By Hollyanna McCollom
Picture this: You’ve just finished a nice meal; maybe you even had a Manhattan or a glass of wine. As you soak in the ambiance of the candlelit dining room, the server comes around with the dessert menu and asks, “Can I bring you something to drink with that?” If you’re the sort of person who always orders coffee in this situation, it’s time you explored the world of port.
Steeped in history and tradition, the process of creating port dates back to the 17th century when wine supplies to Britain were cut off by frequent wars in France. During that time, the British took a liking to the full-bodied wines produced in the Douro valley of Portugal, which, unfortunately, did not often make the trip without beginning to turn. To combat the problem, they began “fortifying” the wine with brandy, which stopped the fermentation process and allowed for safer (i.e. more lengthy) travel. To the delight of the winemakers, the resulting wine was surprisingly rich and more complex.
The different varieties of port are dependant upon many things, not the least of which include the harvest and the fermentation process. The youngest of these is a ruby port, which is readily available and reasonably priced in both stores and restaurants. As El Gaucho (319 SW Broadway, 227-8794, elgaucho.com) Wine and Cigar Captain Leann Loveland says, “It’s the white zinfandel of the port world in my opinion. It’s a good place to start.” A ruby will age in wood barrels for approximately two to three years before being bottled, resulting in a bright red or garnet blend that is vibrant and fruity. A good one to try is Warre’s Ruby Porto Warrior (about $15).
One of the most popular types of port is a tawny, which derives its name from the golden brown color it develops while aging in wood barrels. As a tawny ages it is exposed to more oxygen than its ruby counterpart and the gradual oxidation and evaporation result in a blend that is often described as having nutty, earthy or caramel-like overtones. A 10-year tawny is a fine choice and will only cost you about $10 to $20 a bottle. But like humans, the longer a port has to mature, the more complex and layered it becomes. A 30 or 40-year tawny will be deeper in color and will often pick up other flavors like dried fruit, toasted almonds and toffee. It’s well worth the extra bucks you’ll shell out for a glass as you smoke a cigar or nibble on a good blue cheese. A good low-priced version to try is Warre’s Otima (about $20 per bottle); or, if you want to splurge a little, try Graham’s 40 Year (about $150).
The most sought after is the vintage port, which must have the seal of approval from The Port Wine Institute (IVP) in Portugal before it can be declared. When wine producers feel that they have a particularly good port, they will send samples of it to IVP. If they agree, then IVP awards it with the honor of a “declared vintage.” It’s a coveted distinction since there are only about three declared vintages every 10 years. In fact, since 1901, there have been only 29–some of the most recognized are from 1927, 1934 and 1945. Vintage ports, like rubies, are aged in their bottles and develop a signature claret color. Unlike the younger wines, a vintage port will not be as bright, having had years to mellow, soften and mature.
In years past, children were often given a “pipe” of port (about 61 cases) the year they were born, with the intention that by the time the child was old enough to drink, the wine would have properly matured. Still today, a popular gift for landmark birthdays is a bottle from the year of the recipient’s birth. Pazzo Ristorante (627 SW Washington St, 228-1515, pazzo.com) Wine Director Lemmy Cooper suggests pairing such a wine (like their 2003 Taylor Fladgate Vintage, $20 per glass) with a flourless chocolate cake and raspberry sauce to complement the fruit-forward flavor.
Similar to a tawny, a colheita (pronounced, “col-yate-ah”) is a port from a single harvest (i.e. one year, one region), the date of which is printed on the label. Unlike a vintage port, colheitas are aged in barrels, thus developing a tawny color and characteristic. Less than 1% of all port production results in colheitas, so it’s a rare treat that retails for around $20 to $80 a glass (or $50 to several thousand dollars per bottle). El Gaucho even carries a Porto Kopke 1937 colheita for $185 a glass. Like the vintage port, it is often presented as a gift to someone to commemorate an anniversary year or birthdate.
A Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV), on the other hand, is similar in character and flavor to a vintage port. Indeed, an LBV is also derived from grapes produced in a single harvest. However, an LBV will spend four to six years in wood barrels before it sees the bottle. The resulting wine is full-bodied and rich, a marriage between vintage and tawny. Says Cooper, “I think if someone was getting into port or didn’t know much about it, for an extra five bucks a bottle [as compared to a standard ruby or tawny] it’s a good choice. I’d rather drink these [LBVs].”
Besides being a fine accompaniment to dessert, Port is often paired with cheese, fruit, Fois Gras, paté or even cigars. Says Loveland, “Ports go hand-in-hand with cigars. We see a lot of younger clientele in the cigar room having one with their gin and tonic and maybe they don’t realize how much more they could enjoy their cigar if they paired it with a cognac, a scotch or a port.”
Finding the right style of port for you is not hard if you go to the right place. Most restaurants are happy to offer suggestions based on your preferences and sommeliers are often excited to share their advice. In fact, as Loveland suggests, it’s wise to ask if you can sample a bit before ordering to see what sort of port you prefer. “Most bartenders are happy to pour you a taste to see if it’s what you really want,” she says. You can also call ahead to many oenophile restaurants (i.e. wine heavy) and schedule a tasting or a private session with their sommelier or wine director, like Cooper or Loveland, who are not only fountains of knowledge, but a lot of fun to boot.
So, put down the coffee (it will probably just keep you up late anyway) and check out the “other side of the dessert menu.” Because whether you prefer to finish your meal with a Crème Brule or a fine cigar, there is sure to be a port that will enhance your experience.