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Port: The Perfect Winter Warmer (November 11, 2003)

As a drink, port is something of a latecomer in the history of beverage alcohol. Wine has been with us for literally thousands of years. (Remember, it was the biblical Noah who planted the first vineyard when the ark landed on Mt. Ararat.) Port, as we know it, dates back to the late seventeenth century, when two English wine merchants happened on a monastery in the Douro and were amazed by the quality of the wine they were offered. The abbot told them he was adding brandy to the wine during its fermentation rather than afterwards. (The brandy stopped the action of the yeast and left residual sugar in the wine, plus an alcohol value of 19 to 20 per cent).

The finest expression of port is Vintage, a wine that bears the date of the harvest on the label. I had a foot in both the 1994 and the 1997 port vintages, two of the great years of the last century. That is, I trod the grapes at Quinta do Bomfin (where Warre sources its grapes) in 1994 and at Quinta do Passadouro, a single quinta wine, under the watchful eye of winemaker Dirk van der Niepoor in 1997. A week later the soles of my feet were still purple, the sign of a really good year, say the port producers of Portugal's Douro Valley.

Foot treading grapes is not a random affair in the Douro, one of the last of the world's wine regions where this time-honoured method of extracting juice is still practiced. But it is done only for vintage ports that bear the date of a single year and are bottled after two years in barrel (or what the trade calls "pipes").

"The port trade is very good at confusing people," Peter Cobb, a former director of Cockburns, once told me. "There are far too many wines with dates on that an average consumer won't know the difference between. For example, what's the difference between vintage port, late-bottled vintage port, single quinta (farm) port, colheita vintage and then 10, 20, 30-year-old tawny?"

Basically, there are two different port styles, ruby and tawny. Within these two categories are different styles based on age:

  • Ruby Port – A simple young port aged approximately three years.
  • Vintage Character – A blend of different ports aged 4–6 years.
  • Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) – Vintage dated, aged in wood for 4–6 years. Sometimes unfiltered.
  • Crusted Port – A blend of vintages, unfiltered and will throw a "crust." Aged 4 years in bottle.
  • Vintage – A wine of a single year bottled 2 years after harvest. Aged until mature.
  • Tawny – Aged in wood until it turns a topaz colour. Aged approximately 5 years.
  • Aged Tawny – Aged in wood for 10, 30, 30, 40 years. Age on the bottle.
  • Colheita – A Tawny from a specified year, vintage dated. Must be at least 8 years old.
  • Single Quinta – Port from a single farm bearing the name of the property. Can be any style.
  • White Port – Made from white grapes, usually medium-dry to sweet in style.

Tawny ports, because they are long aged in oak, can be kept for a long time once the bottle is opened because they are already somewhat oxidized. Vintage ports, on the other hand, should be consumed within two weeks of opening because they will begin to lose their fruit character.

Perhaps the most persuasive image for this noble drink is the combination of port and Stilton – the sweetness and concentration of the wine is a marvelous contrast to the salty tanginess of cheese. For strong cheeses like Roquefort, Danish Blue and Gorgonzola I would recommend a Vintage or an LBV port. For creamier cheeses, a tawny. For dark chocolate desserts, a Ruby or LBV. For milk chocolate I've found that a 10- or 20-year-old Tawny works wonders. Old Tawnies also complement foie gras or rich soups.

White ports make excellent aperitif wines before dinner, especially if served on the rocks with a twist of orange or lemon rind. In the hot summers of the Douro the producers serve it chilled with sparkling water as a refreshing mid-afternoon drink, accompanied by grilled and salted almonds. Port and walnuts after dinner is another favourite of mine.

Vintage ports are expensive, but you can get a real sense of the wine by starting with a Ruby or a Late Bottled Vintage.

The LCBO carries several ports in the Ruby, LBV and Tawny categories. I would recommend Taylor's First Estate as a good example of Ruby ($15.95), Graham's Late Bottle Vintage ($16.95) and Warre's Otima 10-year-old Tawny ($20.95 for 500 mL).

Vintages offers some of the best LBV and Vintage Ports. A good buy is Quinta do Infantado Vintage 1983, a single quinta port, at $62.95. Infantado also has an excellent Ruby Port at vintages ($15.50). Don't miss the bargain-priced Kopke Vintage 1985 at $53.95.

For your future reference, the great port vintages of the last three decades are 2000, 1997, 1995, 1994, 1991, 1985.




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