An Introduction to Port Wine
by Michael Pinkus
Can anyone name me a good winter beverage? Hot Cocoa comes to mind, and if you’re willing to throw in some crème de menthe we’re wandering down the same path; but I’m talking about something more straight forward. Something to sip on during those cold winter nights, something to warm the inside of one’s being and something that brings the “mmm’-smile to one’s face. I’m talking about Port.
Now, I don’t know how many Port fans I have out there, but if you’re not you really should be because it can be one of the most amazing wines out there. Some quick Port facts before I move on: “Port” can only be made in Portugal’s Douro Valley region, otherwise it’s called fortified wine and yes it has both heightened sweetness and alcohol (through the method of fortification). And no matter how pleasurable Port can be, there are still people out there who claim they don’t like it – but what’s not to like?
Some of the complaints against the wine I hear are: it’s “too sweet”, “too gritty”, “has too much alcohol” … but I question whether people who claim not to like it have had the right one for them? After all Port is a wine-style, not a single wine, and as with clothing and interior decorating, you have to find the style that is right for you. There are beginner Ports, and (for a lack of a better term) veteran Ports. Unless you find the right one you’re never going to love Port.
Port comes in a variety of styles from Vintage (the most well-known), Late Bottled Vintage (the most under-appreciated), Ruby (the most approachable) and Tawny (the most confusing) to Rosés (the newest version) and White Ports (the black sheep of the family). They also throw around terms like: Reserve, BIN, single Quinta and so many others. It can get daunting; but finding the style that is right for you starts with gaining confidence when shopping the fortified wine aisle of your local liquor store.
Vintage: as with any wine that has a ‘vintage’ date (year), all the grapes for Vintage Port come from the same year. They are then aged a maximum of 2 years in barrel before being bottled unfiltered. This allows them to age 20+ years in bottle. Vintage Port is made to age gracefully over a long period of time, it is not a consume now wine – it’s bought to mark a special occasion because of its longevity; and Vintage Port is not made every year, it can only be made in “declared years” when the ruling body over Portugal’s Port industry decides the vintage was exceptionally good (~ 3-4 times a decade). That’s what makes Vintage Ports so rare, so special, and so collectible.
So what happens in non-declared years? Only a certain percentage of any crop (vintage or not) can go into Vintage Port (thus keeping the rare nature of the wine). The rest go into a number of alternative bottlings. One of my personal favourites is Late Bottled Vintage. While these Ports carry a year on their front label they age longer in barrel (4-6 years), are filtered when bottled, making them drinkable sooner. The key to this style is they have Vintage Port character without the wait.
Ruby is your most approachable Port, it sees little to no time in barrel, is blended with different vintage wines (for style purposes depending on the producer) and is ready to drink the moment you buy it – it makes for a great beginners Port.
Tawny Port is where I am sure to confuse many. It has a complicated pedigree, but with its complexity of aromas, flavours and interesting character it can be one of the most rewarding of all the Ports. You’ll see them generally under the label of 10, 20, 30 or 40 Year Tawny – they are an oxidized wine made from red grapes, and because of the oxidization with time they turn brownish in colour. The year indicated on the front is not the average age of the wines in the blend (a common misnomer), but instead represent a character that, for example, a 10 year old Port wine kept in barrel should have. But forget the technicalities, what you should concentrate on here are the flavours and the smells, which are not found in other Ports: hazelnut, almond and orange peel, just to name a few – it can be quite the revelation for the palate.
The next time we talk fortifieds we should get into the world of Sherry, which really is a far cry from what Grandma used to drink in the parlor all those years ago; but for now search out some great Port for winter; and for those looking local see Karlo Estates (Prince Edward County) and Lakeview Cellars (Niagara) for a Canadian take on these Portuguese wines.
Looking for some great Ports to try – might I suggest the following:
Taylor Fladgate 10 Year Old Tawny (#121749) - $34.95
Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny (#149047) - $68.95
Taylor Fladgate LBV 2009 (if you can still find it) - #469946) - $18.00
Taylor Fladgate White Port (#69856) - $15.95
Fonseca White Port (#276816) - $16.95
Fonseca LBV (#87551) - $21.95
Croft LBV (#87601) - $18.95
Great for Beginners:
SDC Ruby Port (#398230) - $16.95
SDC Tawny Port (#398248) - $16.95