Vines & Vittles

Port: A necessary winter adjustment

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There are not many good things one can say about winter except it is the season of Christmas and New Year’s Eve. But otherwise winter is gray, cold and depressing, and I wish it could be shortened. But until we figure a way to adjust the rotational tilt of the earth or flee to terra firma nearer the equator, we’ll just need to make some adjustments to survive this uncomfortable time of year.

As you might have guessed, my adjustment to winter involves consuming endorphin-enhancing sustenance. In other words, good wine and food. And while I’ll be uncorking full-bodied red wines to accompany cold weather foods such as stews, pastas and hearty soups, I will also open a bottle or two of Port to enjoy as a postprandial digestif by the fireplace. And don’t worry if you don’t have a fireplace. Anywhere indoors will do just fine.

Port or Porto (as it is called in Portugal where the wine is produced) is made from a variety of grapes grown along the steep slopes of Douro River. In fact there are more than 80 varieties of (unpronounceable) grapes which are permitted to be used in the production of port, but most producers use less than ten.

Port is a “fortified” wine and that means brandy is added to it during the fermentation process. The addition of brandy causes the fermentation to stop, leaving the wine with about 10 percent residual sugar while bumping up the alcohol content to approximately 20 percent. Once the new wine is made, it is shipped to the city of Oporto where it is sold to companies, known as Shippers, who then age the young wine in barrels and label it under their house name before exporting it all around the world.

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The Styles of Port

Vintage Port -This is the best and most expensive type of Port and is produced only in exceptional years (about three years in a decade). A “vintage year” is declared by an agreement among the Shippers who then take special care in aging and then bottling the wine. Vintage Port can improve in bottle for 15 to 50 years (or more) before reaching maturity. The Wine Spectator Magazine rates the 1997, 2000, 2003, 2007 and 2011 as among the best recent vintage Port years. You can expect to pay between $50 to more than $150 a bottle for vintage Port.

Late Bottled Vintage Port – It is a blend of Ports from different vineyards in the same vintage year. Late bottled vintage Port (or LBV) will have a vintage date on the label, but it is not vintage Port. LBV is usually priced between $15 and $30 a bottle.

Tawny Port – This is sometimes called the “poor man’s” vintage Port because it is aged for many years in oak and, when released, it is very smooth and rich like an old vintage Port. Without a doubt, this is my favorite. It is affordable Port with prices ranging from $10 to about $40 a bottle.

Ruby Port – Young port wine blends from several different vintages comprise Ruby Port. Ruby Port is lighter and fruitier than other styles and usually the least expensive Port ($10-$20 a bottle). Ruby Ports can be cloyingly sweet and fruity.

White Port – Made from white grapes, this is the only Port-style wine that is produced dry. It is usually crisp, yet full-bodied, and makes a nice aperitif wine. Really lovely with lightly flavored and pan seared white fish. ($10-$25 a bottle)

Here is a list of some of top Port producers you can look for in your local wine shop. Warre’s, Graham’s, Taylor-Fladgate, Croft, Dow’s, Fonseca and Ramos-Pinto. One of my favorite American Port-style wines is Ficklin. Try their 10-year Old Tawny – it’s absolutely delicious.

Many people prefer to accompany Port with nuts or with blue cheese like Stilton. I love to have a glass of Tawny after a nice meal as a liquid substitute for dessert. Yummy!

So, go out and sip the winter away with a warming glass (or two) of Port!