Here’s the scene: It’s the holidays, I’m at my parents’ grand yet elegant home, sitting in front of a warm fire in the study, sipping Port while my youthful-looking grandfather dispenses worldly wisdom.
Actually, apart from the Port, that’s all from a Brooks Brothers catalogue, and nothing like my average holiday experience. But it is the kind of scene where you’d expect to find a Port glass—though I’m here to tell you there is a home for this wonderful wine outside of sartorial, social-climbing fantasies. It’s much more than a rich man’s extravagance.
Port is a fortified wine from Portugal’s Douro Valley, located in the northwest corner of the country (Port is actually named after the coastal city of Oporto, where the industry is based). The reason it has a fusty reputation has much to do with its historical relationship with the British, who turned to Portugal for wine when supplies of their beloved Bordeaux Claret dried up during a spat with France in the 17th Century.
It was the Brits’ taste for sweet and strong wines that led to the development of Port as we know it. The wines were often “fortified” with a spirit to help them survive their storm-tossed journey through the Atlantic. By the mid-19th century this practice, which created rich and powerful wines, was widespread and Port was a mainstay at any respectable dinner table.
Since then, Port has been stifled by tradition and cultural stereotypes (think Downton Abbey-style stately homes, a table of men lighting cigars and passing the Port around), that has ring-fenced it from the experience of ordinary drinkers.
We can banish a few myths straight off: Port is terrible with cigars (strong tobacco will kill the drink’s flavor and mouth feel), it doesn’t require any special glassware (many Ports don’t need decanting, normal wine glasses work well), and it doesn’t even need to be saved for the end of a meal. While Port is known for pairing well with desserts, cheese, and chocolate, younger and fruitier versions will play nice with the likes of roasted meats, game, and charcuterie.
Port is also great in cocktails and punches—the Smoking Bishop, as featured in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, will get any holiday party off to a roaring start. But then treat it like a red wine and enjoy it by itself, especially as a way to unwind at the end of the day. Or as a companion for contemplative activities, such as reading or figuring the real state of the Blazers’ defense. (Seriously, try sipping Port while watching sports. It’s a much more reflective experience.)
Types of Port
There are a few different styles of Port, which can make things confusing, but that means there should be something for all budgets and occasions. All Port starts out in the same way, as a red wine made from various blends of the 30-odd grapes found in the Douro region. Brandy is added during fermentation, which boosts the alcohol level (the finished product is usually around 20 percent) and retains some of the natural sugars.
Ports are then differentiated in how they are matured, whether in bottle or barrel, and for how long.
Ruby: A good starter Port, typically a blend aged for three to five years in barrel. Approachable, fresh, and fruity. Affordable and will last for a month once opened. Try Kopke Ruby ($18 from 1856, 1465 NE Prescott) on the rocks as an aperitif. A Ruby Reserve uses higher quality grapes and is aged five years.
White Port: Made from white grapes, and can be sweet or dry. Great chilled as an aperitif.
Tawny: Like a Ruby in that it’s a blend of different Ports—but the best stuff is aged in barrels for 10 to 40 years. As it matures, the fruit flavors mellow and complex flavors emerge. Graham’s 20 Year Tawny ($50.99 from Liner & Elsen, 2222 NW Quimby) is the sweet spot—hugely drinkable, balancing fruit with secondary flavors such as orange peel and coffee.
A Colheita is a special Tawny from a single harvest year. The Kopke Colheita 1985 ($47 for 375ml, from Division Wines, 3564 SE Division) is luxuriously rich and soft, melting in the mouth without being syrupy, with dried fruit and nutty flavors.
Late Bottle Vintage: First launched in 1970 as a way to offer Port from a single year without all the waiting around a traditional Vintage requires. Aged in wood for four to six years, it’s ready to drink straight away. Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage 2011 ($21.49 from Total Wine, 4816 NE Thurston, Vancouver) is great for the holidays, full bodied, and offering ripe fruit with hints of chocolate.
Vintage Port: A single harvest wine that spends two years in barrel and then ages in the bottle, up to 60-plus years. Vintages are only declared about three times a decade. Rich and powerful (and expensive), they are not for everyday drinking. Check out Ringside Steakhouse for vintage Ports by the glass, from a young Justin Obtuse 2008 ($9) right through to Warre’s Vintage 1970 ($75).