Port is a fortified wine made in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. One of the oldest wine appellations dating to the 1700s, it gets the name from the seaport of Oporto.
Most port is a rich and sweet red wine, although some white port is produced. Traditional red grapes include touriga nacional, touriga francesa, tinta roriz, tinta barroca and tinta cao. Fermentation is halted by the addition of neutral grain spirits to a level of 19% to 23%, which leaves residual sugar, accounting for the wine’s sweetness. Styles are classified by the way the wine is blended—or not—and aged.
White port. Fermented from a blend of white grapes and fortified, white port is made in a variety of styles from dry to sweet. White Port & Tonic has become a popular drink choice.
Tawny Port. Aged in barrels, tawnies get their characteristic brown color and nutty flavor from oxidation. Most tawny ports are blends, with average year designations called out on the label, for 10-, 20-, 30- and 40-year-old wines. Colheita is a tawny port made from a single vintage; the date is noted on the label.
Bottle-Aged port. Although these port styles do spend some time in barrels, much of the maturation occurs in bottle. They include:
Ruby. These fresh red ports undergo little or no aging and are considered an entry-level product. Most producers blend a house style of ruby.
Rose. A brand-new style; rose ports undergo limited skin contact that gives them a pale color and delicate flavor.
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV). A cross between a tawny and vintage, LBVs are vintage wines that spend more time in wood, which speeds up maturation, and receive further aging in large glass demijohns. They are considered ready to drink upon release. Some producers filter and fine LBVs, others don’t—and those latter wines should be decanted like true vintage ports.
Crusted. A blend of vintage wines aged in bottle, crusted ports are ready to drink upon release.
Vintage. Wine made from a single year is the epitome of port. Not every harvest is considered good enough to be declared a vintage and only a tiny fraction of port produced is vintage. It is matured for two and a half years in barrels, then spends years in bottles—often taking decades to be ready to drink.
Single Quinta. A vintage port made from a single vineyard. Quinta ports are often produced in undeclared years.
Sherry Cheat Sheet
Sherry is a fortified wine made in the DO of Jerez de la Frontera in southwest Spain. All types are made from white grapes, mostly palomino, Pedro Ximenez (PX) and moscatel. The base wine is fermented to dry and fortified with the addition of brandy; it then undergoes an elaborate process of maturation called the solera system.
For a minimum of three years, sherry is aged in casks that are only 5/6th full to encourage the oxidation that gives this wine its unique character. The casks are layered in rows, from three to as many as nine levels high. New wine is put into the topmost layer of barrels, and to make room, periodically a portion of older wines is moved down into barrels on the next lowest level.
None of the casks are ever completely emptied, so the variously aged wines mingle. Wines for bottling are drawn from the lowest level and may contain traces of wines that are decades old.
A wide range of styles is produced, ranging from dry and delicate to sweet, dark and viscous. Here are a few.
Fino. This straw-colored sherry is light yet rich with a flavor of almonds. It is lightly fortified (to just over 15%) allowing a thick film of indigenous yeast called flor to form, which protects the wine from oxidation in the barrel.
Manzanilla. A variant of fino produced only in the seaside town of Sanlucar de Barrameda, which adds briny flavor notes.
En Rama. A version of fino or manzanilla fresh from the barrel without any filtering or fining.
Amontillado. This sherry is basically a fino further aged under flor. It is darker in color and richer in flavor, with hazelnut notes.
Oloroso. This style is given a higher degree of fortification (18%) so that the flor cannot grow, and thus is not protected against oxidation. Olorosos are very dark and rich with flavors of walnuts and caramel, but usually quite dry.
Cream. Cream sherry is oloroso sweetened with PX juice.
Palo Cortado. This rare type of sherry starts as a fino, evolves into an amontillado and mysteriously changes into a sort of
Pedro Ximenez. Prized for its sweetness and syrupy viscosity, balanced with great acidity; this dessert wine is made from sundried PX grapes.
Marsala vs. Madeira
Marsala is a fortified wine made in the regions surrounding the city of Marsala in Sicily, Italy. It can be sweet or dry, white or red. Marsala is classified according to levels of sweetness and age.
It is matured in a perpetuum, which is similar to sherry’s solera system. Marsala is most commonly used in cooking in the U.S.
Madeira, a fortified wine from the portuguese islands of Madeira off the coast of Africa, was born of necessity and a happy accident.
Originally alcohol was added to the wine to protect the large casks (called pipes) during transport to far-flung markets. It was then discovered that the heat and hardship of long sea voyages actually improved the quality of the wine.
Madeira today is matured on the islands in specially heated rooms called estufas, which oxidizes the wine into a tawny color. Madeira had its heyday during the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was perhaps the most popular wine in America. The Founding Fathers loved Madeira, and toasted the signing of the Declaration of Independence with it.
Madeira is classified according to the grape varietal (containing at least 85%): sercial is dry and tartly acidic; verdelho is also dry with a smoky accent; bual is dark and raisiny; and malvasia (a.k.a malmsey) boasts toffee flavors.
Because of the unique production process, Madeira is exceptionally long-lived; well-heeled wine lovers can find century-old bottles still available in specialty shops.
Thomas Henry Strenk is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY, specializing in all things drinkable.