The Noble Writ: A Port for Every Storm, Part 2


Continuing our exploration of port from last week (read "A Port for Every Storm, Part 1"), we'll cover the other forms of port you're likely to see on the shelves. We'll also spend some time discussing what, if any, food will match well with the port in your glass.

First, to finish up with the red (as opposed to tawny) ports. Let's start at the top of the qualitative ladder with vintage port. For many, vintage port represents the pinnacle of port. In volume terms, vintage port makes up a whopping 1% -- yes, 1% -- of the total production of port.

Vintage port is, not surprisingly, the product of a single year's harvest. The surprise is that port producers are shockingly restrained in designating a year as a "vintage" year. While their brethren in almost every other region in the world have a vintage every year, historically port producers designate vintage years only about three times a decade. The decision whether to declare a vintage is left up to each property, though once the major producers reveal their intentions, most others follow suit as the financial implications are significant, with bottles from top producers in the most recent vintage going for $60-$80 a pop.

Vintage ports are aged only a few years in wood before being bottled. This short exposure to oak ensures that a large load of tannins carries over into the bottle, which provides the backbone for a very long life in the cellar. How long? While it's somewhat vintage-variable, I tend not to broach my vintage ports until at least twenty years after the vintage date. This makes vintage port a fine wine to set aside for special birthdays or anniversaries as it's one of the few wines to reliably make old bones -- and, while not cheap, it's a whole lot cheaper than other candidates such as top-flight Bordeaux.

However, drinking young vintage port is a pretty painful experience. Though shielded by an immense wave of intense fruit, the tannins are formidable, quickly rendering the teeth and tongue fuzzy, while the unintegrated spirit hammers the palate. If you are interested in laying down vintage port but want to see if it's something that you'll enjoy, I recommend heading either to auction or an online specialist retailer and picking up well-stored bottles of older vintages. Offerings from very good producers in fine years can often be had for the same as or even less than current releases.

A related category is known as single-quinta (Portugeuse for farm) port. Most port producers own or purchase grapes from a large number of quintas. In years that aren't declared vintage, some producers will bottle the wine from a quinta by itself and indicate the vintage on the label. These are often excellent wines as port producers again exercise admirable restraint in not overusing this option, selecting only top-notch quintas to bottle separately.

1995 Dow Quinta do Bonfim ($12/375 ml., purchased about eight years ago): Still a dark, opaque purple. Much more wine-like on the nose than the other ports sampled -- there is no hint of the spirit. Cassis, wet earth and dried cherry notes make up the initial nose. Full and round on the palate, but noticeably sleeker than the other wines. Still brings a good intensity of fruit. The wine opens up nicely with time in the decanter adding some floral notes and brightness to the fruit. Not overly long but finishes cleanly. Also look for Taylor Fladgate's Quinta de Vargelles, which can also be a great value.

The two ports sampled for this week's column - DAVE NELSON
  • Dave Nelson
  • The two ports sampled for this week's column
One step down from these wines on the qualitative scale is the last of the non-tawny wines we'll discuss: late-bottled vintage (LBV) port. LBVs are aged longer than rubies prior to release. They spend this time in wood, which allows the tannins to soften more than they do in vintage and single-quinta wines. While LBVs are ready to drink on release, some can benefit from additional time in the cellar. These are the so-called traditional LBVs (though "traditional" is unhelpfully no longer allowed on the label), which are bottled unfiltered. The easy way to spot these is to check whether the wine is closed with a "T" cork or a straight one. If it's straight, you've got a traditional LBV that's ready to be laid down in the cellar if you like.

LBVs are another nice way to get a peek at whether you should bother aging vintage ports or not -- though not as reliable as buying a vintage port from an older year, as LBVs still pack a hearty helping of youthful fruit. LBVs are a fine value, though, often costing only a few dollars more a bottle than the premium rubies we discussed last week.

And now for something completely different: tawny port. These wines are made from the same grapes and vineyards as the other ports we've discussed, but tawnies are subjected to extended aging in wood. This has the effect of slowly oxidizing the wine, turning them from red to brown and changing the bold fruit flavors to those of dried fruits, nuts, caramel and toffee.

I'll skip over basic tawnies -- I've had absolutely no luck finding one I like -- and move right on to the ones with an age indicated on the label, such as "10 Year Old." These age-indicated tawny ports begin to show off the unique flavors and aromas that the long cask aging provides. The tawny port equivalent of vintage port is a wine called colheita, which will indicate on the label both the vintage when the grapes were harvested and the date on which the wine was bottled. Very old tawnies get expensive, and the only thing that old age guarantees is that the wine is old. You may or may not prefer really old wines.

Taylor Fladgate 10 Year Old Tawny ($27, Wine & Cheese Place): Clear mahogany -- there is definitely still a red blush to the color. Dates, raisins and raw nuts on the nose. Fruit leads the palate, but it dissolves into a long, nutty finish. Still quite viscous and youthful.

When it comes to matching port and food, I tend to keep things very simple. The "classic" partner is Stilton, but I find this to be an overpowering match that wastes both a fine cheese and a fine wine. If you're going to do it, let the cheese be the star and go with something simpler, like the Fonseca Bin 27 from last week's post.

Cheese can work well, and it's my most common match, but I favor something milder with port. Talk with your friendly cheesemonger. My highest recommendation on this front is to see Simon Lehrer at the Wine Merchant in Clayton. See what is eating well that is neither too creamy nor too pungent, and you'll likely find a fine match to your port.

Despite being generally sweet, I find ports to have limited utility with dessert courses. The problem with matching wine and dessert is that the dessert needs to be less sweet than the wine, and not-too-sweet desserts are something we seem to struggle with in this country. If the dessert is sweeter, your port will taste sour and/or bitter. The high alcohol that ports carry also causes pairing problems for my palate. They just taste hot to me.

So where does this leave me? In one of those rare situations where I choose to savor a wine all by itself, though a roaring fire and a good book certainly aren't unwelcome.

Dave Nelson is the author of the blog Beer, Wine and Whisky. He writes about wine for Gut Check every Tuesday.


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