Wined Down: A Holiday Port Primer

By Joe Roberts

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Wined Down: A Holiday Port Primer:

To us wine geeks, it seems that nobody ever thinks about Port—the potently fortified beverage made from mostly indigenous grapes grown in terraced vineyards along Portugal’s Douro river—until the holidays roll around. As if Christmas dictated that we all eat fruitcake, grow handlebar mustaches and sport monocles as we laugh heartily by the fire with some warming drinks in our glasses. Which is a shame, because Port offers some of the most interesting imbibing experiences in the world of wine and should probably be on our drink radar all year long. The trouble with Port, though, is that it comes with all of the undue complexity you’d expect from the oldest demarcated wine growing region on the planet (hey, a crap-ton of red tape and regulations can be added in 250 years…). Let’s try to simplify all things Port, shall we, old chap? There Are Only Two Kinds of Port Things get a lot easier once you realize that there are only actually two kinds of Port. I know that sounds insane after you’ve seen the dozens of variations on the wine store shelf, but getting this through your noggin now will save you a lot of headache later. A port is either 1) meant for bottle-aging, and will probably last until you’re a great-grandfather, or 2) has been aged for an extended time in wood and is ready to get popped open as soon as you get that sucker home. Since about 99 percent of all Port falls into the latter category, let’s look at the wood-aged variety first. Wood-Aged, for Immediate Imbibing All Port is made by arresting fermentation through the addition of neutral brandy, which preserves the natural sweetness of the fermenting grapes when those poor unsuspecting yeast cells are killed off by the booze. The vast majority of Port is a blend of multiple vintages, mellowed in wood casks to settle in and integrate and then bottled, ready to rock. Of the wood-aged Ports, there are basically two kinds: Ruby and Tawny. Ruby Port emphasizes the peppery spiciness of the Portuguese grapes used to make Port, and the idea here is to end up with something fruity, plummy, rummy, fresh, sweet and balanced. The variations of a year or two more in oak here or there can help to round these out and add additional complexity, and so you’ll see various names for these on the shelf: Reserve, Special Reserve, Finest Reserve, Blah-Blah Reserve; they’re all variations on a similar theme. For good examples, look for Cockburn’s Special Reserve, Churchill’s Finest Reserve and similar selections from Graham’s. Tawny Port spends more time in oak casks and therefore is more mellow and nutty, with notes of toast and caramel. As you go deeper down the wood-aging rabbit hole (and higher in the price bracket), you’ll start to see indications of age on the label (10 Year, 20 Year, 30 Year, even 40 Year in rarer cases), which is supposed to indicate the average age of the wine in the Tawny blend, but actually is a designation given to the wine via a tasting panel conducted through the IVDP, Portugal’s reigning body that decides all things Port-related. Theoretically, you could fake them out with a five-year-old wine, provided that it tasted enough like a 20-year, but good luck fooling the badasses whose job it is to taste Tawny Ports all day (as one of the IVDP board members once told me, “I’d like to see somebody try it!”). Tried-and-true Tawny producers include Warre’s, Churchill’s, Ramos Pinto, Quevedo, Sandeman and Graham’s. Okay, So What About That Bottle-Aged Stuff? The one percent or so of Ports made for bottle-aging (Vintage Ports and Single Quinta Vintage Ports) are also typically priced for the one-percenters. Having said that, they can be life-alteringly good. Think of them as Ruby Ports on steroids: fresh blue and black fruits, peppery spiciness, subtle oak and rum notes and hefty structure that will see them through decades of aging. They last decades and throw enough sediment to fill a small river inlet, so have a decanter (or a strainer) ready if you’re lucky enough to sip an aged one. ’85, ’94, and ’07 are “recent” classic vintages, according to Johnny Graham (who runs Churchill’s and whose family has been in the Port biz for about 200 years). “At this stage, 2011 is head and shoulders above any other vintage I’ve been involved in…and I’ve been doing this for forty years.” He also told me, regarding wines that lack subtlety, “you can beat the shit out of something, and all you get is powdered shit!” so I’d say he’s someone worth listening to just on the basis of that quote alone. Anyway…Dow’s, Fonseca and Graham’s are all good examples of this style, and I’d throw Churchill’s and especially underdog Quinta do Vesuvio into that list. Beware the Port Hangover Finally, a word of caution: all Ports are fortified, which means they all have some sugar and all come in somewhere around 20 percent alcohol by volume. Did I mention that they’re sweet and 20 percent booze? Oh, I did? Well, were you listening? A Port hangover is not a normal hangover—it will make you wish for death, give you a strong desire to rip out your own skull and have you nodding in quiet I’ve-been-there-man understanding at the passages of Keith Richards’ biography where he talks about going cold turkey off heroin. So, no, you really don’t have “just one more glass” in you, tough guy. **About the Author:* Want to learn more about maximizing your wine pleasure? Visit Joe Roberts’ award-winning website 1WineDude.com, where you can find him regularly roasting wine’s sacred cow (and pairing it with robust, obscure red). Joe is a certified wine geek and has been called “an original” by media maven Gary Vaynerchuk, “provocative” by the Seattle Times and “a Robin Hood in the exclusive world of vineyards and corkings” by The Urban Grocer. His wine knowledge has been tapped by the L.A. Times, New York Times, CNBC.com, Mutineer Magazine, PalatePress.com and Washington Post.*


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