Like brussels sprouts, port is an acquired taste. The robust unctuousness of dark grape juice tinged with dried fruit might affront the senses in the beginning, but once you realize its magnificence, ooh … the warming pleasure it can bring. Since it’s higher in alcohol, you sip, not slurp, port and it’s versatile, too – good on its own as a dessert wine, but also fine as a friend of cheese. Even better: a bottle of port, once opened, can stay drinkable for up to a year, making it perfect for spontaneous consumption with friends. Don’t be scared of it – just try it. Port (or Porto in Portuguese) originated in Portugal in the 17th century, when it was developed out of necessity. The British were pissed off at the French and couldn’t access their wine, so they turned to Portugal for the buzz. After realizing the hot boat ride to Britain was ruining the wine, Portuguese producers began adding brandy to stabilize it for the journey. This addition of neutral spirits stopped fermentation and left the natural sugar unfermented, so a sweeter, higher-alcohol wine remained — a hefty 18-22 percent, rivaling regular table wine at 11-13 percent alcohol. Thus, “fortified wine” was born.
There are several styles, but five main varieties of red port (white port exists but it’s hard to find). Ruby port tastes fruity, light and young, and is the most unrefined. Its fruit-forward sweetness and alcohol aroma can overwhelm the uninitiated, so it’s safer to wade in with a velvety and mellower tawny port. Both tawny and ruby ports are blends from several years so they’re not tagged with a specific year, but some tawnies carry a 10, 20, 30 or 40-year designation, indicating the average amount of time the blend spent in an oak barrel.
Vintage port, on the other hand, is produced from a single harvest year of grapes. Rich, full of fruit flavor and aromatic, vintage port garners attention from aficionados who rant and rave about it (including this one). Vintages are “declared” by the winemaker when the harvest is particularly notable, but, since port can be an astringent, tannic nightmare, choose one marked at least 10 to 15 years old. Recent vintage years include 1977, 1983, 1985, 1991, 1992, 1994 and 1995, with the best Portuguese producers being Warre, Taylor, Cockburn, Osbourne, Sandeman, Fonseca, Dow and Graham. Prices can be steep on the vintage years, but stick with the above names and you can’t go wrong.
The fourth variety of port is late-bottled vintage (LBV), created from a vintage-declared crop, but aged twice as long in oak barrels. And the fifth, vintage character port, is made from a blend of high-end ruby port and higher-quality wines from several different vintages. I keep these around my house for a regular sip.
Although Portugal still reigns as the port country of choice, production grows in the US and Australia, and many of their ports are outstanding. Uncover the magnificence of port and you’ll be just as relaxed as I am.
Osborne 10-Year-Old Tawny Porto Nutty with toffee and a refreshing bitter orange flavor. Elegant and unassuming. Sweetness = 5. $25.
Benjamin Tawny Port (Australia) Excellent flavor defined by raisins, dark caramel, burnt orange and prunes. Best value in the port world right now. Sw= 5. $12.
Ficklin California Port More of a ruby than anything, this port, made from Portuguese grape varieties, represents what Cali can do. Taste and smell peanuts, fresh orange peel, prunes and browned toast. Sw= 4. $20.
Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Porto This is an example of a vintage character port. Dried cherries, toasted almonds, and a silky finish. Let it air a bit in the glass and the alcohol will mellow a bit. Sw = 4. $26.