Ruby and Tawny: Both Kinds of Port Are Worth Getting to Know

by Corby Kummer

DRINKING PORT, that oh-so-British custom, is newly popular in America. Sales of port have more than tripled in the past ten years, and port by the glass is appearing on many dessert-wine menus. A certain amount of this popularity can doubtless be traced to status-minded yuppies who came to admire the English rituals of buying, laying down, and serving port. But that doesn’t explain why so many people have taken to sipping a bit of port after dinner. Port is sweet and luscious without being cloying. It draws out and rounds off a cold evening, leaving the taste of a wine and the warmth of a cordial.

Port is sweeter and stronger than ordinary wines because it is fortified. The freshly crushed grapes that start it off ferment less than half as long as grapes for most wines—just two or three days—and then neutral distilled grape spirits are added. The alcohol content of the spirits is so high that it kills the yeasts, which in normal fermentation would go on eating sugar in the grape juice. Thus port retains much more sugar than fully fermented wines, and its final alcohol content is nearly twice that of unfortified wine (20 percent, as opposed to 11 to 14 percent for most wines) and half to two thirds that of most liqueurs.

The English, who own many of the principal port houses in Portugal, where port was first made, created port as it is sold today. (Several other countries make good port, notably Australia.) England always had smoother relations with Portugal than with France; frequent political and trade conflicts led the English to renounce their beloved clarets (red Bordeaux) so often on grounds of patriotism that port became firmly implanted in English life.

In the tasting rooms of the “lodges” of Vila Nova de Gaia, a city next to Oporto, the city in northern Portugal that is port’s namesake, the main port houses decide whether or not to “declare” a vintage. Declaring it means that they will cut short the time the wine ages in wood—to less than two years—and sell it at high prices to collectors, who will lay it down in their cellars to age in the bottle. Supposedly vintages are declared only when the wine is sure to become great with age. Certainly the winemaker is careful to declare a vintage only when he is confident that the wine will age notably. Vintages are generally declared about three times a decade; the most recent declared vintage is 1985. But a declaration is less the maker’s imprimatur than his calculation of what the market will bear. In the past, great years went undeclared because shippers were still trying to sell stockpiles of the iast vintage.

Aficionados wait a minimum of ten years, and usually fifteen, to crack open a bottle of vintage port. Some restaurants jump the gun and serve young vintages, such as 1985, which is considered extremely fine (the extraordinary vintages of the past thirty years are 1965 and 1977). Opening a bottle so early may be sacrilege, but the 1985 does taste awfully good already. It suffuses the mouth with fruit, and has the depth charge found only in vintage port. Harvey Finkel, a wine writer in Boston, thinks that a good vintage requires thirty years, and says that he has stopped buying vintages later than 1977, because “I won’t live to see them mature.”

Vintage port is not only expensive, it’s perishable. It has spent years in the bottle without any exposure to air (wine aged in wood is sturdier, because wood breathes), and once opened it loses its most delicate flavors quickly—diehards say by the next day, others say after a few weeks. The need for a bottle of vintage port to be consumed quickly is one reason why port proved so well suited to the large dinner parties of English lore. After dinner, once the ladies had withdrawn, the men would pass the port only to the left (explanations vary; the best is that it’s easier that way if you’re right-handed) and with a requisite alacrity. “Do you know the bishop of Norwich?” is one of those coded questions at which the English excel. This one is directed to the man to one’s right who has failed to move the decanter along. If the subject is witless enough to answer, “Why, no,” the reply is, “Splendid fellow— but he never passes the port!" Or the host might employ a round-bottomed decanter that can rest only in a stand he keeps beside him. It’s this kind of behavior that can drive anyone to madeira.

PORIS FALL into two phyla, ruby and tawny. These are named for color, not flavor. (White port is also made, but it is usually far too sweet and bland. Current fashion is for ever-drier white ports—pointless, I think, when a good sherry is far more suitable.) Ruby port is a deep purple red. All vintage port is ruby port, but there are other styles of ruby port too. The primary flavor is intense, sweet fruit. Tawny port is aged in wood for enough years to give it a butterscotch color. Its flavors are more varied, and run to vanilla, caramel, and, appropriately, butterscotch.

There are several kinds of ruby and tawny port, and unfortunately labels are not always helpful (the most useful guide is the book Port, by Andrew Jefford). Bottles labeled simply “Fine Ruby” or “Rare Tawny” are the house workhorses—“fine” and “rare” have no recognized meaning. These basic blends seldom have much complexity or interest. The best way to tell them is by price: they usually cost less than $12 to $15 (for a full bottle, that is; many good ports are available in half bottles). If you want to taste the power and concentration of a vintage port, you’re best off buying a glass in a restaurant, rather than committing yourself to a bottle in a wine shop. If you want to buy a bottle, try instead one of the many “premium” styles of ruby port made to emulate vintage port but bottled when they’re ready to drink. They’re much less expensive, and don’t demand decades of patience.

A ready-to-drink port has the kind of stopper found in liqueur bottles. Bottles with stoppers should be stored upright, because alcohol erodes the glue that attaches the neatly cut cork to the cap. All vintage ports and some premium rubies have regular wine corks, which are a sign that the wine is meant to improve in the bottle; because the wine is unfiltered, it should be decanted. Decanting involves nothing more than leaving the bottle upright for a day or two, so that the sediment falls to the bottom, and then carefully pouring the wine into a pitcher or decanter, stopping as soon as you see any particles.

Avery popular new type of premium ruby comes both filtered and unfiltered: “late bottled vintage.” This is wine from a single year, shown on the label, aged in wood three to six years before being bottled (hence the name). The aging in wood, which exposes the wine to air, leaves the wine better able to withstand frequent opening and closing. Avery few “traditional” LBVs are not filtered, but almost all are ready to drink as soon as they are bottled. Imports of LBVs into the United States have increased more than tenfold since 1982, according to Ronn Wiegand, the editor of the newsletter Restaurant Wine, and LBVs are also tremendously popular in England, since they cost half to two thirds as much as vintage port. They taste very good, too. LBVs have, according to the peculiar numerical ratings characteristic of wine writers, “40%-60% of the character and flavor” of vintage port, in Wiegand’s estimation. I see what he means. They’re lighter and less substantial than vintage port, but still have its sweet, fruity intensity.

Another good bet is a single quinta, the Portuguese wmrd for “estate.” This style says “vintage port” on the label and gives a year. The only difference between this and a real vintage port is that the year was undeclared (you can’t tell this part from the label, unsurprisingly: the industry also doesn’t mind the implication that LBVs are vintage ports). “These wines can be better than many declared vintage ports,” James Suckling says in his definitive guide, Vintage Port, and they cost less. Examples to look for are Quinta do Noval Vintage, Dow’s Quinta da Bomfim, Fonseca-Guimaraens, Graham’s Malvedos, and Taylor Fladgate Quinta de Vargellas.

The most popular premium rubies— “vintage character,” which are blends of different years that have been aged in wood for five years on average—are not my favorites. These usually emphasize fruit and very little else. I find them inelegant crowdpleasers. Among the most successful are Graham’s Six Grapes (named for an old symbol on casks—all ports, including vintage ports, are blends of many kinds of grapes), Warre’s Warrior, Fonseca’s Bin 27, and Cockburn’s Special Reserve. Dow’s has just brought out a new entry, called AJS (the initials of the firm’s founder), which it promises will have both strong fruit and the flavors of aging.

The ruby port I like most is, unfortunately, hard to find—“crusted” port, an odd name that alludes to the sediment, or crust, that unfiltered wine will throw in the bottle. Crusted ports are blends of several different years and vineyards that have already proved themselves to be good. Bottled after three or four years, they can be drunk straightaway, but will keep improving for five more years (sometimes crusted ports aren’t even marketed until they have spent several years in the bottle). In crusted ports everything is done already for the impatient lover of vintage port. They’re virtually guaranteed to be very’ good.

PORT REALTY conics into its own when it has been aged at least seven years in wood, which colors it—hence the name “tawny.” The balance between fruit and flavors like caramel, toffee, nuts, and vanilla is what makes port unlike any other wine. The English started the craze for vintage port, perhaps because it reminded them of a supercharged claret. But the French, who are now the world’s greatest consumers of port, drink little vintage port; they serve tawny, chilled, before dinner. And tawny is the port that shippers and winemakers themselves drink, because it shows their skill at blending. David Rosengarten, an editor of the new sletter Wine & Food Companion, says that when he visited Oporto, winemakers told him, “Vintage port is wane, but tawny is port.” Tawny port lends itself to slow sipping, and is altogether more subtle than vintage port. It substitutes complexity for power.

Again, price is a fairly sure indicator of quality. Standard tawnies, which usually cost less than $15, are often blends of red and white ports, and you don’t want to waste time on them. One basic tawny does come highly recommended by the cheeky, useful newsletter Companion Wine Review. Krohn’s “Rich Tawny,” which costs around $11, one of many Krohn ports that the editors are wild about.

The safest way to start sampling tawny port is to try an “age-indicated” blend. The blends, which average $20 to $40 a bottle, come in four indications: ten, twenty, thirty, and forty years old. These refer to the overall style of the many wines in the blend, not to its precise age. There is much controversy over which indication shows tawny port at its best. Each has its virtues, depending on whether you want fruit or caramel flavors at the fore.

My preferred balance is twentyvear-old tawny, and I was impressed by Graham’s. Ten-year-old is often uninteresting, but Taylor Fladgate produces a much-admired exception to the rule, with both lively fruit and an edge of toffee that make it delicious. Dow’s regards an average age of fifteen years as the ideal balance, and markets a fifteen-year-old tawny as Boardroom—a very drinkable wine with hints of spice and vanilla but with pronounced fruit, too. The thirtyand forty-year-old ports I tried were too mature for my taste, with mostly butterscotch and wood and very little fruit. The alcohol predominates too. A trick to dull it is to chill the bottle slightly, which in fact helps almost any tawny port.

A last style of tawny port is colheita, the word for “harvest,”also called “reserve” port. The wines blended into a colheita are taken from one year, as in singlc-quinta or LBV ruby port. But the blend is aged in wood for many years, usually more than the required seven. Then it is filtered and bottled and ready to drink. This long aging in wood makes the port tawny, not ruby; some wine merchants confuse dated reserves with vintage ports. The Dow’s 1964 Reserve that I tried was my favorite of all the tawnies—soft and sweet, with a rich caramel flavor and fruit still showing through. It made me wish that anything more than a modest amount of port didn’t give me a hangover.

PORT is BEST in place of dessert, or with fresh fruit and nuts. Nuts and Stilton — the rich, blueveined English cheese—are the classic accompaniments. Thomas Matthews, a senior editor of the Wine Spectator, thinks that port is the only plausible contender in the perennial sweepstakes for a wine that will go with chocolate. Try dark chocolate with a premium ruby or, as the Wine & Food Companion suggests, with a fruity young tawny port. Crème brûlée, or any dessert with a custard that isn’t too sweet, preferably with a crust of melted brown sugar, brings out the caramel in an age-indicated tawny port. But nuts and cheese are still the ideal complements. Just when guests expect coffee and something sweet, you can try to usher them into the living room, where you’ve set out a big bowl of walnuts and a bottle of port you prize. They will be better disposed toward the idea if you’ve served only one wine at dinner.

You can decide if you prefer the grapv punch of a premium ruby port— blatantly displayed in one of the named vintage-character ports—or the balance of fruit and caramel in a tenor twenty-year-old tawny port. My nominations for best wines at the best value in each category are a crusted port (if you can find one) or an LBVand a good tawny reserve, especially Dow’s 1964. Taylor Fladgate’s ten-year-old tawny is also an excellent way to start on tawny. Keep the bottle in the refrigerator after it is opened, taking ruby port out a day before you plan to serve it, and tawny an hour or so before. No matter how taken by port you become, don’t ask anyone if he knows the bishop of Norwich.