Any Port in the Storm

Mark R. Vogel

 Port is one of the world’s most acclaimed fortified wines, and to fully appreciate it (meaning cerebrally as well as gastronomically), one must first understand what a fortified wine is.  Fortified wines are wines to which alcohol has been added during fermentation, which is the process by which the natural sugar in the wine is converted to alcohol by the enzymatic action of the yeast.  Augmenting the wine with additional alcohol while fermentation is occurring effectuates two ends:  it raises the wine’s alcohol level, and makes it sweeter.  Boosting the alcohol content prompts the yeast to prematurely terminate its sugar-to-alcohol assembly line.  Thus, the wine retains a greater degree of residual sugar than what normally remains in a standard dry wine after fermentation.  Because ports are sweeter, they are often considered dessert wines and are traditionally served after a meal.  However, they can be employed as an aperitif as well.

OK ladies and gentlemen, for my next point I will need some props; mainly my soap box.  REAL port comes from the Douro Valley of Portugal and is made from specific grapes, (for red ports: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tempranillo, Tinto Cao, Tinta Barroca, and others).  Moreover, it must be produced according to specific laws established in the region.  Real port will not say port on the label.  It will tout the word porto, eponymously named after the Portuguese city of Oporto where the wines are shipped from.  “Ports” made anywhere else in the world are port-like wines but not true ports.  In the purest form of the definition, port does not refer to all port wines but to the specific potable that arises from the Douro Valley’s microclimate, grapes, and procedures.  No matter how good another wine is, no matter how accurately the procedures are mimicked, any other port will still not be the exact same product.

There are many different types of ports and deciphering all of them effectively could be a thesis in and of itself.  My goal is to introduce you to port, not torture you with it.  To that end, let’s peruse the most common subtypes of port.

In ascending order of quality are ruby, tawny, and the crème de la crème, vintage port.  Ruby ports are made from lower quality grapes.  They are the least expensive, youngest, lightest, and fruitiest of the ports.  They are aged for two to three years before being released.  A decent ruby port will set you back about twenty dollars.  Ruby ports labeled reserve are aged longer and will cost a little more.  Vintage character ports are ruby ports made from higher quality wine.  Although the first rung of the port ladder, ruby ports are pleasant tasting, and a good place to start if you’re a neophyte.

Tawny ports, so named for their color, are made from blends of wines from different years.  They are less fruity and more complex than ruby ports.  They are aged in wood for up to forty years.  The label will indicate the specific age such as ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years.  Naturally, the longer it is aged the better the quality.  Thirty and forty-year-old tawnies can cost around one hundred dollars and more.  You can find a good ten-year-old tawny in the forty-dollar range and a twenty-year-old for around fifty dollars.  Of course, there are very basic tawnies with no age designation on their label.  They are aged less than ten years and are usually of lower quality.  A few are outright plonk so you have to know the producer.  I like Graham’s basic tawny port which is about the same price as a ruby.

Finally, we arrive at the pinnacle of the port hierarchy:  vintage port.   Vintage port is similar to vintage champagne.  When a bottle of port or champagne has a year denoted on the label, it means that year was declared a “vintage year.”  A vintage year is an above average year, inevitably because of the weather conditions that season.  The grapes will be superior and subsequently, so will the wine.  All of the wine for a vintage port is made from grapes harvested that year.  Vintage year grapes are more concentrated and produce more robust wines capable of noteworthy aging.  Vintage ports need at least twenty years of aging to be approachable, and really good ones can age seventy years or more.  Plan on parting with more than a Ben Franklin to purchase top of the line vintage port.  For that degree of investment, you’d be wise to stick to the top producers.  Some of the best names are Graham, Taylor-Fladgate, Fonseca Quinta do Noval and Dow.

A sub category of vintage port is late bottled vintage port.  Late bottled vintage port, like regular vintage port, is derived from wine whose grapes came all from one year.  However, that year is not a superior one and thus not designated a vintage year.  Late bottled vintage ports are aged four to six years and are full bodied, but not as stout as a vintage port.

Port is a wonderful wine for blissfully sipping in a relaxed manner after a good meal.  If you are a cigar smoker, it makes a perfect accompaniment.  Or pair it with walnuts, chocolate, or strong cheeses like cheddar, or even better, bleu cheeses like Stilton or Gorgonzola.

Port is excellent for making sauces.  It’s rich and sweet flavor can add a wonderful dimension to many foods.  I like it best with duck, beef, pork, or foie gras.  Utilize the port as you would any other wine.  After searing the meat and/or aromatics, deglaze the pan with the port and reduce it to about half.  Caramelized onions intermingle very nicely with port.  Port can also be used for poaching pears and is incorporated into a variety of dessert dishes.