Written by: Tim Edison

Updated: January 5, 2024

What’s the Difference Between Sherry and Port Wine? [Port vs Sherry]

Port and sherry in glasses

In the complex world of fortified wines, Port and Sherry are two names that stand out.

Although there are many other fortified wines worth drinking, Port and Sherry are probably the most famous.

Distinctive bouquets, unique aromas, and two different production methods draw a clear line between the two. 

But not many are aware of the contrasts between them. 

In this guide, I explain the differences between the two most famous of fortified wines.

Sherry vs Port : Quick Answer

We'll start with the similarities and then explain the key differences between the two famous drinks.

For starters, they are both fortified wines made when spirits are added to the base wine.

This ensures two things: 

  1. 1
    They are strong in alcohol (higher ABV than regular wine).
  2. 2
    They are sweet.

But, that's really where the similarities end.

Let's take a look at the key differences.

Where do Port and Sherry come from?

Port comes from the Douro Valley area of northern Portugal while Sherry is Spanish. Sherry comes from the Jerez region specifically.

What grapes are they made with?

Port is primarily made from the Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, and Tinta Amarela grapes. But more than 60 red grape varieties can be used.

Sherry is usually made using the Palomino grape, though Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez are used too.

How are they produced?

The fortification process is different for the two wines.

Port has a spirit called aguardente added to it before fermentation is completed. This kills yeast and ensures residual sugar remains (instead of being converted to alcohol).

With Sherry, the fortification process happens after fermentation. Sherry is then usually aged in a solera system where blending with different vintages occurs.

Keep reading for a more detailed explanation of Port and Sherry wines!

Understanding Port Wine

Port wine is the most famous fortified wine in Portugal. Although the people from Madeira might have something to say about that!

From many points of view, it is safe to say that the eonology of the whole country is inextricably linked to the production of Port.

The wine owes its name to the city of Oporto in Douro Valley, a region close to the Atlantic coast and famous for its rich lands.

Today, Port-style wines are produced in many parts of the world. In some countries and states, it is even possible for winemakers to denominate their wines with the same name. However, nothing is comparable with the authentic Port produced in Portugal.

Port wine, like its most famous counterparts Sherry, Madeira, and Marsala, has a history strongly linked to that of the English merchants who, in the seventeenth century, began to look for an alternative to the expensive French wines.

To preserve the qualities of the wine during long voyages across the seas and oceans, the merchants began to fortify the wine by adding a quantity of alcohol to the barrels.

The local winemakers improved the fortification method and developed a whole new vinification process that makes Port the famous and distinct wine it is today.

This fortified wine is produced by stopping the fermentation of the grape must before it has reached completion. By halting an active fermentation like this, you ensure that sugar is left behind (and not converted into alcohol). This usually creates a sweet wine.

The fermentation is stopped using a locally made grape spirit called aguardente. This high ABV spirit (like a Portuguese brandy) kills the yeast which don't like alcohol content of more than 16% ABV.

What's left is a strong, sweet wine containing residual sugars.

Types of Port Wine

There are some very distinctive Port varieties depending on age, grapes, and sweetness. Here's what's on offer.

port vs sherry

White Port

White Port is a very young wine typically served as a summer aperitif.

Aged no more than three years, the wine is made from very sweet or dried grapes. This is the most affordable and easiest to find Port wine, it doesn’t require decanting and is served chilled.

Rosé Port

Commonly known as Pink, the rosé variety is similar in many ways to the white one. Served as an aperitif, this wine has a short history and was introduced for the first time in 2008. Not all winemakers in the region produce Pink Port and some believe producing it is a felony.

This wine is light and fruity and is produced by stopping the fermentation of Ruby Port immediately after fermentation. The wine doesn’t require decanting and is served chilled. 

Ruby Port

An equally young wine, matured for less than three years in cask. A wine that doesn’t require aging, this is the easiest to find the type of Port, it is inexpensive and is usually ready for consumption immediately after bottling.

This ruby red wine is very sweet but not complex. It is appreciated by most wine enthusiasts although specialists see it as an entry-level expression of an exquisite product.

Some wineries preserve and age selected bottles. These Reserves are much more elegant than the common Ruby type, thanks to the longer maturation period. Although red, Ruby Port doesn’t require decanting and is served chilled.

Tawny Port

Tawny varietals are obtained from the same Ruby grapes and the difference stands in the maturation process. Tawny is aged in small barrels which favor the contact of the wine with the wood. Due to this contact, the wine loses its ruby color and achieves mesmerizing nuances of amber, from where it gets its Tawny name.

Due to the maturation in oak barrels, the wine also loses some of its sweetness and it gets distinctive aromas of toasted nuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, and dark chocolate. The wine is fairly young and doesn’t require decanting.

So how do tawny port and ruby port compare? We explain the key similarities and differences in our guide.

Aged Tawny Port

The production is identical to Tawny but the aged varietals are maturated in casks for at least 10 years before bottling, whereas Tawny is only aged for about three years. Some selected wines are even aged for 30 or 40 years.

Aged Tawny doesn’t evolve significantly after bottling and their degree of complexity is almost exclusively linked to the maturation length and skills of the winemaker. Once opened, Aged Tawny preserves its characteristics for up to 4 months.

Aged Tawny doesn’t require decanting yet it can be exceptionally sumptuous and complex.

Colheita Port

A rare type of Port, this wine is obtained in a way similar to Tawny but from the grapes of a specific year. Colheita wine should mature in wooden barrels for at least seven years but winemakers tend to age it for much longer. As such, it is not difficult to find even 50 years Colheitas.

The law requires winemakers to indicate the year of harvest and the year of bottling on the label, but the wine doesn’t evolve in the bottle. The wine doesn’t require decanting and it preserves its characteristics for several months after opening.

Vintage Character Port

Essentially a Ruby Premium, this wine doesn’t have significant similarities with a real Vintage, that’s why Istituto do Vinho do Porto abolished its name in 2002. This Port wine is inexpensive and made from a blend of grapes.

Matured for up to 5 years in wooden barrels, the beverage is rich and pulpy. Seen as a valid alternative to the cheaper Ruby, Vintage Character doesn’t need decanting and is usually served chilled.

Crusted Port

Popular mainly in the United Kingdom, the name of this wine is given by the presence of sediment (crust) on the bottom of the bottle. Essentially, this is an unfiltered Ruby achieved by blending several wines.

This wine needs decanting and, to remove excess sediment, it should be filtered through a special funnel before decanting.

Late Bottled Vintage

Destined for immediate consumption, this wine is aged in casks for a period of 4 to 6 years. The wines aged for 4 years has a slight evolution in the bottle, while the 6 years late bottled vintage doesn’t benefit from aging in the bottle.

Some sommeliers suggest decanting for the first type and these wines are different from the Vintage Port. The label should clearly state Vintage, the year of the harvest and the year of bottling. It has an average cost but a lower quality compared to Vintage Port.

Vintage Port

Considered the king of Port wine, Vintage Port constitutes about 2% of the total production. They are only produced in years considered qualitatively exceptional and are aged for 2 years in casks. The evolution and definition of their character are given by maturation after bottling.

The evolution of Vintage Port is extremely long and justifies their expensive price.

This wine has to be decanted and filtered before serving yet the aromas and flavors are sumptuous. Some Vintage wines are ready to taste after an aging of about 20 years, while others will reach their peak much later. For example, the Vintage Port from 1994 is expected to reach its full character only in 2035.

Once opened, the wine lasts for about 4-5 days.

Single Quinta Vintage Port

These wines are produced from grapes coming from Quinta estate and they are not necessarily made from grapes used for the Vintage varietals.

These wines are often elegant and complex, they successfully compete with the Vintage Port and are very expensive.

3 bottles of port

How to Serve Port Wine

Port wines, especially the non-vintage varietals, don’t pose particular serving difficulties.

 They don’t require decanting and are easy to preserve for up to 5 months after opening. The serving temperature for the non-vintage varietals is usually between 42.8 and 50°F.

Vintage Port, however, requires a special attention. Because this wine has a fair amount of sediment, filtering and decanting it is a must. Before opening, keep the bottle upright for at least a couple of hours to allow the sediment to settle. It is also recommended to uncork the bottle with maximum care.

If you just want to taste the wine and preserve the bottle, I recommend accessing the wine with a system such as Coravin, which doesn’t allow the oxidation of the beverage.

The glass for Port is Copita, a tulip-shaped glass with a very long stem. The particular shape of the glass exposes the full aromas of the beverage in a gentle way. As for the temperatures, most vintage Ports exhibit their character at serving temperatures between 59 and 68°F.

Although seen by many as an aperitif or dessert wine, thanks to its complexity and diversity, Port is easy to pair with all meals, including savory dishes and sweets. In fact, by choosing the right types of Port, it is even possible to pair all courses with only Port wine.

Pairing Port with Food

Port wine is perfect for appetizers and most Ports are easy to pair with light savory dishes based on meat and vegetables.

Nevertheless, Port is usually paired with dessert. As a sweet of choice, chocolate cakes and sweets with red berries pair best with the distinct flavor of this wine.

Christmas sweets promoting the use of spices such as anise and cinnamon also pair wonderfully with Port.

Understanding Sherry Wine

Originally from Andalusia, Spain, Sherry or Jerez is an extraordinary beverage.

Considered since its early times as one of the best wines in the world, Sherry is a masterpiece of the oenological art.

Full of charm, this is also one of the most complex wines to produce and requires both the skills of talented winemakers and patience.

Besides skills and patience, Sherry also asks for the irreplaceable contribution of nature, as the right vinification conditions determine the quality of the drink.

Although it is extremely difficult to produce, Sherry offers unique fragrances and flavors impossible to reproduce in other wines. Yet, despite its unique character, this wine is probably the most underestimated in the world.

The truth is that Sherry offers a pleasant series of emotions to the tasters and extraordinary olfactory experiences.

Sherry, an English name given to the actual Jerez wine, is named after Jerez de la Frontera, a small town located in Andalusia near the Strait of Gibraltar. Since the mid-fourteen century, the wine started to enjoy a great popularity and the exportations eventually led to the fortification of the wine.

Obtained from three varieties of grapes, Sherry is a complex wine fortified in various ways depending on the grapes used and the type of Sherry the winemaker wants to achieve. The grapes used for vinification are Palomino, Pedro Ximénez, and Moscatel.

Sherry obtained from Palomino is fortified after complete fermentation, while Pedro Ximénez and Muscatel are used for sweeter wines and are fortified during the fermentation.

Sherry, Jerez, and Xérès: The Names of an Exquisite Wine

Once a very popular wine, Jerez became famous under two different names outside its home country, Spain. In England, it was given the name Sherry.

The French call it Xérès. Regardless of how you call it, Sherry is the first Spanish wine to have achieved the DO (Denominación de Origen) denomination.

The true Sherry is produced in Andalusia region, more precisely in the municipalities of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María.

The climate of this area is strongly influenced by the Atlantic Ocean and is responsible for the exquisite character of the wine.

As mentioned above, the wine is produced from three varieties of grapes, Palomino, Pedro Ximénez and Muscatel. From these three varietals, Palomino is the most important.

Considered the Jerez grape per excellence, Palomino is a white variety which doesn’t produce other exceptional wines. It is the particular production of Jerez that transform Palomino must into an extraordinarily rich and complex wine.

However, the final character of the wine is not given only by the grapes, but also by the soil. The territory in which Palomino vines are cultivated is classified according to the percentage of calcium carbonate present in the soil.

The best grapes for the production of Sherry come from vineyards whose soil is rich in chalk sediments and highly porous.

There are four types of soil in the area, as it follows:

  • Albariza: considered the best terrain for the production of Jerez. It contains 50% calcium carbonate and has an almost white color.
  • Albarizones: a mixed soil composed of Albariza and clay.
  • Barros: a dark brown soil rich in organic substances.
  • Arenas: a reddish-yellow soil composed of sand and clay.

Types of Sherry Wine

port vs sherry wine

Sherry is a complex wine not only as production but also as classification. The broad range of Sherries goes far beyond the simple definition of a fortified wine, and Sherry is classified according to sweetness and production process.

In broad terms, Sherry is classified either as Fino or as Oloroso. Fino are delicate and light-color wines, with a dry character and appreciable acidity. Oloroso wines are more robust, darker in color and available in both dry and sweet varietals.

The two categories together contain seven different types of Sherry. The degree of sweetness of each wine is often a choice of the winemaker rather than a rule, that’s why is easy to find two apparently similar Sherries with different characters and flavors.

Manzanilla Sherry

Mainly produced in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, this is a highly sought-after wine, famous for its elegance and delicacy. Thanks to the strong influence of the currents coming from the Atlantic Ocean, Manzanilla is dry and characterized by a pleasant sapidity. Its flavor is often defined as “marine”.

Manzanilla belongs to Fino family and its character is given by the maturation process during which the so-called “flor” develops on the surface of the wine.

Because of its extreme fragility, most winemakers bottle it right before selling. The wine is preferably served immediately after bottling and chilled. It rarely preservers its characteristics for more than a couple of days after opening.

Fino Sherry

Refined and complex, Fino has a pale color, a dry and strong flavor, and it is considered the emblem of Sherry wines. Just like Manzanilla, Fino undergoes a biological aging under flor in a solera, a typical container used for the aging of Sherries.

It is served chilled and lasts for about four days after opening.

Amontillado Sherry

This type of sherry is matured in a solera. It is fortified before being placed in a solera and ages under the protection of the flor. In this way, the wine is oxidized and achieves a darker color and toasted hazelnut aromas.

Amontillado has a semi-dry flavor thanks to the addition of a quantity of Pedro Ximénez. Only few Amontillado wines are produced as dry.

Palo Cortado Sherry

Is a rare and refined type of Sherry appreciated for its qualities and considered an intermediate wine between Fino and Oloroso. In general terms, it is a special type of dry Amontillado which, after being aged for a long time, has developed the typical qualities of Oloroso.

The structure, creaminess, and concentration of the wine are similar to Oloroso, while the aromas resemble Amontillado.

Oloroso Sherry

Produced without the development of flor, this wine is strongly exposed to oxidation, has a dark color and aromas of toasted and dried fruits. This type of Sherry has a higher alcohol concentration, typically between 18% and 20%.

The wine has a robust structure and a sweet or semi-sweet character. Dry Oloroso Sherries are a rarity.

Cream Sherry

This type of Sherry was initially created specifically for the English market and is characterized by a strong sweetness. The high concentration of sugars is achieved with the addition of a quantity of Pedro Ximénez and the final wine has a dense character and aromas of chocolate, licorice, jam, and dried fruit.

Pedro Ximénez Sherry

Produced exclusively from Pedro Ximénez grapes, this type of sherry is dense, syrupy and sweet. Its robust structure and complex aromas make this wine perfect for desserts.

The main aromas are of dried fruits, while the wine is highly appreciated for its purity.

How to Serve Sherry Wine

Just like Port, Sherry is a wine of thousand shades and is easy to serve and pair with a wide variety of dishes.

The young and dry sherry is not aged in bottles and it is sensible to light, heat, and oxidation.

For this reason, it must be stored in a cool and dark place, in a vertical position, and consumed as quickly as possible after bottling.

Some aged Sherries, such as Manzanilla Pasada, benefit from a partial maturation in the bottle, while aged Sherry, such as Amontillado and Oloroso, can be aged in the bottle for a longer time.

After opening a bottle of Sherry, it is recommended to consume it immediately if the wine is young. Aged sherry might preserve its properties for a couple of weeks after opening.

Sherry is also served in a Copita, the same tulip-shaped glass used for Port. When tasted in wineries, the wine might be served directly from the cask in a narrow silver cup.

Aged sherries are usually served alone. The dry varieties are considered aperitif wines and are also used in some cocktails. The sweet varieties are paired with desserts.

Sherry Food Pairings

Typically, Manzanilla and Fino sherries are paired with appetizers and starters. They should be served chilled. Dry Amontillado and Oloroso are also paired with appetizers, with dried fruits and olives or with savory dishes of fish and meat.

The sweet sherry varieties are often paired with desserts but not only. It is common to see them served with cheeses and fatty foods, such as foix gras.

Pedro Ximénez is almost always paired with sweets, above all with chocolate cakes or spiced loaves.

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About the Author Tim Edison

Tim started Wine Turtle way back in 2015.
These days he contributes to Wine Turtle (and other renowned wine publications) while continuing his wine education.
Tim's wine of the month is the Coates & Seely Reserve Brut NV (from Hampshire, England).

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