We are at the point in the wintertime where you really start to feel the effects of season. Christmas was a month ago and you have been in your normal routine for some time now. Of course, the usual day-to-day activity can also be interrupted by cold and flu season (which is why I am several days late in getting to this post). But along the way if you are giving yourself something to focus on for yourself, you can get out of any funk, including these gray days of winter.
Last Wednesday night, I delivered a "Port 101" class at the store, a topic I had never taught before except for an informal tasting with my parents and uncle when I studied the fortified wine unit of WSET school. This was definitely something to keep me focused as I spent a lot of time reacquainting myself with the subject. Truthfully, Port does not occupy a large space in my "wine cellar," because most times my wife and I are not consuming any alcohol until after the children have gone to bed. After one glass of humble dry French White or Italian red wine, we are tired. Not much time for Port, but if the window of opportunity is there on a night I am not in the mood for whiskey or Cognac (gasp!), I reach for this as a nightcap.
What is "fortified wine" you ask? Simply put, make a wine and add brandy or neutral grape spirit to the fermentation vat during (to make a sweet wine) or after (to boost alcohol in a dry wine) the process is complete. And what is Port? Port is a wine made from grapes grown in the Douro Valley of Portugal, fortified during fermentation to kill yeasts and leave residual sugar behind to make a sweet, fiery, fruity wine.
The concept came from ye olden days of European conflict, when England stopped trading with France and decided to head south for a visit with its friends in Portugal. When the English discovered and enjoyed the Douro Valley's red wines, they added brandy to have the haul survive the journey back home by boat. Later, the English discovered monks were adding the brandy during fermentation to make the wine sweet (in the process mentioned above). They loved this version so much, the English merchants set up shop in the city of Vila Nova de Gaia, across from the larger city of Oporto (where Port takes its name from). This is why when you go shopping for Port wines, many are named after those English merchants who settled in the area. See below:
So these English "Port Shippers" controlled all of the production, contracting with individual farms (a.k.a. "Quintas") for grapes and wine. Grapes were grown further inland up the Douro River. Wine was also made here, then wines were shipped by barrel to the blending and aging warehouses in Vila Nova de Gaia.
However, when Portugal entered the European Union in 1986, the requirement to age wines in Vila Nova de Gaia was lifted and with technology grants given to improve facilities in the remote inland regions, Quintas could now bottle their own products. Rather than the usual blend of harvests typical of many Ports, individual Quintas would bottle a single harvest. Port Shippers that owned these quintas would bottle under its own label. In the example to the left, the Symington family owns Quinta do Vesuvio.
By the way, over eighty grape varieties are approved for Port production, with all varieties being native to Portugal. Grapes named Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barocca and Tinto Cao are the "Big Five" when it comes to making quality red Port wines. Each brings something to the party: acid, tannin, body, alcohol, fruit intensity. Oftentimes, you won't see the proportions of grape varieties broken out on a label, but that's OK. The thing you will be concerned with most is the style of Port you are choosing.
You have a ton of options. You may have noticed that these labels show many different terms on them. Below I will spell them out for you, and it will give you an idea of what to expect inside the bottle. Anything listed below can be enjoyed immediately on purchase and needs no decanting. Call these the "Instant Gratification Ports":
- Ruby or Fine Ruby Port: This is your least expensive option. These wines are typically aged 2-3 years in bulk. Stainless steel or neutral wood tanks might be used. After blending, filtering, and bottling, the result is a fiery, fruity berry-flavored wine. This is the most medicinal of the options, but it also makes a great choice for making a sauce with to glaze on an herbed roast pork loin.
- Reserve Ruby Port: Better-quality grapes used to make the Fine Ruby above. Has more color and depth of flavor.
- White Port: This exists! Made like a Ruby, but with white grapes instead of red. Often unaged, but aged examples can go as long as 18 months.
- Tawny or Fine Tawny Port: Usually a blend of Ruby and White Port
- Reserve Tawny Port: A Port wine that has aged in barrel for at least seven years
- Tawny Port with Age Indication (10, 20, 30, or Over 40 Years): These Ports don't necessarily reflect minimum amount of time in barrel, but rather reflect a style. In other words, these wines taste like they have spent 10, 20, 30, or 40 years in barrel, but are often a mix of vintages and ages to get to an "average" age.
- Colheita Port: a "Vintage Tawny," or Tawny Port from a single harvest. Minimum of seven years in barrel, but often aged much longer.
Got all that? Good. Now here are the styles that require some good old-fashioned time and patience. You may need to stick in the cellar, or purchase older vintages of to make them truly enjoyable, but there is no law that says you can't open these right away if you like, especially with the third style listed:
- Vintage Port: An extremely high-quality Port made in special years, which are declared by the IVDP (the governing body that regulates Port production). Ages two years in barrel then bottled, unfiltered. These wines are loaded with tannins, acids, alcohol, fruit concentration, and residual sugar...all components necessary to preserve a wine for decades. You can drink these early if you choose, but the components may not have harmonized enough for your palate to enjoy, so beware. These wines also have heavy sediment, so be sure to decant Vintage Ports before drinking.
- Single Quinta Vintage Port: Just like Vintage Port above, but all the product of a single quinta or farm. Think of this as Single Malt Scotch to Vintage Port's Blended Scotch. You will taste more of the individual character of one location.
- Late Bottled Vintage Port: can be a confusing term. A Port wine is aged in barrel for four to six years (rather than two in Vintage Port), then bottled after being filtered (for a modern style) or not (for a traditional style). The unfiltered versions can spend time in the cellar and get better with age, but you can also drink these right away if you choose.
So there you have it! A somewhat of a crash course in Port. Use this as a quick reference, or write me and ask questions. Want to know what we drank on Wednesday night so you can customize your own flight? Here's what we had...
Azul Portugal White Port ($15): Azul Portugal is a cooperative, so multiple vineyards send their grapes to the cooperative to make one style of wine. In this case, it's a white Port, and a great way to get introduced to the style. Floral and delicate, this also works well in a cocktail with tonic water and lime.
Graham's Six Grapes Ruby Reserve ($23): I feel this sits at the top end of the Ruby Reserve category, with deep dark berry fruit and baking spices. The fire is tempered by a rich texture that borders a Late Bottled Vintage Port.
Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Vintage Port 2009 ($26): A great bargain for a traditionally-styled LBV Port. Bottled after four years in barrel, this is like drinking chocolate-covered cherries and berries. It is unfiltered, so be sure to decant this or pour very slowly.
Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Tawny Port ($55): To me, the 20 Year style gives you the best value for your dollar if you are wondering where to start on the spectrum of Tawny with Age Indicated. Taylor Fladgate's example has flavors of orange marmalade, peach jam, caramel, and walnuts, along with plenty of acidity to give this wine great balance with the sweetness.
Quinta do Noval Colheita Tawny 2000 (about $90): According to their web site, Quinta do Noval ages their single harvest expressions for ten to twelve years prior to bottling. There is a lot going on in here: fruitcake, roasted nuts, honey, toffee, and candied citrus. The flavors linger on the palate for a very long time. Enjoy a piece of salted caramel dark chocolate with this for maximum pleasure.
Dow's Vintage Port 2000 ($100+): This is an explosion of blackberry, blueberry, black cherries, cocoa powder, and coffee. Yes, this is going to cost you, but Vintage Port is built for the long haul in your cellar. While this could still use much more time in the bottle to let the tannins integrate with the other components more. If you have 70% dark chocolate or your favorite cigar on hand, go ahead and open it now for a real treat.