Not everyone belongs, but we think more people should. Greater numbers and the resulting diversity might help erase the stigma surrounding our beloved cult, not to mention what it would do for the new members.
It’s true: we’ve been ridiculed, even parodied! Comedians have attempted to recreate what goes on behind the closed doors of vowel-challenged patriarchs in private clubs and little white-haired ladies in crochet-strewn parlors. We’ve been dismissed as stodgy, esoteric … and sometimes … in poor taste. >Gasp<
We’re writing this article to show that it’s all a huge, huge misunderstanding. And to provide you with a quick and easy port primer.
The back story
Neither Ben nor I liked port wine before visiting its namesake. Syrupy, stuffy, and geriatric are a few of the words that would come to mind if anyone had asked me to describe it.
But then, on a misty November night on the northwestern seaboard of Portugal, in a warmly lit alcove that featured oak barrels as tables and dusty vintage bottles as decoration, a port guru enlightened us – anointed us, even – and our eyes and senses were opened to this previously hidden truth:
(Good) Port. Is. Divine.
Are we sure?
Yes! Not syrupy, but somehow both light and rich … and complex, silky, fragrant. Allow us to introduce you:
The history of an unintended consequence
Until 1987, all port had to be matured in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the Douro River from Porto (Oporto), in order to carry the name “port.” In fact, port was one of Europe’s first demarcated wine zones, having been established in the 18th century.
Today it can be produced anywhere in the Douro River area of Portugal … unless it is produced outside of the European Union. Unlike in Europe, fortified wines in the United States can be labeled and sold as “port” even if they are produced outside of Portugal, but wines labeled “Porto” or “Vinho do Porto” are only Portuguese.
The history of port must constitute one of the happiest accidents in world history. The English, who were sparring with the French and thus cut off from their main wine supplier, turned to their trading partner Portugal for grapes.
Unfortunately – or fortunately, for us – the wine was delicate and couldn’t make the journey by sea to England. The English merchants, determined not to lose a sale, began adding brandy to their barrels to fortify the wine.
The making of an icon
However, the added spirit did more than protect the wine (and increase its alcohol content), and this is essential to the unique character of port: it stopped fermentation (so sugars remain and sweetness abounds), allowing the wines to age gracefully for far, far longer than an unfortified wine (if stored properly). This is the secret to why some 70-year-old vintage ports are still drinkable.
Most grapes are still hand-picked because the steep slopes of the Douro make mechanical picking nearly impossible. Harvesters usually begin in late September with the vines closest to the river, where the air is warmest and grapes mature most quickly, and proceed up the slopes over the following weeks. Many estates also still use the traditional method of stomping the grapes by foot.
All ports are fortified – usually when half the sugars remain – and matured in wood barrels, though today they use clear grape spirits rather than aged brandy. The amount of time in wood and the size of the barrel dictate the resulting style of port (see below for an overview). These barrels have an interesting life: usually used first for wine, then for port or sherry, and finally for scotch or whisky … each successive iteration mellows the strength of the wood flavors while leaving a bit of remaining flavor. Not a bad life!
@jenna_harrison Interesting about the oak barrel. Now my husband knows what he wants to be in his next life…or a beer keg.
— Kristen Nash (@KDN0528) November 15, 2011
Overview of port styles
You’ll see more rubies than any other kind of port. Made from several red grape varieties and typically aged in oak casks for 2 – 5 years, rubies are the entry-level ports, characterized by a deep-red-to-purple color and sweet fruity flavor. Sometimes they are too sweet and thick, and unfortunately that accounts for many of the mass-produced brands.
Rubies don’t have vintage years. The winemaker will choose several vintages and blend them, striving for a continuity of style throughout the years, much like non-vintage Champagnes.
No decanting is necessary, and once uncorked it should keep for a good month. Pair with rich cheeses (Stilton is a traditional favorite), dried fruit, chocolate, or desserts made of chocolate or berries. Port reduction sauces usually come from ruby ports.
A port maker in Texas (yes, Texas, which would be blasphemy to admit in Porto but must be disclosed here to aid in the punchline), directed our tasting this way: “You eatcha some chocolate, and then you drinkya some port … eatcha some chocolate, drinkya some port!”
This is a wine that can stand up to strong flavors … and strong personalities.
Late bottled vintage
Select ruby wines from a single year are blended to make a superior blend that is aged in wood for 4 – 6 years. Expect less tannin, more silk.
Vintage ports are rubies, but they come from a single vintage year and make up only 1 – 2% of port production. Again like great Champagnes, not every year yields the high quality of grapes necessary for a vintage batch; that is a yearly decision left up to the winemaker. It is also possible to find single quinta vintage ports, meaning they come from a single estate. After just around 2 years in wood, the ports are bottled and left to age in their bottles for possibly decades.
Vintage ports are the only ones that should be decanted (being careful not to upset the sediment) and consumed the same day (or within a few days, like any wine). Generally, the younger the wine, the longer it must be decanted (up to 2 – 3 hours before serving). These can be served with a meal of delicate meats, before the meal (paired with a plate of smoked meats), or after dinner with walnuts, dried fruit, and/or goats’ milk cheese.
Tawnies start out as rubies, but are aged for typically 2 – 3 years in smaller oak casks (more surface area is touching the liquid) that impart a woodsy flavor, oxidizing the wine until it takes on mahogany hues.
These usually come from superior grapes, but spend much longer – often decades – in wood. Sold as 10 year, 20 year (at around $40, known as the best bang for your buck), 30 year or 40 year aged tawny, the age on the label is actually an average age of several juices (although a bottle labeled coheita will indicate grapes from a single year).
I’ve heard it said that they “smell like Christmas,” and with the orange, cinnamon and woodsy aromas they release, that’s not far off. Although they can be served slightly chilled in warmer weather, to me this is the ideal beverage for sipping by the fireside.
Serve alone or with harder cheeses, roast nuts, apple pie, lighter deserts, crème brulee, or foie gras.
Many people don’t know about white port. It’s dryer than the others, and makes a very nice aperitif with olives. In the Porto area as well as other select cocktail bars around the world, you might find white port cocktails (such as white port, tonic and mint.)
Serve chilled with aperitif nibbles, or layer into soups or sauces.
Where we found our guru:
Rua de Sao Joao 46
Most informative port winery tour:
Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal
Our Favorite Port:
We thought you’d ask, so here it is: Quinta Santa Eufemia 20 year aged tawny