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Slipping into Port: Port Wines


by Scott Stavrou


When the weather starts getting rough and your tiny ship is tossed in today’s stormy world, the refuge of a sheltered port is a noteworthy find. Though you may not possess the sex appeal of Ginger, the chastity of MaryAnn, the obscene bankroll of the Howells, the brains of the Professor, the girth of the Skipper or the dandy hat of Gilligan, a glass of sweet, tawny port should provide all the rescue you need from the uncharted desert isle that is your life. Indeed, Port as a pensive post-prandial punctuation point has a proud history going back many centuries before the S.S. Minnow.


In the halcyon days of yore, a meal wasn’t ended when you’d polished off your entrée and sat back fat, full and contented. There was a time when attentive waitstaff waited to bring you the check until you’d called for it, fully expecting that you’d require dessert, after-dinner drinks and coffee. In this more mellow and civil era the end of the meal was the beginning of the relaxing and it called for a soothing digestiv. Anyone who enjoyed the rituals of dining and drinking had their own favorite after-dinner delight. For centuries many such sophisticates have favored port.


Port is a sweet, fortified wine that originated in Portugal’s Northern Douro Valley along the Rio Douro (River of Gold) in the 17th century. The drink took its name from the coastal town of Oporto from where it was shipped throughout the world. Originally, brandy was added to the wines in the barrel to stop the fermentation and stabilize them during shipping. The main consumers, primarily the English and Dutch, so enjoyed the tasty and more potent beverage that they clamored for more. The combination of booze and money has always been an intoxicating one and many foreigners even set up shop in Oporto. This accounts for so many renowned Port labels bearing Anglo-Saxon names, including Sandeman, Warre, van Zeller, Burmester, Croft, Taylor, Offley Forrester, Kopke, Graham, Guimaraens, Cockburn, and Dow, all of which date back to the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.


Today fine port-style wines are produced in a number of countries, including the U.S., Australia, and South Africa, though the originals, properly labeled “Porto” or “Oporto” can be so christened only if they are produced in this designated region of Portugal in adherence to long-established dictates. The small and privileged area is roughly 15 miles wide and 67 miles long and has become world-renowned for its signature beverage, which remains most popular in France, Britain and the U.S. and has long been a favored tipple of the world’s rich and famous.




The Portuguese winemaking tradition began when the thirsty Romans introduced wine to the Iberian Peninsula in the First Century BC. The Goths and Vandals ended the orgy-filled Roman Empire, bringing on the Dark Ages. Without the benefit of classical knowledge, mankind floundered in these dreary days and needed a good drink more than ever. Fortunately, the stalwart Portuguese persevered with wine production and before too long the thirsty world took note.


In the 17th century, as luck would have it, the English found another good reason to go war with the French. This was back in the days before the French had perfected their patented surrender to invading armies, so it dragged on for years. As in all wars, the human cost was high, rife with tragic deaths, wanton maiming and destruction and a cessation of the export of fine French wines to England. This was back when serfs and soldiers alike needed a hearty libation to be able to face the world, so England looked elsewhere and began importing the fortified Portuguese wines. Sweeter and stronger were appealing enough attributes to make the English develop a fondness for port. In a bit of historical irony, the French who inspired the popularity of port wines are today’s biggest consumers.




Almost any Portuguese port that you buy is going to possess the drinkable characteristics supplied by the unique geography and production. Prices can range from around $10 to many thousands for the finest vintage ports. Overall, there are four basic categories of port wine: vintage, ruby, tawny, and white.


Vintage ports are typically the most expensive and are made only in officially decreed vintage years and only from grapes of a single vintage. They are bottled within two years, rather than aged in the barrel and often bottle-aged as much as 50 years. Expect them to cost from $100 to several thousand dollars and to have care to decant them and watch for the sediment that accrues during the process.


More common tawny ports are made from blends of several different years and often barrel-aged (oak or mahogany) as many as 40 years. They’re ready to sell and drink when they’re bottled. On the better tawny ports, the label states how long they’ve aged, typically 10, 20, 30, or 40 years, less if not designated with the number. Lesser quality tawny ports may also be produced by mixing white and ruby port. Expect a decent tawny to cost in the $20-$50 range, but remember unless you’re very thirsty or very popular it will generally tide you over for several sittings and represents a worthy addition to your bar portfolio.


Ruby ports, generally the least expensive, are made from the lower-quality batches of wine and wood-aged for approximately two years. They sport a brighter red color and a bit more fruitiness, though less complexity and character. Many of the finest port houses produce some very drinkable ruby ports in the $10-$20 range, and you can also find a number of comparable quality products from the U.S., Australia and South Africa, where they “borrow” the production style and terminology without all the same guidelines.


The less-common white ports are produced in the same manner as reds, but obviously with white grapes. They’re typically drier and more often drank with food or as an aperitif. Even if you’re not ready to add port to your home-bar portfolio, invest in a little next time you go out for dinner. Your favorite restaurant or bar is likely to have several brands and choices. It gives you time to sit back, sip and savor a delicious drink and congratulate yourself on your innate good taste.