Woe is me. I have just spent a busy morning’s work tasting Louis Roederer Champagne followed by Ramos Pinto Tawny Ports with MW Mark Bingley as our entertaining personal sommelier. Prior to the tasting I couldn’t claim to be the world’s most educated port drinker, I tend to stick to pudding wines for that after-dinner indulgence hit. But praise be to Bingley, I hopped onto the Port-Wagon, headed for Christmas at full steam. To quote Sir Francis Bacon, ‘knowledge is power’, and so I shall share my newly found power with the masses, or more precisely, uninformed normo's like myself…

To be called ‘Port’ it has to be grown and vinified in Douro, Portugal (obvious perhaps but lets start with the facts). The best sites are vineyards on the steep banks of the River Douro. There are many sanctioned grape varietals that can make Port; quality ports are made from Touriga Nacional, blended with other varieties. Once harvested, the grapes are fermented into wine; with a long skin contact period which yields that concentrated inky purple colour. Before all the naturally occurring sugars have fermented from the must (as in the majority of wine making practices) the wine maker will add neutral grape alcohol. Thus killing any remaining yeast to prevent further fermentation of the residual sugars; obviously this elevates the level of alcohol whilst maintaining the richness of the wine. Now we have essentially a fortified, sweet red wine – the raw ingredient prior to maturation.

Reductive maturation: Aged in sealed bottles with no air exposure, maintaining the familiar dark purple/black colour, with a smooth, less tannic style; Ruby & LBV port (Late Bottled Vintage). To be called LBV it must be produced from a single stated vintage. LBV can be considered as being half way between the two great families of Port; it is reminiscent of a Vintage although it matures for longer in cask and has less colour; on the other hand it is fruitier and more colour and body than a tawny.

Oxidative maturation: Aged in barrels, oak permeability enables some exposure to oxygen. Resulting in a quicker colour loss than bottle aged port. Also important to note is the loss of volume to evaporation (romantically coined ‘the angels share’) producing a more viscous wine. We’re talking Tawny and Colheita Port.

When it comes to storage, all the usual apply; lay your precious bottles on their side in a cool (not cold), dark atmosphere, free from vibration. However I had to ask the painfully obvious question that I felt I should already know; how should you serve port, store it once it is opened and how long does it keep? The cliché of an old codger dusting off his previously opened bottle of port to enjoy for a second consecutive Christmas tipple is synonymous with the UK’s caricature of port imbibers. Bingley pointed out that after all, it is a living organism – not in the airy-fairy ‘vegetables have feelings’ sense, but in the logical scientific facts. Bite through an apple skin; exposing the fruit to the atmosphere turns it brown and destroys its fresh appeal. Port is made from fruit, which ages slowly in a bottle or wooden cask, but once it is opened for consumption, the rate of maturation accelerates to the point of complete oxidation and thus degradation of its polyphenolic structure. As I said; obvious. To avoid such a horrific fate, purchase a smaller format if your circumstances won’t allow you to drink a 75cl bottle. Drink within a few days of opening and his top tip was (for tawny port), try serving it chilled – like a desert wine. Aromas are more delicate on the palate and it becomes a refreshing tipple, even suitable for an aperitif.

Now you are in the know, feel free to drop these fascinating facts into conversation, you may even find such knowledge useful should ever you find yourself as a contestant on University Challenge. At worst you’re now aptly equipped to pick a tasty Port. If you aren’t lucky enough to make the pilgrimage to James Nicholson in Crossgar and choose for yourself.

Ramos Pinto 10 year old Tawny Port
Made with high quality wines from Quinta de Ervamoira by blending wines from harvests from different years (Solera system). The new wines give it the vigour and freshness and the older wines, complexity and pedigree. Smooth and full bodied on the palate with fresh, soft fruit, finishing with a light, acidic, woody note. Good structure and a perfect balance between fruit and alcohol. Awarded Silver Medal at 2009 Decanter Awards.

Ramos Pinto 20 year old Tawny Port
Gold Medal winner at 2010 Decanter World Wine Awards: High-toned, lifted nose with notes of tobacco and herbs. Fantastic length and excellence balance. JN Taste Team Recommends this, 5-stars!

Ramos Pinto 30 year old Tawny Port
5-Star winner in Decanter Port report by Richard Mayson, Dec 2010: Ramos Pinto consistently produces some of the finest tawnies in the rarefied, delicate style that I favour, Amber-orange with fine, fragrant, slightly lifted aromas, (known locally as vinagrinho), this wine is supremely elegant, retaining a vestige of gentle dried apricot fruit, yet still fresh and quite dry in style - perfect poise. Drink now. 18.5 pts

Quinta de la Rosa 10 year Tawny Port
Delicate, soft and creamy, this is a rich and elegant blend with wonderful aromas exuding the heat of the Douro. On the palate it is complex with powerful dried fruit, figs, honey and almonds with a long pleasing finish. It should be consumed within 2 to 3 years of bottling. Serve chilled as an aperitif or to accompany foie gras or cheese. This Port has been lightly filtered and does not require decanting.