Wine & Spirits


Not Your Grandfather's Port

Get Down to Earth With the Most Serious Postprandial Wine

    I was never much for after-dinner drinks, so I presumed for many years that Port wasn’t for me. A few days in the Douro Valley of northern Portugal taught me that I was missing out on a whole range of wonderful styles of Port that are not only great for sipping, but can also pair with savory food and even mix it up in cocktails.
    The vineyards of the Douro Valley are ancient, and the region was officially demarcated in 1756. It is a striking, hilly region extending along the Douro River and east to the Spanish border. It is home to a variety of hard-to-pronounce native grape varieties that are the backbone of both the region’s wines and Ports (which are fortified through the addition of brandy, which was originally added to stabilize the wine for shipping).
    The myriad styles, as well as up to 80 different grapes, available in this small growing area have also created a stumbling block to making this sensual quaff accessible to consumers. What’s more, for decades California and Australian producers have been churning out “Port-style” wines that are not even made from the same grape varieties.
    In Portugal, both the city and the wine are called Porto, and that final “o” can legally be used only by Portuguese producers, explains Robert Bower, Port wine category manager at the New York–based Kobrand Corporation, importers of the Taylor Fladgate, Croft, Fonseca and Delaforce brands. However, few consumers seem to know that the “o” on the end makes the difference.
    Understanding a few simple ground rules can lay the path to a solid and enriching comprehension of this great fortified wine. Ports are brandy-fortified blended wines, which also happens to give them an unusual complexity. “We want to give you an orchestra not a solo,” explains Bower; true Port can only be produced in the Douro Valley of Portugal; all vintage years for Port, just as for Champagne, are declared only by individual Port producers in what they believe to be stellar years, which also have to be approved by the Porto Wine Institute in Portugal.
    The main types within the category are white Porto, made from white grapes; ruby Porto, made from red grapes with intense fruit aromas and colors; and tawny Portos, lighter in color than rubys but also made from red grapes and often offering more developed flavors of spice and wood. Most Ports are ready to enjoy within a year or two after release, while vintage Ports (produced from  wines from a single, outstanding year) may need at least 10, if not more, years of aging to come into maturity. Port, like wine, should be stored in a dark, temperature-controlled environment, such as a cool basement or wine cellar.
    Some Ports, like other wines, need to be consumed within a day or two after opening the bottle, and some can stay open for weeks. If the cork is similar to one on a wine bottle, the Port in question should be consumed within a day or two; if it has a cap that rotates off with a cork in it, the bottle can be enjoyed over a period of several weeks time. Port, vintage and non, is also often a stellar value. Ports from the 1980s and 1990s are still available for less than $100 a bottle, although you’d be hard pressed to find almost any wines on the market from similarly old and well-priced vintages.
    The most typical food pairing has been a ruby Port with a chocolate dessert, but given their wide range, Ports lend themselves to much more than that, as I learned during my recent trip to Port and Douo Valley. “Tawny Ports work really well with strong, salty flavors and blue cheese,” explains George Sandeman, a seventh-generation member of the famed Port- and Sherry-producing family that founded the House of Sandeman in 1790. He even suggests pairing a glass of tawny with pecan pie, which to me sounds divine.
    Port, like many wines, is often served too warm. Chilling it down turns it into a delightful refreshing drink and will increase its affinities with food. “If you take a bottle of 20-year-old tawny and throw it in the fridge, you are going to have a different experience,” notes Sandeman.
    Non-vintage tawny ports remain some of the most popular, and flexible, styles on the market. Shaun Bishop, president of the JJ Buckley Fine Wines retail operation in Oakland, confirms that tawny Ports are among his best sellers, in part because they are reasonably priced. He carries 21 different ports, priced from $8.99 to $315 a bottle. “You get really good bang for your buck at the lower price range,” he adds.
    Port can also be as savory a way to start as to finish a meal. Try it in a cocktail to surprise your guests at your next party and pretend you are all on a boat floating up the River Douro.
—By Liza B. Zimmerman
—Courtesy of Sandeman Cellars

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