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Eat & Drink » Wine

Any Port in a Storm



Cold weather always brings the Port lover out in me. It’s on cold, snowy nights that I especially relish sipping a glass or two of Port and watching Blade Runner for the 13th time. Port in summertime doesn’t make much sense. But on a stormy night in winter, it’s a hard beverage to beat.

My love affair with Port goes back to my university days, when I was equally obsessed with P.J. Wodehouse and the Brideshead Revisited series that ran on PBS. It seemed a very classy thing to do: sip Port in the manner of Bertie Wooster or the boys at Brideshead. Of course, I couldn’t really afford excellent Vintage Port, so I pretty much stuck to Fonseca Bin 27 ($19.95), which is still one of my favorites.

Just like real Champagne only comes from the Champagne region of France, real Port comes solely from the Port region of Portugal, in the Douro River Valley. It was in the Douro River area where British wine merchants in the late 1670s discovered that fortifying relatively simple Douro wines with brandy not only made them “shockproof” for shipping in warm weather, but also resulted in a sweet but powerful wine. As a result British entrepreneurs essentially invented the Port business, which is why well-known Port has names like Dow, Graham’s, Cockburn, Sandeman, Smith Woodhouse, Taylor Fladgate and Warre’s. For centuries, the Brits made and marketed the stuff, as well as drank most of it. Today the United States constitutes the world’s biggest market for Vintage Port.

There are 10 styles of Port, including Young Tawny Port, Aged Tawny Port, Vintage Character Port, Late Bottled Vintage Port, Traditional Late Bottled Vintage Port, Vintage Port and Single Quinta Vintage Port. Why, there’s even White Port, although it’s reasonably rare. But I don’t want to get bogged down in a discussion of the differences of each style. My best suggestion is to buy a few bottles of Port of differing styles and throw a Port tasting. Thankfully, Port is relatively inexpensive. Even Vintage Port tends to be cheaper than vintage Champagne. A sought-after Vintage Port from a great year like 1997 can be had today for as little as $70. And even a bottle of Port from the classic, monumental'and probably the best vintage year of the century'1963, will only set you back $200-250. Plus, Port can be a good investment; it doesn’t get cheaper with age and can be kept for decades.

Since it’s a fortified wine, Port is relatively high in alcohol: about 20 percent. It’s made primarily from five red grape varieties in the Douro where, amazingly, there are more than 50 types of red grape grown in a region only 70 miles long. The five grapes most commonly blended to make Port are Tinta Roriz, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão and the most important one, Touriga Nacional. Each grape contributes something unique to every batch of Port: body, floral aromas, color, spiciness, delicacy and the like.

For sipping Port, a number of wineglass companies produce dainty little glasses that are better suited for tequila shots. I prefer to drink Port from a medium-to-large size wineglass, where the Port can breathe, and I can swirl the wine to enjoy the wonderful aromas Port exudes. Many types of Port'especially the great ones'must be decanted before drinking since they throw so much sediment. So drinking the good stuff takes a bit of forethought and planning.

Next week, in the second half of this Port series, I’ll discuss some specific Ports available locally that are well worth your dime.