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Port 101 (November 7, 2007)

Port is the quintessential after-dinner winter drink. In fact, if I were the Mayor of Toronto I would legislate for St. Bernard dogs to patrol the streets on cold weather nights with barrels of Port strapped around their necks. (Which is not as crackpot a scheme as some our politicians dream up.)

The only question would be, Which style of Port should the dogs carry?

Port is made by adding brandy to the wine of the Douro Valley before it has finished fermenting. The alcohol stops the fermentation process. This leaves residual sugar in the wine and an alcohol reading of around 20 per cent by volume (most table wines are 12 to 13 per cent alcohol). How the wine is treated at that point determines its style.

The initial wine is usually a blend of five indigenous grape varieties – Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Cão.

Basically, there are two types of Port: those aged in wood and those aged in bottles. The length of ageing time determines the category and the price.

The least expensive Port is Ruby, with an average age of 3 years. It's young, sweet and fleshy.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) is a wine from a single year that has spent an average of 4 to 6 years in wood. The wine may carry a vintage date but it will not improve noticeably in the bottle unless it is left unfiltered before bottling. Drink it now.

Vintage Character is the same as LBV but is a blend of different years.

Tawny Port is aged in wooden casks and derives its name from the colour of the wine. Since it is exposed to air it oxidizes over the years in wood and loses that dense purple-ruby colour of bottle-aged Ports. Tawnys can be 3 to 5 years old and Aged Tawnys will be 10, 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years old. The number of years refers to the average age of the wines in the blend.

Colheita is a Tawny Port from a single vintage and will bear the date on the label.

Single Quinta is a vintage Port made from grapes grown on a single estate. The large Port houses such as Taylor, Graham, Dow and Warre will usually bottle a single quinta Port from their individual properties in years when they don't declare a vintage Port for the house as a whole.

Vintage Port is bottled unfiltered after two years in cask and requires long ageing. The wine will eventually throw a sediment and will require decanting. Vintage Ports are not produced every year; it is up to the individual producers to declare a vintage Port if they consider it up to their house standard. Vintage Port is still made the traditional way by foot-treading the grapes in lagares that look like square, cement wading pools.

White Port is made from such white varieties as Gouveio, Malvasia Fina and Viosinho and ranges from off-dry to sweet. It should be chilled for serving.

The French are the largest consumers of Port, usually Ruby or white as a pre-dinner aperitif; the English prefer Vintage Port and LBV while the Portuguese themselves prefer aged Tawnys.

Aged Tawnys are slightly less sweet than Vintage Ports and make ideal accompanying wines for desserts such as chocolate mousse, crème brûlée and cheesecake. They can also be served with mild cheeses and pâtés. And the great thing about Tawny Ports is that, because they are already oxidized, they will last a long time in an opened bottle or in your decanter. Bottle-aged Ports like Vintage and LBV should be consumed within two weeks of opening the bottle.

Vintage Port and LBV go beautifully with blue cheeses, foie gras and rich desserts (like Christmas pudding).

The LCBO general list currently does not have a great selection of Ports but you will find Sandeman Ruby ($15.45, #23366) and Kopke Full Rich Ruby ($14.30, #35766).

The best of the LBV on general list are Taylor's Reserve Late Bottled Vintage ($17.35, #46946), though richer LBVs can be found at Vintages outlets – Quinta Sa de Baixo LBV 2001 ($23.95, #30460) and Quinta do Portal LBV ($23.80, #613901).

A good introduction to the delights of Tawny Port is Quinta do Noval Tawny Reserve at Vintages outlets ($19.95, #687608). On the general list is Graham's 10 Year Old Tawny ($28.15, #206508), and for a real treat pick up a bottle of Taylor's 20 Year Old Tawny (Vintages, $67.95, #149047).

Vintage Ports are expensive and usually disappear from the shelves as soon as they are listed. For example, Warre's 2003 sells for $69.95 in Vintages and there are only a few bottles remaining in the system (#633248).




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