In 1880 Henry Vizetelly, the great nineteenth century authority and writer on wine, wrote, ‘… it has been said that there are as many styles of Port wine as shades of ribbon in a haberdasher’s shop.’ Even in Vizetelly’s day this was probably something of an exaggeration.
However, the diversity of different styles offered by Port is certainly one of its greatest attractions. There are Ports for all occasions and budgets, from rare Vintage Ports for the fine wine collector to delicious and affordable wood aged styles for relaxed entertaining. Port, with its wealth of different characters and aromas, offers almost limitless opportunities for pairing with food and few wines can compete with it in richness of flavour.
The different styles of Port derive essentially from the various ways in which it can be aged. Its remarkable ageing potential and the fact that it is fortified mean that Port will continue to improve in cask, vat or bottle for much longer than most other wines. The choice of ageing period and ageing vessel will determine what the Port tastes like.
As Port matures, the firm tannins and intense fruity flavours of youth gradually give way to the velvety smoothness and mellow, nuanced character which develop with age. At the same time there is a change in the wine’s appearance, its initial deep red colour slowly becoming paler and evolving into the subtle amber hue known as ‘tawny’. If left for long enough, all Ports will eventually make this change. However, the speed at which this occurs will depend on what the Port is aged in.
A Port wine which is aged in wood is in contact with the air and will evolve more rapidly than one which ages in bottle and has almost no air contact. In a small cask, where air contact is greatest, the wine will age faster than in a large vat where it is more limited.
Ports can be broken down into two broad ‘families’: Wood aged Ports (sometimes known simply as ‘wood Ports’) which age in cask or vat, normally made of oak, and bottle aged Ports which, as the name indicates, spend most of their lives maturing in bottle.
Within the wood aged Port family, there are three main styles:
The bottled aged family of Ports is made up mainly of Vintage Port although it also includes a small category called Crusted Port.