The Instituto do Vinho do Porto defines nine official classifications of port :

Vintage Character
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)

Single Quinta


White Port

White Port is made from White Grapes (commonly Arinto, Gouveio, Malvasia and Viosinho)

Made in both sweet and dry styles, they are intended to be drunk, slightly chilled, as an aperitif.

White Port is manufactured and fortified in exactly the same manner as Red, with the drier styles that are available being ageing in cask for up to 10 years.

They are perhaps not to everyone's taste, and in particular they are not favoured by the traditional British Port drinker who is more accustomed to Vintage or Late Bottled Vintage Ports.

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Ruby Port

This is the Basic Red Port, which is a blend of several harvests that have been aged in wooden barrels for up to 3 years before being bottled, and is ready to drink on release.

A warmingly sweet wine with a bright Ruby colour they usually show an uncomplicated forthright spicy flavour, and are best quaffed uncritically.

My advice would be to choose a decent quality Ruby (often referred to as 'Premium') as the lesser quality wines can be rather harsh.

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Tawny Port

There is some confusion nowadays about Tawny Ports (in my opinion caused by rather 'sharp practices' by the manufacturers).

True Tawny Port is a basic blended port, like Ruby, which is given more ageing in the barrel before being bottled. The extra ageing, which can be anything from 3 to 40 years, causes the wine to take on a Red-Brown colour and develops a dry nutty flavour with raisin overtones.

However most of the basic Tawny that you buy in the shops has been made by adding a little White Port to a basic paler Red, which although cheaper to produce does NOT give the same result.

If you want to ensure that you get a real Tawny Port then my advice would be to buy one which is marked with it's age - usually 10, 20 or 40 years.
Because Tawny Port is a blend of several harvests the stated age is the average age of the base harvests, but at least you know you are buying real wood aged Tawny.

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Crusted Port

Crusted Port is a very small category, named because of the 'crust' of sediment that it forms in the bottle.

Invented by the British-owned Port houses predominantly for the British Port drinker, it is intended to be a more economical alternative to Vintage or Late Bottled Vintage.

Crusted is a blend of several harvests, which are bottled without being filtered and laid down to mature like Vintage wines. Using this approach allows the manufacturer to use some of the lesser harvests but still produce a good rich full bodied wine at an economical price.

Usually a year is stated on the label which, because the wine was made from a blend of harvests, is the year in which the wine was bottled.

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Vintage Character

Another category of Port, like Tawny, which is mis-leading :

Vintage Character is a blend of several basic rubies that are given longer ageing (around 4 to 5 years) which is theoretically supposed to impart something of the flavour and character of Vintage Port.

In reality it never actually works, and the extra 'premium' price that you pay isn't worth it.

If you want my advice : spend the same money on a Premium quality Ruby or a Late Bottled Vintage.

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Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)

Late Bottled Vintage Port is wine from a single specific harvest, the year being stated on the label, which has been aged in the barrel for between 4 and 6 years.

LBV's are more complex than a Premium Ruby but are softer and more readily approachable than the Full Vintage. Late Bottled Vintage is intended to be drunk earlier, and does not have the ageing potential of a Full Vintage.

There are two styles that are offered :
- those that are filtered when bottled, which do not subsequently require decanting before consuming,
- and those which are bottled un-filtered, throwing a sediment as they age and develop in bottle.

It is a matter of choice as to which style you prefer but the un-filtered style is more in keeping with a Full Vintage and has I think much better, rounded, more complex flavours as a result. The only disadvantage to the un-filtered style is that they require decanting before drinking which, contrary perhaps to popular belief, is not a difficult or time consuming process.

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Single Quinta Port

Port made from a single specific harvest, and coming from a single specific estate or Quinta.

If the harvest is poor in quality the resulting wines will usually be blended to make Ruby or Tawny Ports. When very good quality harvests occur but which don't quite make it to the standards required for Full Vintage, the harvest is used to make LBV's and Single Quinta wines.

So Single Quinta Port is probably the next best thing to a Full Vintage ! (and usually at a considerably lower price)

Aged and bottled as a Full Vintage Port the wines are ready to drink on release but will age further in bottle, throwing the classic sediment.

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Colheita's are essentially a Tawny Port made from a single specific harvest, unlike the Tawny which is a blend of several different years harvests. The year of harvest will be stated on the label along with the year of bottling and a statement that the wine has been given extended ageing in wood.

Colheita's are aged in the barrel for a minimum of seven years so that their colour fades and they take on a nutty flavour, which should finish with lingering rich dried fruit overtones.

If you can find them at a reasonable price, I would strongly recommend you buy them.

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Vintage Port

The most famous of all Port categories, sitting at the top of the tree, the King of all Ports, is the Full Vintage.

The product of a single harvest the wine is aged in barrel for between 2 and 3 years and is bottled un-filtered, and needs to be laid down for a considerable number of years so that it can age in bottle.

After ageing in bottle Vintage Port develops into a very big wine, exhibiting a range of flavours depending on the maker, the year, the climate etc. Complex layers upon layers of flavours of plums, liquorice, pepper, blackcurrants, spices and much more.

Vintage Port is only made when the harvest is exceptional which, since WW1, has been about 3 times a decade.

Only about 1% or 2% of all Port produced is worthy of being called Vintage, and the reputations of the makers can be made or broken on the quality of their Vintage offerings.

There are strict controls on when a Port can be called Vintage, or 'declared' as it is known :
- the wine must be from a single harvest,
- bottled between 1st July of the second year following harvest, and before the 30th June of the third.
- the maker must submit samples of the wine to the Instituto do Vinho do Porto, together with details of the quantity of wine to be released, the yield of wine from the grapes, and the proposed release date of the wine.

If the Instituto is convinced that the wine is of sufficient quality they grant their approval and the maker can 'declare' the Vintage.

Not all makers declare a specific year. It is a brave maker that does not follow the lead of other houses, but it is a far braver maker that declares a Vintage year when few others do. This results in much debate about the merits of one vintage over another, and the merits of one makers vintage over that of another makers.

This is what makes Vintage Port the greatest drink in the world !

A word of warning though - don't try drinking a Vintage Port in under 15 years ! It certainly needs time to mellow.

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