If you are not a port sipper, perhaps the best one to try first is a tawny port. Tawny ports are one of the few wines that almost always comply with the rule “The more you pay, the better the wine”. The reason for this is that tawny ports are a blend of a number of vintages, for example a ten-year tawny port will be a blended port from vintages that have an average vintage of at least ten years, that is, on average the port has been aging in wooden barrels for at least ten years. A twenty year tawny port will be more expensive than a ten-year tawny port and it will almost always taste better.
They are made form red grapes that are aged in wooden (often oak) barrels, thus exposing them to some oxidation and evaporation. This occurs because the wood that the barrel is made from is not airtight. The exposure of wood (oak) results in additional flavors being added as well.
Port originated from the hills on either side of the Duoro River in Portugal. There are official grape varieties for port and these are strictly adhered to in Portugal, but not in all other places of “port” production.
The traditional process follows this pattern:
1. Grapes are picked, by hand if the vineyards are steep, otherwise by machine.
2. Grapes are crushed, and left to ferment in their skins so that they get the red color.
3. When partly fermented, and with the correct level of sugar, the wine is poured into large containers, that are half filled with grape alcohol. This effectively stops the fermentation and increased the alcohol content.The seeds, pulp and skins are separated.
4. The wine (port) is then blended with other vintages to the required taste.
5. The port is then placed into wooden barrels for more aging, until the desired results are achieved. They could be in barrels aging for up to forty years. During this process, there will be sediments at the bottom of the barrel and the port is drawn off and placed in other barrels. (this process is called racking). During each racking process the port looses some red color and becomes a “tawny” color. Hence the name “Tawny Port”
6. The port is then bottled and sold. Port does not age further in the bottle.
The bottled tawny port, need not be consumed on the day of opening as most of the oxidation has already taken place during the aging process. However a good guide would be to consume the contents of an open bottle with a month.
The modern process of port production is not much different, except there are increasing regulations in most western countries in its preparation.
Fine ports are best sipped, using the modern port sippers that are available, rather than a wine glass.