While many consider Port to be an old man's wine, they are often surprised to discover the wonderful qualities of this sweet dessert wine. Perfect as an accompaniment to dessert or as an after dinner drink by itself, the reality of Port far outshines its stuffy reputation.
What Is Port?
Port is a fortified sweet wine made in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. Many other wine regions make Port-style wines, but they are not true Ports, which only come from Portugal. There are more than 100 grapes that can be used to make Port, although five are the most commonly used. These include Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão and Touriga Francesa. When making Port, winemakers allow the juice to ferment naturally until they reach a point where there is a significant amount of residual sugar left. At that point, they add aguardente, a neutral grape spirit, which stops fermentation leaving the residual sweetness from the remaining sugars that did not ferment into alcohol.
In good years, the Port is barrel aged and sold as a vintage Port. In less favorable vintages, the Port is aged in small barrels and blended with other vintages. Frequently, Port wine makers use a solera to accomplish this task. The blended Ports are sold as non-vintage (NV).
Port became popular during England's war with France. At the time, French wines were very popular in England, and the war cut off supply. In search of a new source of wine, the English discovered the Douro Valley, where they planted vineyards. Because the wine was often taken on long sea voyages, winemakers sought a way to preserve the wine in order for it to hold up aboard ships. They found that fortifying the wines with brandy did the trick, helping the wines bear up under the ship's vibration and high temperatures.
Types of Port
There are several types of Port you may come across in restaurants or wine shops.
- Vintage Port is considered the highest quality of Port, made only in excellent vintages. Vintage ports are typically tawny in color, and have warm flavors of toffee and chocolate. The wines are slightly viscous and sweet, with coffee or caramel undertones.
- Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port uses less select grapes, but ages in wood for several years. The wood imparts toasty flavors to the sweet liquid. LVB Port is less expensive than vintage Port, but has many of the same characteristics.
- Non-vintage (NV) Port makes up the majority of Port offerings. Often tawny Ports, the blending of juice multiple vintages leads to consistent flavor. These Ports are warm and sweet with caramel or raisin notes.
- Tawny port is usually aged through a solera, resulting in golden colored wines with light sweetness and warm flavors.
- Ruby Port is a non-vintage Port that is bright red in color. It is aged in stainless steel vats and the bottle, resulting in slightly sweet, and often has mild tannins and bright fruit flavors.
- White Port is made from multiple vintages of white grapes, and is fortified. The wine may be sweet or dry and relatively mild in flavor.
Serving and Storage Suggestions
Port is best when drunk slightly chilled - at about 65 degrees. Serve it in small dessert wine glasses with tall sides that slope outward, allowing the alcohol fumes to disperse before overwhelming the flavors and scents of the wine. The shape of the glass allows you to sip the wine with your nose outside of the glass so that the wine's flavors reach your mouth before the alcohol fumes reach your nose.
A very traditional Port-food pairing is Stilton or cheddar cheese. This makes Port a wonderful wine for a cheese course. If you are serving it with dessert, try a vintage or tawny Port with something chocolate, which is another classic pairing. You can also drink Port by itself as your dessert, or follow the English tradition and retire to the study with a glass of Port and a cigar after dinner. The alcohol in the wine combines with the warm flavors, warming you as you drink it. Because of this, it works best in the fall or winter when the weather is cooler.
Port can keep for decades because of the sugar and alcohol content. Once you open the bottle, it can last for up to four months in your refrigerator.
Ports to Try
There are a number of very well-respected Port makers, some that have been making the wines for well over a century. Try the the following:
If you'd like to try a vintage Port, the following vintages were good to excellent in Douro Valley.
Give It a Try
If you've never tried Port, it may be a revelation. If you don't want to invest in a bottle, many fine restaurants have Port on their menus. Try ordering a glass of tawny Port after dinner. You just may find a new favorite.