and chocolate-based desserts and puffed-pastries.
Look for a Late Bottle Vintage port, or LBV to enjoy immediately upon purchase. These vintage wines spend four to six years developing in the winery before being bottled, so they’re ready to drink when you buy them.
Tawny ports spend more time aging in wood barrels where oxidation is a key part of the process before bottling than ruby ports, which gives them flavors of hazelnuts and vanilla. A Tawny port usually has a reusable cork and can last for 1-2 months after opening if you refrigerate it. If you see a Tawny with an age designation, such as 20 years, the label is not indicating exactly how old the wine is. Instead, it’s an evaluation of how old the wine tasted when the producer bottled it. Food pairings include: aged cheddar cheese, caramel apples or apple pie, dried fruit, milk or dark chocolate, cheesecake, tiramisu, pumpkin or pecan pie.
A Tawny with a specific year on it is called Colheita—it was aged seven years at the winery before bottling. These can be fantastic values and a perfect pairing with a caramel sauce-drenched dessert. Since these Tawny wines have already seen aging in the winery, you can pop them open the day you bring them home from the store, or keep them awhile if you prefer.
You might see white grape-based white Port from time to time, mostly served as an aperitif or in a highball with tonic. White Port is a little sweet, since the fermentation is stopped by fortification, just like red port.
My favorite dessert is a rich, dark chocolate mousse with a 20 year Tawny, like the Taylor Fladgate. The rich, slightly nutty, and appropriately sweet Tawny is a delightful complement to the velvety dark chocolate mousse.