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
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.
PLUNDERING MAKES YOU THIRSTY
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.
THE PORT STYLES
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.