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Port; A Somewhat, But Not Really, Brief Introduction

December 21, 2010

“It should feel like liquid fire in the stomach…it should burn like inflamed gunpowder…should have he tint of ink…it should be like the sugar of Brazil in sweetness and the spices of India in aromatic flavor.” — the agents of the Association of Port Wine Shippers, 1754

I’d say that’s a pretty fair description ūüėČ

Every year at this particular time, I look out of my office door and see a puzzled customer staring blankly at our Port section.¬†I felt the same way about choosing port–utterly confused¬†(well, I still am most of the time–but that’s an entirely¬†different story.)¬†

How does¬†one make head or tails of all the different Ports??¬† If it’s laid out in front of you (like I’ll do for you in a minute) it’s actually pretty simple!

You would think the last thing a hot, sun-soaked produces would be a great “winter warmer.”¬† The story goes that back in 1678, ¬†two Englishmen sent to learn about the wine trade stopped off for a little¬†holiday up the Douro river in Portugal.¬† Being entertained by the Abbot of Lamego, they found his wine to be “sweet, smooth and agreeable” and it stood out from the rest on their trip.¬† The Abbot confessed to sneaking some brandy into the mix–but the Englishmen were so enamored by the drink that they purchased the entire lot and shipped it back to England.¬† And so, the port trade¬† took its roots.

Port,¬†in a nutshell,¬†is a deep, sweet and¬†rich fortified wine crafted from grapes grown in the steep, rocky vineyards of the Douro in Portugal.¬† Grapes are pick, pressed and left to partially ferment down to about 6%-8% alcohol, and, at this point, it is fortified with grape neutral spirits (re; brandy, in looser terminology.) The partial fermentation¬†allows some of grapes’ sugars to stay in the wine and not get converted to alcohol–allowing for a natural sweetness (no added sugars here!)

There are six¬†prevalent “styles;” White, Tawny, Aged Tawny,Ruby, Late Bottle Vintage (LBV), and Vintage¬† that¬†I like to¬†cubby-hole¬†into¬†two major categories.¬† Sweet and nutty & sweet and fruity. The former three styles fit into the nutty category¬†while the latter four fit into the fruity. (Note: there are a few more styles out there, but these six are what you normally find on the shelves…) Sadly, not all¬†ports are¬†meant to be drunk right away (bummer, right?) Read on for the descriptions…

The Tawnys; Generally all wood aged and ready to drink upon purchase (hooray!) and will not improve with extra bottle age.

White Port:  The driest of the bunch, and generally served chilled or over ice with a splash of tonic (Q!) and a twist of lemon.  Most are sherry-like (think of a cross between a Manzanilla & Oloroso sherries), with a dry, nutty and just a hint of sweetness. Ready for drinking now.

My selection; Dow’s White Port:¬†¬†¬†¬† Clear burnished gold. Nose is something like banana chips and brown sugar. Maybe vanilla sugar? A bit closed on the nose. Good viscosity–silky, zippy and peppery notes on the tip of the tongue. Raw almonds, sweet caramel, nuances of walnut, dried apricots, with a pleasant, bitter back-end.

¬†Basic Tawny Port:¬†Ruby ports lighter and drier cousin.¬†Often a blend of white and red ports, and not “tawny” by the nature of aging in casks.¬†¬† Basic tawnies are great to purchase if you are unsure if you will like the style. Ready to drink now.

My selection; Sandeman Tawny Port:    Amber in color with a light but intense aroma. Vanilla, spices and sugared dried fruits. Suggestive of ripe red fruits that seamlessly combine with wood ageing.  A pleasant, warm and lingering finish.

Aged Tawny Ports: Traditionally known as “fine old tawnies,” they carry a bold, emblazoned number on the front of the bottle; usually 10, 20, 30 or 40.¬†¬† The bigger the number, the lighter the color of the port–this is from constant “racking” or blending over a period of years.¬† A common misconception is that all the liquid in the bottle is 10 (20, 30, 40) years old.¬† Not¬†necessarily true.¬† The number on the front describes the average age of what’s in the bottle.¬† Generally tawnies¬†are nutty, and voluptuous, with little to no sediment (from constant racking).¬† Always drinkable upon time of purchase.

My selection; Taylor Fladgate 10 year:     Deep mahogany with red reflections. Milk chocolate cherries, raisins, dried mission figs. Nutmeg. Golden raisins, molasses chews, oaky tannins,woody notes and raw pecans all vye for attention in the moutch. Very light and airy for a tawny. Candied orange peel. Spicy.

My selection; Ramos Pinto¬†20 year:¬†¬†¬†¬† My favorite Port. Ever. Light coppery-brown in color with a brown sugar-caramel flan nose.¬†Nutty walnut¬†taste with the texture resonant of walnut skins–but still¬†robust and sweet . Dried fruits, coffee and cinnamon. It’s what rolling around naked on a bear skin rug in front of a crackling¬†fire¬†would feel like if it was in liquid form.

The Rubies; These ports are bottled relatively soon after fermentation and a brief time spent aging in wood (2-8 years spent in casks, depending on the style), and generally need to spend some time in bottle before it is ready to drink.

Basic Ruby Port; The least expensive expression out there but ultimately a good introduction as to what the style offers.  Usually less than a year maturation in the cask, but some bottlings are blended for various vintages and can have an age up to 4 years in cask.  Spicy, peppery-grapey-flavors are the basic traits of inexpensive Ruby Port.

My selection; Graham’s Six Grapes:¬†¬†¬†¬† Deep purple with tinges of red around the rim.¬† A big nose full of stewed prunes and raisins¬†with a tinge of cherry cough syrup in there, dried¬†flowers too.¬† There’s dried prunes that show up in the mouth and follow straight through to the finish, with a little smattering of¬† dusty cocoa.¬† Trademark peppery-grapey¬†notes¬†with a nice acidity that keeps the wine from being overbearing.¬†

Late Bottled Vintage; Most similar in style¬†to vintage port, without the big price tag.¬† Made from wine from a single year (generally and “undeclared vintage year,”) bottled between the¬†4th and 6th year after harvest.¬† Some LBV’s¬†are not¬†filtered (sold under the name “traditional” or “bottle matured”) and require some decanting¬†before enjoying.¬† There are a some LBVs¬†out there¬†that are fined and filtered before bottling–but this often causes a loss of flavor and concentration in the wine.

My selection; Graham’s¬†LBV 2005:¬†¬†¬†¬† Dark ruby with a bright red rim. Hints of dark chocolate, black plums, slight prunish¬†notes hints of cedar, pipe tobacco, silky, sweet, very ripe blackberry, black pepper, stone dust minerality¬†on the finish with barrel tannins becoming present at the end, tart raspberry acidity kicks in on the back palate.¬† Licorice allsorts.¬† Pair with chocolate lava cake with raspberry sauce.

Vintage Port: The grandaddy of them all, but only makes up about 1-2% of all port production, and is not made every year.¬† Wine from a single year is bottled and sold after spending 2-3 years maturing in wood, and generally is not ready to drink for upwards of 15 years of bottle maturation.¬† Only grapes¬†grown in the best vineyards, picked at optimal ripeness are made into vintage port.¬† A vintage is “declared” the second year after the grapes are harvested; and only after samples and quantities are approved by the Douro Port Wine Institute.¬† Vintage port always needs to be decanted, as it carries a lot of sediment in the bottle.

My selection: Gould Campbell 2003:     A bit floral, with blackberry and cranberry scents. Sweet fennel fronds, raspberry jam. Licorice, juicy semi-dried cherries, fine tannin, sweetness smacks right up front and fades to dry cherry pit finish with a tart and slightly bitter end. A steal at $39.99, but could still use a few more years in the bottle before it really shines.

Yikes.¬† that was a lot to throw out there.¬† Hopefully it will help will all those blank stares…

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