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
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
- Vintage Character A blend of different ports aged 46
- Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Vintage dated, aged in wood
for 46 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.