What Is Port Wine? Guide to This Sweet, Fortified Wine

Updated January 26, 2022
Man drinking port wine on a street in Lisbon

This sweet, fortified wine from Portugal is the perfect night cap or pairing for your after dinner cheese plate. Port wine comes in many styles, all with their own rich and complex flavor profile. Understanding the nuances of this luscious dessert wine will open a whole new window into the wine world.

Port Wine Map

What Is Port?

True port wine is only made in the Upper Douro region of Portugal. It is a blend of native, aromatic Portuguese grapes. The most commonly used grapes in premium port are Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão, and Tinta Roriz. Similar to a normal red blended wine, these grapes are harvested, crushed to extract color and tannins and fermentation begins. Before fermentation is completed, a neutral grape spirit (such as brandy) is added to halt the fermentation process while significant amounts of sugar remain. This results in a sweeter, higher alcohol wine, around 20% alcohol by volume (ABV). The port wine is then matured for a period of time, traditionally in old oak vessels. Multiple vintages are often blended together to create a unique and complex profile prior to bottling.

Flavor Profile and Characteristics

While there are numerous styles of port wine, they are nearly all full-bodied, lusciously-sweet red wines with varying notes of baked fruits, roasted nuts, caramel, chocolate, and cinnamon.

Ruby Port

Ruby Port Characteristics

Ruby port is commonly found and the least expensive of all the port styles. This non-vintage port is typically aged in stainless steel or concrete, though premium ruby ports are aged in oak. It is--you guessed it--ruby red in color, with bright fruit notes of raspberry, blackberry, plum, cassis, chocolate, and cinnamon. Not particularly complex, ruby port is meant to be enjoyed young, while the bright fruit notes are still vibrant. Though late bottled vintage (LBV) port, from a single year, is aged in barrel for four to six years. Single Quinta ruby ports are from a single estate, similar to grower Champagne.

Tawny Port

Tawny Port Characteristics

Tawny port is the other main style. Aged indication tawny ports get their toffee color through oxidation. Tawny ports are golden-hued and mildly-sweet with nutty characteristics from the oxidation. They have flavors of caramel, hazelnut, raspberry, and spices like cinnamon and clove. The number of years a tawny port has been barrel aged is often listed on the label. In their younger years, they have more ripe fruit and spice. The more they age, the more they develop complex tertiary aromas and flavors of nutty caramel and soft butterscotch.

Serving and Storing Suggestions

Since port is a dessert wine, there are few differing serving instructions. Port is best served in a dessert wine glass or something equally as tiny and cute. Being so lusciously rich and high in alcohol, a 3-ounce pour is standard. Port is best served around 60°F (15°C). This slightly cooler-than-room temp allows you to taste all the flavors without just getting that hot-alcohol feeling on your palate. Aged ports will need time to breathe, like any other wine. After opening, younger ports should be enjoyed within a couple of weeks. Aged ports can keep for closer to a month. All ports, young and old, will have a slightly longer shelf life by storing them in the refrigerator or an equally cool, dark spot. Keep in mind, that once a bottle is exposed to oxygen and/or heat, the flavor characteristics will start to deteriorate.

Food Pairings

Port is a dessert in and of itself when sipped alone. It can also be served alongside dessert, such as crème caramel, chocolate truffles, or cherry pie. Or, for something not quite so sickly-sweet, pairing a port with a cheese and fruit plate of fresh, ripe figs, Roquefort, warm, salted almonds, and Stilton is kinda the post-dinner dream.

It's Time to Try Port

If you've never tried port, it may be a revelation. If you are hesitant to invest in a bottle, many restaurants have port on their menus. Try ordering a glass of tawny port on your next dinner out. You just may find a new favorite.

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What Is Port Wine? Guide to This Sweet, Fortified Wine