The Beginner’s Guide to Port Wine

Jonas Muthoni
Port Wine

Port Wine

Port is a well-known multifaceted full-bodied dessert wine produced in the mountainous reaches of the Douro Valley in Portugal. This rich, sweet red wine comes in an assortment of styles including red, vintage, white and rose and is characterized by a touch of viscousness and high alcohol content which make it the perfect digestif for rinsing your palate after a delightful meal.

What Does Port Taste Like?

Port has a wealth of diverse flavors. And while the flavors depend on the grapes used, on most occasions, you can detect notes of raspberry, chocolate sauce, blackberry, cinnamon, and caramel. There are also different types of Port Wine all of which have different distinct flavors. White Port has a more citrus flavor with notes of roasted nuts, apricot, and baked apple; Tawny has strong flavors of hazelnut, nut, caramel, fig and clog; Ruby is known for its intense flavors reminiscent of chocolate and berry flavors, and Rose is basically a mix of violet, caramel and strawberry flavors.



When you serve Port Wine, there are a few things you need to put into perspective. The type of glass you’re serving it in and the serving size among other things. Port is best served below room temperature at about 60 degrees F (16 degrees C) in portions of 3 oz in official Port Wine or dessert glasses. This is because it has a particularly high alcohol content and is much sweeter than other wines. However, if you do not have official Port Wine glasses or dessert glasses, you can use sparkling wine glasses or white wine glasses. For Rose and White Port, however, you want to go a bit colder to about 4-10 degrees C.


Port is very versatile and pairs wonderfully with savory foods like wild game and roasted meats, dried fruits, richly flavored cheese such as washed rind cheese and blue cheese, charcuterie, walnuts, caramel and chocolate desserts and even smoked and salted nuts. Red Port is also quite delicious when paired with duck confit or rare duck breast too.

The Common Styles of Port Wine

Port Wine comes in an assortment of different styles that mostly fall into four main categories.

Ruby Port

Ruby is a deep red Port Wine that is reminiscent of blackcurrant, blackberry, and cherry. It includes Crusted, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)), Vintage and Ruby Port.

Ruby Port is the freshest and least complex of fortified wines, savored for its deep red color and sweet flavors of dark fruits.

Rubies are the least expensive and most commonly produced port out there. But don’t let its seemingly run-of-the-mill status fool you; this libation is an exquisite and attainable mark of a distinguished host.

Ruby Port is produced from a blend of red grapes, fortified and aged no more than three years to maintain freshness and captivating color. Ruby port is best enjoyed as an aperitif or dessert wine.

After fermentation, ruby port is stored in concrete or stainless steel tanks to prevent oxidation. Storage usually lasts less than three years, thus preserving its fruity color and bright, full-bodied flavor. The majority of rubies are blended from various grape varieties and vintages. Single varieties and vintages are called colheita, and represent a uniquely delicious port. As a general rule, rubies don’t get better with age, with the exception of some excellent rubies aged in wood barrels four to six years.

In the world of port wine, the basic port is ruby. Rubies are designed to be drank right away (note the characteristic liquor-style stopper) and don’t get noticeably better with age.

So what’s the difference between a fresh ruby port and older barrel aged tawny port? This is the essential starting question in the quest for the perfect port for your gathering.

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“Young” and “Fresh”

“Young” or “fresh” always refers to ruby port. Rubies are some of the darkest, boldest red wines out there due to their concentrations of tannin and other pigmentation. Tawny port, on the other hand, loses much of its pigmentation in the aging process, creating a smoother, caramel-like finish with lighter coloring.

Tawny refers to old ports aged in wood. Tawny ports are typically pale yet smooth. Ruby ports are aged far fewer years than tawny ports, generally no more than three years. Considered run-of-the-mill, rubies are still an exceptionally popular and delicious aperitif or dessert wine. Ruby ports are broadly characterized as basic ports. But special rubies designated as Reserve are rubies aged four to six years. Aged any longer, and rubies would lose their characteristic fresh, fruity flavor.

One name, many profiles

Ports in general are extremely varied. Due to the wildly diverse meteorological and topographic conditions of the Douro Valley, each vineyard produces a different tasting grape, with neighboring vineyards with similar varieties resulting in vastly different flavor profiles. This makes port drinking an exciting adventure. The saying “you tried one, you tried them all” applied to port never.

Ruby port is extremely fragrant due to its high alcohol content (usually around 19%). It stimulates the olfactory senses with notes of dried and steamed dark fruits (specifically blackberry and raspberry), chocolate, and cinnamon, with underlying finishes of hossin sauce and spice. The former imbues a delectably savory finish to ruby’s flavor profile. Ruby port is best served slightly cool (60 degrees F, or 16 degrees C).

The older the port (ruby or tawny) the more nutty, caramel, and spice notes are summoned. Rubies are less sweet than tawny ports, and always maintain a richer profile of youthful dark fruits like raspberry and blueberry. Reserve rubies are a premium ruby port crafted to be drunk early. Late bottled vintage (LBV) ports lay somewhere between rubies and tawny, offering a distinct amalgamation of fruity freshness and aged caramel. Vintage rubies are a single variety aged in barrels 2-3 years prior to bottling, after which they are aged even ,longer. These rubies are best after 20-40 years (and, of course, they’re more expensive). Vintage rubies include:

  • Crusted: a blend of two or more harvest years of Port designed to be drank immediately.

  • Single Quinta: a unique vintage of Port hailing from a single year (vintage) and vineyard.

Flavor intensities and types will vary by vineyard, so be sure to read each producer’s tasting notes.


Tawny Port

Tawny is a mellow and elegant barrel aged Port Wine that combines delicate fruit notes with rich aromas of butterscotch and fine oak wood. It has strong flavors of fig, caramel, nut, hazelnut and clove and wonderfully pairs with nuts, desserts, and cheeses.

White Port

Often brewed from a perfect blend of indigenous white grapes, White Port is a lighter Port Wine with a citrus flavor and distinct notes of roasted nuts, apricot, and baked apple.

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Rose Port

Rose Port is a newer variation of Port Wine. It has a notably sweet jammy note that adds to its sweet flavor and has more berry flavors which include raspberry, strawberry and cranberry sauce.

What Makes Port Unique?

One of the fascinating aspects about Port Wine is that it is built from the blended synergy of 52 indigenous grapes among them being the Tinta Barroca, Touriga Franca, Tinta Cao and Touriga Nacional. All of which adds a unique flavor to the blend to give it a sublime mellowness and complexity.

Grape Stomping

Originally, Port was fermented in lagares, where the grapes were often stomped by foot while the wine fermented. However, with technology came automatic lagares which have feet like structures that instead stomp the grapes.

Special Wine Glass

The best way to serve Port Wine is straight up in a proper Port Wine glass. It’s much smaller than a regular wine glass and has a serving size of about 3oz which is preferred especially considering that Port Wine has a higher alcohol content.

How to Drink Port

Drinking Port is much like drinking a fine brandy. For you to savor all the distinct notes and get enough of the delicious fruity flavors, you have to sip small bits at a go. This is one wine I would probably not sneak into a wine bra : )


Port Wine and Cooking

Wine is a great recipe if you want to add some rich fruity feel to your food. And Port is no exception. From using it as a reduction for your savory and sweet dishes to adding it to your sweet gooey chocolate sauces and chocolate cakes everything goes. If you like, you can simmer the Port Wine and reduce it to a thick sauce and then use the sauce to dress your dishes.

Which Port is Used in Cooking?

For cooking, Ruby Port is your best bet. It is affordable and has a youthful fruity character that gives your food lip-smacking sweetness. What’s more, it helps tame the stronger flavors of aged and blue cheeses and creates a great contrast with bitter dark chocolate.

Port Wine Substitute

For a recipe that calls for Port Wine, you can use ¼ part sugar, 1-part brandy or vodka and two parts dry bold red wine because it offers the same thickness. It won’t be the same, but it’ll work.

How Long Before Port Goes Off After Opening?

Most Port wines remain fresh for about two weeks or even a month depending on the style. However, depending on how you preserve it, it could be longer. Most times, when you keep it in a cool dark place, it could remain viable for a much longer period of time.

How Long Will Port Cellar?

The beauty of Port Wine is that while most Ports you buy from a supermarket are not designed for long-term storage, there are a few vintage variety Port Wines such as Vintage Port, Crusted Ports and some Colheitas varieties that can be cellared for the long term. However, that’s not to say that you can’t enjoy them young.

Final Thoughts

Port is no doubt a remarkable and unique wine and one that you’d do well to have in your wine cellar.


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