These cold weather snaps have been anything but a snap to endure. During the last bitter cold wave, I smartly hunkered down and took advantage of tasting through a backlog of wine samples that had been piling up in my queue. Of course, given the cold, dark days — and even colder darker nights — the Port wines from Portugal sort of snuck up to the front of the line.
Fortunately, these fortified wines proved to be just what the doctor ordered as the perfect indoor companion for the harsh winter conditions. While my thinking may have been justified, it certainly is not unique. Port, that delicious elixir from Portugal, has warmed countless souls for eons.
It all began in the 17th century when Great Britain declared war on France, thus cutting off their supply of fine wine. The British promptly turned to Portugal, where they decided to add brandy to barrels of wine during the fermentation process in order to keep it fresh for its long journey down the Douro River to the port town of Oporto and then back to England and Scotland.
That “fortification” created a sweet wine, thanks to the abundant residual sugars, and pronounced fruit was kept in check by the high alcohol levels. This combination of alcohol and ripeness is the perfect wine prescription for a chilly day.
It is important to note that “Port” wine actually denotes a place of origin and a type of designation, not a specific varietal. The Douro region, where the Port grape varietals are grown, hugs the formidable Serra do Marão mountain range.
It begins 40 miles from the shore and races up to the Spanish boarder, almost 100 miles away. Its widest point is no more than 16 miles across. The rocky terrain provides plenty of stress for the three major grape varietals: Tinta Roriz; Touriga Nacional; and Touriga Franca.
As for the types of Port, there are several different styles, including a white Port that is gaining popularity here in the states. All Port wines are a blend of several varietals and are crafted by each “house” to achieve a particular style, similar to the practice in Champagne.
Here are four of the most popular types of red Port wines.
These are non-vintage wines that are aged in wooded casks and are the product of several blends (to maintain a consistent “house” style) — a type of “solera.” They are generally older and more elegant than their younger Ruby sibling. This style provides the perfect foil as either a dessert wine or an aperitif. The Non-Vintage Taylor Fladgate Special Tawny is wonderfully versatile. It offers deep, toasty nut and roasted aromas with vanilla bean on the nose. The palate enjoys waves of citrus, preserved lemon, roasted walnuts and brown sugar notes. The finish adds caramel and toffee. I like it served slightly chilled with an apple tart. $14
Port Wines With Indication of Age
These are usually Tawny wines that are better-than-average, as approved by the Port Wine Institute. They will denote a bottling date along with an indication of their character by the age on the label: 10 years old; 20 years old; 30 years old; and 40 years old. They have a tendency to possess more mellow fruit characteristics and have a smoother mouthfeel to them than the aforementioned Tawny. Warre’s Otima 10 Year Old Tawny is dry and structured, with mature flavors of baked apricot, dried mango, dark chocolate and almond-toffee notes. The finish has refreshing acidity. $28
The Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny is a step up the scale from Graham’s 10 Year Old Tawny. It is finely balanced, elegant wine, featuring dark deep, intense flavors of orange cream, glazed apricot, caramel, ripe black fruit and a delicious fresh finish. Easy to find and would pair well with pecan pie. $55
Late Bottled Vintage (L.B.V.) Port
This is the Port of one single harvest. It is produced in a good quality year from a single harvest, they are bottled approximately between the fourth and sixth year of age. The label will show not only the year of the harvest but also the date of bottling and the designation L.B.V. Try the 2012 Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Port — it’s loaded with flavors of spiced red cherry and plum, and seasoned with a good twist of black cassis. This is an excellent introduction for new Port drinkers and would work magic with a wedge of Stilton blue cheese. $23
Vintage Ports account for only 2% of all Port wine produced. They are highly regulated, including the obscure law that they must be bottled between “July 1 of the second year following the harvest and June 30 of the third year, counting from the year of the harvest.” Port houses do not declare a vintage every year, but only in the best vintages. The label will simply say “vintage.” They usually possess a deep rich red color and are full-bodied. There is no better way to spend time after a big meal than with a glass of vintage Port, a roaring fire and a good book. Since vintage Ports develop house style, most people have a favorite. I think the 2016 Warre’s Vintage Port is one of the best valued vintage Ports. The house style offers lush, heady flavors of dark plum, blackberry and boysenberry jam, with touches of chocolate tart. It features a long, rich finish of dark chocolate, toffee and cream de cocoa. $50/half bottle
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