My brother-in-law, although from Ohio — a place with very few fine wine traditions (I’m from there and can confirm it) — loves port. But he hasn’t come to adore it living in the States. Years ago, he moved to the quaint little town of Broadway in England, thereby adopting the estimable British custom of hunkering down through the frigid winters with more than a few bottles of this wine on hand. Over the years, he’s been converting the rest of us to port’s charms by sending a bottle par avion each holiday. Given the barrage of abominable snow and generally hideous weather this year, a discussion of port and why you should embrace this wine of many personalities seems appropriate.
Port has endured a long, dramatic history and comes from a difficult place to farm. There was a time when the French and British hated each other (and they still don’t mingle in the same global vacay spots — the Brits trample Ibiza, the French relax in Corsica). Port came to popularity during the 17th century trade wars between the two countries, an era in which French wines were first prohibited from importation into England, then later allowed but heavily taxed. This drove the English to look for alternative wine sources along the friendly shores of Portugal.
To get their new supply of wines to England in good condition, the British discovered adding a measure of brandy to the juice helped to stabilize the wine before the rocky, hot, boat ride home. They later learned from a Portuguese abbot in a monastery (those clever monks!) that adding the brandy before fermentation finished — killing off the active yeasts that’d otherwise covert the remaining sugar to alcohol — would result in the high-alcohol, sweet red wine we know as port today.
The other reason port is so intriguing is because the place where the grapes are grown seems, at first glance, horribly inhospitable to any kind of agriculture, let alone fine wine grape growing. There’s virtually no soil — just deep schist that, in times past, has seen a stick or two of dynamite used to crack it open in order to drop in new vines. The vines work hard for their water and nutrients, often stretching their roots down as much as five feet to find sustenance. Plus, the region around the Douro River Valley — the true home of real port — is steep, requiring terraced vineyards that make vine management and harvest extremely labor intensive, especially in the extreme heat of the summer. And, after all that work, yields in the Douro are still some of the lowest in the world.
One of port’s charms is the diversity of styles and prices, though this can also make it confounding to the consumer. The gist of port is that it’s usually sweet, red (there is also white port, which is seldom seen in the states but refreshing in summertime cocktails), and made from five main grapes: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, and Tinta Cao. Port can be broken down into two styles: barrel-aged and bottle-aged. Wood-matured ports are aged in wooden casks (sometimes cement tanks) and are ready to drink once that cashier hands over the bottle. Bottle-aged ports are aged for a short time in wood, and then they’re bottled without filtration with the intention of developing in your cellar for the next 20 to 30 years. That’d be your vintage port (and a few others, but we’ll keep this simple).
Vintage port represents the pinnacle of the Douro’s promise, crafted from the best produce in a year deemed worthy of vintage declaration. While worth seeking out for an abundance of reasons — it’s an incredibly structured, rich, and age-worthy wine — the stuff is pricey and shouldn’t really be consumed now. So to get you started on the path of port, here’s what to buy rightthissecond to warm you through the tail end of this long, nasty winter:
Ruby and Ruby Reserve Port: Full bodied, fruity reds that age for a relatively short time (two to three years) in large oak vats. They are entry-level wines as far as sophistication and priced as such, yet there are some very good ones on the market, often in the “reserve” category, which implies slightly better fruit and a bit more aging.
Noval Black, $22: This sexily packaged wine is meant to appeal to the younger, entry-level consumer and hopefully hook them on port for life. Loaded with lush cherry and berry notes, this port is good on its own or in cocktails.
Fonseca Terra Bella, $30: The first 100 percent organic port certified by USDA NOP, Terra Bella is one of the first truly organic ports to be developed in the Douro; a ruby-style aged for four years, the wine is opulent with rich black fruit, plums, and velvety mouthfeel.
Late Bottle Vintage Port: The name is a bit misleading, as there is nothing ‘vintage’ about this other than it is usually made from a blend of wines from a single harvest, often in a good but undeclared year. Aging takes place in large wooden vats, and the wine is bottled between four to six years later (hence the term “late bottled,” as vintage port is bottled after two years). The best ones may share some of the character of vintage port — those that have been bottled unrefined without treatment. But most LBVs are ready to drink upon release and are deep red, full-bodied, fruity wines.
Dow’s LBV 2008, $20: The wine’s hue is intensely red with sweet black cherry and blackberry fruit, chocolate and espresso notes, and a sprinkling of spice throughout the rich, full-bodied palate.
Single Quinta Vintage Port: A great alternative to the significantly more expensive vintage port, a single quinta vintage wine is made in the best non-vintage years, in which an individual vineyard has produced exceptional fruit. The wines are made in the same way as vintage port — aged in wood two to three years, and bottled without filtration so that they throw sediment and need decanting. Fortunately, they are often held back from release by the shipper until close to or ready to drink, though they can often age decades more.
Fonseca Panascal 2008 $59 (375ml): From the famous vineyard of the same name, fruit has been born of these vines since the 1700s. The wine is made traditionally — foot-trodden in granite lagares on the estate. This is a big, fruity wine with tannins that will allow it to continue aging, but it is eminently drinkable now.
Tawny Port and Aged Tawny: Next up, we have the absolutely delicious tawny category, so named due to their brown rather than red hues, and featuring a different flavor profile due to the oxidative aging they’ve undergone. Softer notes of nuts, spice, and dried fruits dominate the palate rather than big, opulent red fruit. The entry-level tawnies are a mixed lot (for instance, some add white port to dilute the color) so stick with the superior, if you can afford it, aged versions.
Aged tawnies range from 10 to 20 to 30 to over 40 years, with the age indication meaning the average age of a blend of many years’ produce. A newer category, Tawny Reserve, may be applied to wines that’ve spent a minimum of seven years in wood, but aren’t quite old enough for the next category up.
Croft Ten-Year Tawny, $30: Loaded with figs, butterscotch, and nuts, this bottle is killer for the price. A great intro to the world of aged tawny.
Taylor Fladgate 20-Year, $50: If your wallet can handle the jump in price, you’ll be rewarded ten-fold by those extra ten years, especially with this producer. Smooth and mellow, filled with spice and nuts, it’s an absolute dream to sip on during the cold nights of winter, or frankly, any time of year.