Whether it’s with a cheese board, after a big meal or simply a relaxing evening treat, port - a Portuguese fortified wine - is a popular festive drink, and makes a great last-minute gift too. But is spending more on brand names or pricier styles of port really worth it?
In October 2021, we asked wine expert Charles Metcalfe to blind-taste and rate 30 widely available ports each costing £20 or less. These included big brands like Graham’s and Taylor’s, as well as supermarket own-label ports from retailers such as Aldi, Asda, Lidl, Morrison’s, Tesco and Waitrose.
Our taste test revealed that paying more for port doesn’t always guarantee a better drink – though some of the pricier categories did prove their worth.
Broadly speaking, ports are split into two categories – red and tawny.
Red ports tend to spend fewer years aging in wooden barrels or vats, which should give them a fruitier, more tannic profile and a vivid red-purple colour.
Tawny ports are paler brown or amber in colour, with a more mellow taste. That typically comes from a longer period aging in wood, which can impart distinct flavours of dried fruit and nuts.
Aged tawny ports have spent a significant period of time aging in wood. These are usually blends of fine ports from several years, averaging 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years.
These are the ports that impressed our wine expert the most of the selection we sent for him to try.
Ruby port was most variable in quality in our taste test. The best were bursting with ripe, peppery fruit, but four of the 10 tasted (including a big brand) had strong flavours of green, earthy rot. Port being a blended wine, this probably came from constituents made in a year when there was rot in the vineyards.
We tested 10 ruby ports, shown below in alphabetical order.
The tawny ports scored best as a category, even though many were inexpensive, at between £7 and £8. As you might expect, the aged 10-year-old tawnies cost more per bottle – but they often proved their worth.
We tested eight tawny ports, shown below in alphabetical order.
Reserve ports proved worth their slightly higher prices in many cases. They were more fun to drink, with several high-scoring supermarket ports – though there were some disappointments.
We tested six reserve ports, shown below in alphabetical order.
The late bottled vintage ports were a step up, as they should be. They all tasted richer than the less expensive categories, with more complex flavours from longer maturation in barrels.
We tested six late bottled vintage ports, shown below in alphabetical order.
Geosmin is a chemical compound that can give wines and ports an unpleasant, earthy odour, usually the result of using grape crops affected by rot. It’s safe enough to drink, but if you’re sensitive to the smell, it can be off-putting, and impacts the flavour of the drink.
Wine tasting experts are trained to spot this, and Charles detected this earthy taint in several of the ruby ports in our taste test, which could make for a disappointing drink.
None of his top-rated picks had this problem though, so if you’re concerned, opt for one of the recommended buys above.
There’s no right or wrong time to enjoy a glass of port. On British and Portuguese tables, it’s often served toward the end of a meal. In France, it’s often enjoyed before a meal – or poured over melon.
Aged tawny is brilliant with stilton cheese, and very good with pumpkin pie, walnuts and milk chocolate dishes.
Ruby, reserve and late bottled ports go well with brie, camembert, cheddar and bitter chocolate dishes, as well as coffee flavoured desserts like tiramisu.
You might think port lasts forever after it’s been opened, but sadly that’s not the case - though it differs by type.
Tawny keeps better than vintage since it’s already been exposed to air during maturation. Kept in the fridge or cellar, a tawny port can be enjoyed many weeks after the bottle is opened.
Vintage port has led a sheltered life – and will begin reacting with oxygen as soon as the bottle is open. For that reason, it could be significantly less good within days.
There’s no hard and fast rule - port is best enjoyed at whatever temperature you like it.
According to Charles, white and tawny ports are typically served chilled, especially in summer, whereas red ports are usually served at room temperature (but not actually warmed up).
Decanting is the process of transferring port to a decanter or jug, while separating out any natural sediment. This sediment can either be left to settle at the bottom of the bottle, or strained through a muslin cloth.
It’s unnecessary for tawny ports and younger reds, but essential for older vintage ports, which tend to form a deposit in the bottle over time.
There is a tradition of giving port to a newborn to enjoy years down the line, once they’re old enough to drink it. However, the vast majority of port these days is sold to be consumed immediately, and very few will develop at all once they’re in the bottle – much less improve.
If you are buying to squirrel away (or gift) for future years, you’ll want a decent vintage port – which can mature over time. Charles warns though, that even then there’s no way to guarantee it will change for the better.
Port is often served in dedicated port, sherry or dessert wine glasses, which look like small wine glasses. Popular wisdom is that the narrow rim is designed to concentrate the port’s bouquet. If you don’t have these glasses, a regular wine glass or brandy snifter will do perfectly well.
We selected and bought 30 supermarket and brand name ports, based on widely available options which cost £20 or less.
These ports were assessed by independent wine expert, Charles Metcalfe, co-chairman of the International Wine Challenge, who also sits on our wine tasting panel. Discover the , and from our recent taste tests.
The taste test was blind, so Charles didn’t know which brand he was trying, and the order he tasted each was randomised to avoid any bias.
Port bottles are widely recycled. Many councils accept mixed glass for kerbside recycling. If that’s not available in your area, most bottle banks will accept coloured glass. Natural corks may be suitable for your green bin or home compost caddy if you have one – just be sure to check your local guidelines and remove any other materials attached to it first.