“Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?”
“Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” If you do, you will know that he is a terribly good chap but he always forgets to pass the Port. If you do not, then the person asking you is trying to encourage you to share the Port in the traditional manner. This convoluted role-play is to ensure that the Port decanter is always kept in motion (to the left) and is said to originate from an occasion at Christ’s College Cambridge in 1785 when the epicurean clergyman failed to share sufficiently with his fellow diners. These days Port is cultivating an image beyond the confines of tradition, aiming to appeal to a younger and less male-orientated audience and branching out from formal and festive dining occasions. More of that later, first what is Port and where is it from?
England and Portugal have a diplomatic relationship dating back to 1373 – arguably the longest running alliance in existence and it has helped in the commercial development of Port by the British over the past three hundred years. Whilst this treaty would not have been celebrated with a glass of Port as we know it, our relationship with this venerable elixir is no less impressive. The origins of the sweet, fortified wine we are now familiar with, can be traced back to the late 17th century but the style really took off after another treaty in 1703 gave favourable conditions for imports to England. This English connection gave rise to many of the famous shippers’ names which survive today such as Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Graham, Gould Campbell, Offley, Sandeman, Taylor, and Warre.
All Ports share the production technique of adding neutral grape spirit to partially fermented must. This halts the fermentation, boosts the alcohol content and retains a degree of residual sugar.
There are a number of variations on the theme but Port styles fall broadly into two camps which are identified by their appearance.
Ruby Port (bottle matured) is aged for a short period in large oak vats (if at all), before being bottled for consumption or further ‘reductive’ ageing i.e. without exposure to air. At the time of bottling the wine has a bright ruby appearance giving it its name.
Tawny Port (cask matured) is generally aged in smaller oak vessels such as barriques which exposes the wine to oxidation and evaporation, leading to a paler colour and a nutty, dried fruit flavour. With the exception of Colheita wines (see below) these are non-vintage expressions. They can be as venerable as the finest Vintage (ruby) Ports but once bottled, they are not designed for further ageing.
Note: Ruby Port must be treated in a similar way to un-fortified wine once the bottle has been opened and therefore should be consumed within 3-4 days. Tawny Port on the other hand has already been through an oxidative process and will therefore keep up to 4 months in bottle once opened. This can make it a very flexible option in an on-trade scenario where spoilage is a constant headache.
Different classifications of the two main styles exist, for example:
Reserve Ruby – non-vintage but of a superior quality to standard ruby
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) – a relatively recent phenomena whereby the oak ageing is extended to speed up the maturation process. Can be filtered (for immediate drinking) or unfiltered which allows for further bottle ageing.
Vintage – from a ‘declared’ vintage which port houses only do in exceptional years. The most cherished and age-worthy of all the styles.
Single Quinta Vintage – not only the product of a specified vintage but also a named ‘quinta’ (vineyard/property). These wines are usually produced when a vintage is not declared allowing the best fruit of a lesser harvest to be showcased.
Reserve Tawny – a higher quality with longer oak ageing than a standard Tawny
Aged Tawny (10, 20, 30 & 40-Year-Old) – these wines are selected to represent the characteristics of the age on the label and are made up of a blend of wines from cask. Exhibiting different colours and flavour profiles, they increase in concentration and complexity as you move up the ageing scale.
Colheita – single vintage Tawny Ports which have spent a minimum of seven years in cask.
Other Port Styles (only about 3% of the UK market)
Crusted Port is a very fine but non-vintage Ruby Port which, in the same way as LBV, is an attempt to replicate the style of vintage Port at a lower cost and without having to wait as long for maturity. White Port can be dry(ish) or sweet and can be for a shorter or longer period – with classifications similar to Aged Tawnies. Rosé Port is made to be fresh and drunk young as an aperitif or in cocktails.
The UK has lost its position as the number one export market for Port. (France and the Benelux countries consume large quantities of inexpensive port as an aperitif.) However, in a declining fortified wine market, Port is more than holding its own. To a large degree this is down to the impressive growth of Aged Tawny style of Port. Growing rapidly, this category still only makes up about 5% of total Port volume sales over here but an impressive 15% of value. This provides us with a glimpse of the future for Port in the UK. The Bishop of Norwich and his disgruntled friends are firmly in the past and sommeliers, bar tenders and mixologists are waking up to the richness and depth of flavour Port can provide as aperitifs, as a base for cocktails or with a variety of pudding dishes.
So, enjoy some Port over the festive season but remember Port is not just for Christmas!
Here are some of our favourite Port cocktails and combinations:
Using a shaker, mix 10-Year-Old Tawny Port and a splash of 10-Year-Old Scotch whisky. Serve in a well-chilled vermouth cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist. (You can pre-mix this and keep it nicely chilled in the freezer.)
1 ½ part Ruby or Reserve Ruby Port 1-part fresh lime juice and syrup ½ part orange juice ½ part grenadine Put ice in a tulip glass (or a jug for a batch preparation), add all ingredients and stir well with a bar spoon. Garnish with an orange wedge.
Rules of Thumb matching Port:
Ruby Port – cheeses, fresh fruit or chocolate desserts
Tawny Port – aperitif (chilled), dried fruit desserts