Port of entry: Explaining the sweet, strong world of port wine

tawny port wine in a glass

Image borrowed from anotherwineblog.com

I have a confession; I’m a portaholic. Deliciously thick, sweet, sultry port wine is really quite addicting. Those who don’t understand might turn up their noses and suck down more cabernet, but port deserves some attention. It’s a wine for all seasons and occasions — winter or summer, appetizer or dessert. Try it with some blue cheese as an appetizer, or as dessert all alone. A bottle of port, once opened, stays fresh for almost a year, making it perfect for spontaneous and conspicuous consumption.

And, hey, it impresses your friends.

Port (or porto in Portuguese) originally sprang from Portugal in the 18th century, when the modern-day “fortified” version was born. It’s made from red or white wine whose fermentation has been halted with the addition of a neutral spirit such as brandy. Stopping the alcohol-producing process leaves the natural sugar unfermented, so a sweeter, higher-alcohol wine remains. But watch out, the high alcohol content can knock you on your butt. Port is normally between 18 percent-20 percent alcohol; regular table wine hovers at 11 percent-13 percent.

There are several styles, but four main varieties of red port. Ruby port tastes fruity, light and young, and is the simplest of the four. But the fruit-forward sweetness can overwhelm the uninitiated, so it’s safer to wade in with a smoother tawny. Tawny is amber in color, velvety and easier to drink. Tawnies are mellower because the initially tannic wine softens for up to 40 years in oak barrels. Unlike vintage-dated ports, both tawny and ruby ports are blends from several years, so they’re not tagged with a year. Tawnies, however, have a 10-, 20-, 30- or 40-year designate on them, indicating how much time was spent in barrel. Though, the higher price you pay for a 30- or 40-year tawny is rarely worth the extra bucks.

Vintage port, on the other hand, is produced from a single year’s worth of grapes. Smooth, full of fruit flavor and aromatic, this is the stuff wine snobs rant and rave about. Vintages are “declared” when the harvest is particularly notable, and this occurs only once or twice in a decade. Vintage port normally averages only 3 percent of port production, and its cost reflects that. If you’re choosing a vintage port, try to find one that is at least 10-15 years old. Younger than that, the port will be loaded with tannin that dries out your tongue. Late-bottled vintage (LBV),the fourth variety of port, is created from a vintage declared crop, but aged twice as long in oak barrels.

Although winemakers from all over the globe are catching the port wave, Portugal still reigns as the port country of choice. Revered Portuguese port houses are Warre, Taylor, Cockburn’s, Sandeman, Fonseca, Dow and Graham. The best recent vintage years — meaning the grapes and the weather fully cooperated that year — are 1977, 1983, 1985, 1991, 1992, 1994 and 1995. (The ’90s were an extraordinarily fruitful decade for wine all over the world.) Prices can be steep on the vintage years, but stick with the above names and you can’t go wrong.

In the U.S. and Australia, port production is growing but still somewhat limited. Kick back on the couch, try some of these domestic and imported ports and uncover the mystery behind the funky labels.

Benjamin Port. $10. ***: An incredible value in an Australian tawny port. Delicious but not as smooth as others. Get ready for the one-two flavor punch.

Martinez 10-Year Tawny Port. $30. *** 1/2: True Portuguese tawny port, its sweet flavor warms the tummy and satisfies the tastebuds. This port house, a member of the Cockburn Smithes port group, was founded in 1790 in Oporto, Portugal.

Dow’s Boardroom Premium Tawny. $20. ****: Deliciously smooth, raisin-y fruitiness. Light n’ easy sipping, and a phenomenal value for a true Portuguese port.

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