I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a taste test as much as this one. The quality of port is at an all-time high, from the cheapest rubies on supermarket shelves, to vintage ports. It was very hard narrowing it down to ten bottles.
Port is made by taking very ripe grapes grown in the Douro Valley and crushing them to extract as much colour and flavour as possible (the top wines are still trodden by foot). Then, while there is still lots of unfermented sugar, brandy is added which kills the yeasts and stops fermentation.
The wines then spend some time in wood, with the lowest quality sold ready to drink as ruby port and the best, only made in special years, bottled as vintage port. Vintage ports need 15-20 years minimum in bottle before being ready to drink and require decanting.
Then there are tawny ports which are barrel-aged for longer with oxygen contact, like with sherry, until they lose their colour and take on a nutty quality. They can be superb and are sold ready to drink with no need to decant. Whereas most port should be drunk within a week or so of opening, an open bottle of tawny will last for months, if not years.
Finally, there is white port made from white grapes which, though still sweet, is usually drier than the red version. It makes an excellent aperitif.
In Britain, we tend to associate port with stilton but it is a suprisingly versatile wine: white port is great with tonic; ruby and cheaper tawnies can be used in cocktails in place of vermouth; a chilled tawny makes a nice aperitif; and young vintages are a perfect fit with dark chocolate. In short, port is for life, not just for Christmas.
The best port 2019
Graham’s Blend No 5 white port
A modern take on white port made with two grape varieties, Malvasia Fina and Moscatel Gallega which are cold-fermented and sold unaged to preserve primary fruit. It’s intensely aromatic with floral, honey and citrus fruits, and makes a cracking alternative to gin when mixed with tonic.
Churchill Aperitif white port
More of a traditional style of white port, aged in oak with a little oxygen contact. It smells like muscovado sugar wrapped in orange peel, on the palate more oranges and tangerines with nutty notes on the finish. Makes the ultimate white port and tonic but also delicious with cheese and fresh fruit.
Harvey Nichols (£19)
Berry Bros. & Rudd St James’s finest reserve port
The cheapest style of port but made one of the Douro Valley’s smaller producers, Quinta de la Rosa, there’s not a shortage of class. Spicy but mellow on the palate, floral and aromatic. With its ripe dark fruit and subtle spicing, it comes across like a younger softer vintage port.
Calem LBV 2011 port
An LBV is from a single vintage but aged for up to six years in wood, so once bottled it is ready to drink. The best, like this, have much of the character of vintage port. This has green fennel-like notes to it, very typical of the region, with masses of blackberry fruit. The tannins are really soft and leave a lingering leathery finish.
Tesco Finest 10-year-old tawny port
Made by one of Porto’s great families, the Symingtons, this is another wine that offers great value. It’s a blend of wines with an average age of 10 years, giving it the ripe strawberry fruit of young wines but with the nuttiness of older ones. One to give people who think they don’t like port.
The complexity is astounding with orange peel, tobacco and masses of candied fruit. And just when you think it’s over, a wave of walnuts hits you and goes on for a good 15 minutes. I don’t think you will find so much pleasure anywhere for the money. Blimey!
Fonseca Guimaraens 2004 vintage port
In years that aren’t quite good enough for vintage port, producers will release a wine under a second label. These tend to offer exceptional value and generally mature quicker. Here, there is lots of youthful black cherry and plum, but age has brought out leather and a little tobacco.
Taylor’s 1985 vintage port
Where else but from the Douro could you find a 34-year-old wine from one of the region’s greatest producers for under a £100 a bottle? The tannins have melted now and it’s beginning to take on baking spices and other mature notes. It’s a joy now, but really there’s no hurry to drink this.
Quinta do Noval vintage 2003 port
Normally you’d have to wait years to drink a vintage Noval but 2003 was an atypical vintage. It has an aromatic nose with just a hint of leather; the tannins are soft with exquisitely fresh fruit on the palate, almost like a red burgundy. This is spicy, aromatic and long.
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