Port wine. Is it what your granny might drink? Well one of the many charms of Port is that the last bottle I tasted was harvested, vinified and put in a barrel way before my granny (may she rest in peace) was even born. Actually, I’m not sure my great-great grandmother was born either. To find out would require referencing some very stuffy, dusty old books. There was nothing, however, stuffy about this wine.
Port wine has a long history which is not just in the region where it is grown (Douro Valley of Portugal), or vinified (in the city of Porto).The history is directly present in bottles you can buy off the shelf today. Neither exorbitantly priced or reserved for collectors, Port with significant age can be enjoyed sip by sip while contemplating the time that has passed since the grapes were foot trodden, fermented, fortified and placed in barrels. The Taylor’s 1863 Single Vintage Port I sipped a thimbleful of might have been one perky 151 year-old, and perhaps more of a mental experience than a sensory one. The roughly $3,000 price tag for one of the 900 bottles in existence might be on the steep side for most wine lovers – but you can give yourself the generous gift of a wonderfully aged Port (think twenty to forty years), and you will have everything you need for sitting by the fire, in your favorite chair, and contemplating the Ghosts of Christmas Past.
Port wine comes in many styles, from the wood aged to the bottle aged, from the deep purple, tannic and fruity to the unctuously sweet, nutty and golden. All are made by adding grape spirits to the wine while it ferments, which stops the fermentation process before all the natural grape sugar has been consumed. The resulting high alcohol level (19% to 23%) gives Port its ability for extreme aging. While the style is impacted by which of the grape varieties go into the wine, its influence is secondary to ageing and final blending methods. This is what can make Port confusing for the casual wine drinker, but you don’t need to know the difference between Crusted Port, Colheita, Vintage and Ruby to enjoy a bottle. But in case you do wish to know the difference, here are some basic definitions, and some of my favorite ways to enjoy Port during the holiday season:
The winemaking style causes sediment, or “crust” to form in the bottle. It will need to be decanted before serving.
Non-vintage Port made with white wine grapes aged for short periods of time, sometimes in wood.
Deeply colored, fruity, non-vintage Ports which are generally ready to drink at bottling.
The grapes contained within the bottle are of a single vintage and have been aged for a minimum of eight years (if not more) in wood until just before release. It is sold when the producer feels it is ready to drink and should be consumed in the following year, so look for the bottling date on the label. The well-aged Colheita is divine when paired with a mild milk chocolate truffle. You know, the best one in the box.
On a recent international flight, I was served a 1974 Kopke Colheita. Fork up about $100 and you can delight in 40 years of history. It’s still more than I spend on an average wine bottle but for a wine older than myself, and one that can last me through a whole snowy holiday week, it was well worth it.
Late Bottle Vintage Port (LBV):
A type of Ruby Port that uses grapes from a single, specific vintage. It is aged four to six years prior to bottling. It brings red and black fruit aromas of fig, plum, cassis and coffee and a round, sweet mouthfeel. The 2009 Newport Late Bottle Vintage is my current choice. Newport is one of my absolute favorite Port wine houses. Led by the charismatic character Dirk van der Newport, fan of minimal intervention winemaking, this house has a solid following among young sommeliers at top restaurants around the world. Dirk’s still wines might sometimes show up with comics on the label but the Ports, these heavenly Ports, are nothing but serious. They are also attractively priced.
Made from lighter colored, less extracted wines and thus paler and more amber as compared to a Ruby Port – hence, “tawny”. They are sometimes matured under warmer conditions, or blended with a touch of White Port. The bottle will state the average minimum age of the wines in the blend, but not the exact age. When a break from the Christmas frenzy is called for (which is pretty much every day this time of year), I take a small glass of Tawny Port, steal a couple of sweets – butterscotch, salted caramel, candied nuts – and set myself down by the fire place. The classic house Taylor’s makes my go-to Tawny Port. Ten years of age reveals the first layer of butterscotch notes. For me, the sweet spot between price and style is always to be found in a twenty year-old bottle. For around $40, these bottles offer a lot of complexity, nuance and enjoyment without an exorbitant price tag.
Port allows us to think about past, present and future. It’s a drink that encourages reflection, which is what so much of the holiday season is all about. What kind of port will you ruminate with this year?
By Erica Landin