There are so many different kinds of wines out there that it would take a lifetime to try them all. Still, that's no excuse for sticking to the same old Chardonnay year after year. Wine rewards those who are willing to branch out and develop their palettes, and this is especially true of Port. Port wine is an old-fashioned delight that's making a big comeback as a new generation of sippers learns to love this fortified wine.
If you're ready to dive headlong into the wonderful world of Port, it helps to know a thing or two about the care and keeping of this special spirit. Here's everything you need to know, from how it got its name to what temperature to store Port wine to make sure it tastes amazing and lasts as long as it should.
Port Wine Basics
Port wine is different from standard wines because it's fortified. This means that the wine has brandy added to it during the fermentation process to make it last longer. Though today it's easy to pop a wine into a refrigerator to slow down the aging process, this wasn't always the case.
Port wine began its illustrious history in the 1600s. This was a period of unrest in Europe, and England was nearly always in conflict with France over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For this reason, wine-loving Brits turned to Portugal as a source of their libations.
Unfortunately, it was a much longer trip by boat from Porto — Portugal’s coastal shipping hub namesake of Port wine — than the short hop across the English channel to France. This was a problem for wine, which didn't do well when forced to spend long periods in the hot hold of a ship.
To solve the problem, Portugal's clever wine makers began adding brandy to their wines during the fermentation process. The extra alcohol helped preserve the wine for longer periods, making it an inhospitable environment for bacteria to grow and ruin the flavor. The additional alcohol also served to stop fermentation early, as the natural yeasts that were consuming the sugar from the grape juice also couldn't survive in the higher alcohol solution. This meant that Port wine had a sweeter taste, since more sugar was left unprocessed during fermentation. It also meant that Port wine had a significantly higher alcohol content due to the addition of the brandy — often up to 20% alcohol by volume.
Port's signature sweetness, full-bodied flavor and strong alcohol content live on in today's versions, despite it no longer being strictly necessary to make a wine that can last for decades without refrigeration.
Types of Port Wine
Because Port wine is a namc be that refers to the style of fortification rather than the variety of grapes used to make it, Port comes in many colors and flavors. Knowing a little about each will help you decide which ones suit your taste, and it will also point you in the right direction for how to store your port wine after opening.
Wood-aged Port wine — also known simply as "wood Port" — is aged in wooden casks or vats before being bottled. There are three main varieties to choose from:
- Ruby Ports: These are deep red wines with rich, fruity sweetness. They are "young" wines, meaning that they are aged in their wood casks for only a few years before being bottled.
- Tawny Ports: These are much more "mature" wines that age for decades in their oak casks before bottling. The aging process causes them to change from red to a light golden brown and develop complex nutty and caramel flavors.
- White Ports: These are wines made from white grapes instead of red or purple ones, but still subject to the same fortification and aging process as dark Ports. They are typically aged in casks for two to three years and come in both sweet and drier versions.
As the name suggests, bottle-aged Port wine is aged in the bottle rather than in wooden vats at the winery. There are two main types:
- Vintage Ports: These wines are aged in wooden casks for only a couple years before being bottled to finish the process. Because they are designed to age for decades, they are some of the longest-lasting wines in the world.
- Crusted Ports: These wines are not as common but are designed to reach full, aged flavor more quickly than Vintage Port. The name comes from the crust of sediment that builds up on the bottom of the bottle as the wine ages.
How to Store and Serve Port Wine
No matter what variety of port you prefer, you can enhance your enjoyment by making sure you keep it fresh and serves it at the optimum temperature. Here's everything you need to know to master the mysteries of Port.
How to Store a Port Wine That's Still Sealed
Port wine will last for many years when unopened and properly sealed. After all, longevity is what these wines were originally designed for, so it's no surprise that they can last for decades — as long as you don't open them.
Ideally, unopened Port should be stored in a cool, dark place. Keeping the temperature steady is crucial. Though the common rule of thumb is that full-bodied red wines can be stored at room temperature, this isn't optimal. "Room temperature" in the 1800s was quite a bit cooler than we enjoy today, and a well-heated home may be too much for your Port.
Instead, keep bottles at 60 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal aging and preservation. This is slightly warmer than the 55 degrees recommended for cellaring table wines, but far cooler than the 60 to 72 degrees most people keep their thermostat dialed to. Your best bet is to keep unopened Port in a dedicated wine fridge that you can set at the proper temperature.
Positioning of your bottles is also important. Vintage and crusted Ports should be stored on their sides. This keeps the cork moist and plump to keep bottles well sealed during the aging process. Bottle-aged Port wines are typically marked with a splash of paint on one side of the bottle to indicate which side should face up when it's placed on a rack. This ensures that the sediment always collects on the same side of the bottle and isn't agitated, which can lead to an inferior flavor.
How to Serve Port Wine for Best Flavor
Of all the wines, Port is one that is truly best at room temperature — that is, a serving temperature of 67 to 68 degrees. This means that you'll need to take the bottle out of your wine fridge about 30 minutes to an hour before serving to allow it to warm after being stored at 60 degrees. White Port, like many white wines, can be served a bit cooler — pouring it directly after taking it out of your wine refrigerator is fine.
Wood-aged Port varieties can be poured directly from the bottle, but additional care should be taken to decant bottle-aged Port wines before serving. To do this, keep the painted side of the bottle uppermost in your hand as you remove the bottle from the rack and uncork it. Pour the wine into a clean decanter, still keeping the painted side up. When you reach the dregs, stop pouring. The wine in the decanter should be clear and ready to pour into your serving glasses — ideally, small glasses designed for sipping, since the alcohol content of Port is very high.
How to Store Port Wine Once Opened
After opening, you'll need to store port wine in the fridge in an upright position, since it won't be tightly sealed any more. It's up to you whether you wish to keep it in a dedicated wine fridge or in a standard kitchen refrigerator after opening. Just be aware that the average temperature of a refrigerator designed to hold food is a chilly 38 degrees, so you'll need to allow your Port to warm up again before drinking it to let all the rich flavors through.
How long your Port wine will last depends on its type. In general, wood-aged Ports — the ruby, tawny and white varieties — will last longer once opened because they've already been aged significantly before bottling. This means that they've already been oxidized, so additional exposure to oxygen after opening won't make much difference. Ruby Port can be stored for four to six weeks without any trouble; tawny Port can last for up to three months.
Vintage Ports, on the other hand, have been aging in the bottle without any exposure to oxygen. That means that once you open it, the air will quickly cause it to deteriorate. In this case, the older the wine, the faster you should finish it. A Port under five years old can last up to five days; one that's 10 to 15 years old lasts for about three days; and anything older than 25 years should be finished the day you open it — or within 48 hours at the very latest. These fine wines deteriorate rapidly, and it would be a shame to let them go to waste.
Pro Tip: The cork gives you a hint at how long your Port will last in storage. A plastic tipped, reusable cork indicates a wine that can last for several weeks after opening, but one that requires a corkscrew should be finished in one session if at all possible.
Now that you know the ins and outs of how to keep Port wine fresh, you're ready to explore this fascinating branch of wines. Grab a bottle to serve for dessert or with a rich cheese plate, and you'll enjoy a tradition that's centuries old, but still timeless.