Port Primer: Everything You Need To Know About The Fortified Wine

Everything you need to know about port

You've been there before: Dinner ends, and the dessert menu arrives. Scanning the list of digestifs, you spot a selection of ports. Do you dare order a glass, or even a bottle?

Be brave, grasshopper. Portugal's fortified red wine is a perfect wintry sipper, full of gorgeous dark fruit, spice and even chocolate-like flavors. Here's what you need to know the next time you're handed that digestif list.

What's port? It's red wine fortified with a little neutral grape spirit or grape brandy. It's not just any wine, though—port is produced with grapes from the Douro Valley in the northern part of Portugal. If it's not from Portugal, it's not port.

That's the easy part. Trickier: Navigating the many types of port. Although more varieties exist beyond this list, here's a brief overview of the types of ports you may encounter with some regularity.

Ruby port often is made from a blend of vintages and vineyards. Accessible and young, it retains much of its original color (that's why it's called "ruby"—get it?) and fruity flavor. Since it's relatively inexpensive, ruby often is used in cocktails. Try Quinta do Noval Black ($18), with dark berry flavors, plum and chocolate.

Tawny port is aged in casks until it's ready to blend, and the oxidation that takes place during that barrel time causes the wine to develop color changes, from red to tawny. It also creates mellow flavors that evoke caramel, hazelnuts or dried fruit. The longer it is aged, the paler and drier it becomes. It's often made from a blend of different vintages.

Tawny is the biggest seller at New York's famed 21 Club, according to wine director/sommelier Phil Pratt, who recommends pairing a pick like Taylor Tawny Port 20-Year-Old Non Vintage ($47) with the caramel-y flavors of crème brûlée and nutty desserts.

Colheita (pronounced "Col-yate-a") is a particularly prized type of tawny port, created from a single vintage and aged in wood for a minimum of seven years, although most rest for decades, creating concentrated flavors and a viscous texture.

Late Bottle Vintage (LBV) port is made like regular port, and tends to show dark berry flavors and plush texture. Made from grapes from a single harvest year, LBVs remain in barrel for longer than Vintage ports, making them generally more accessible at an earlier age. Bottled four to six years after harvest, the dates on the labels reflect both the vintage and the year the port was bottled. Released when the house deems it ready, many LBVs can be consumed immediately, although experts say they can benefit from aging time. Often priced in the $18 to $25 range, LBVs can be a great way to learn about port without breaking the bank.

Vintage port is made from a single harvest year. Bottled after about two years in barrels, it's made to age, since it may take decades to soften harsh tannins. While it accounts for only one percent of the market, "vintage port is the big daddy," says Pratt, and it sees the greatest demand and buzz from consumers. What gives?

"There's not a lot of it," Pratt explains. "These also are special wines with incredible longevity. It changes as time goes on, evolving from dark to elegant and graceful." Since 15 to 18 years is the standard time for aging a vintage port, those laid down in 1990 and earlier are considered ready to drink now, although it's common to age it longer. 1991 Graham Vintage Port ($90) has been called a "blockbuster," with plum and coffee notes and lots of ripe fruit.

Now all you need to do is figure out what to order for dessert.