Thursday, December 24, 2009

Perfect Holiday Wines: Port, Part 1

With all the guests and all the food this time of year, choosing the right wine is of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, most people get mired in the same old habits year after year. I see it and hear it all the time: Consumers claiming only to drink one type of wine, whether it’s Australian Shiraz or Napa Cabernet or Oregon Pinot Noir. The truth is, though, that as wonderful as these wines can be, limiting yourself to the same kind of wine each time you pop the cork will result in missing out on the majority of the pleasures that the world of wine has to offer.

Today and Monday, then, I’d like to discuss two wine options that are more than worth your attention right now, yet that too many people still don’t take full advantage of: Port and rosé. (I’m breaking these up so that you’re not confronted with an over-abundance of tasting notes and recommendations.)

Port offers some of the great cool-weather pleasures of the wine world. (It’s actually fantastic year-round, but these days, with the vice-grip of coldness locked down on us here in the Northeast, it’s impossible to think of the warmer days all those months ahead.) And right now, with all the rich dinners and chocolaty desserts of the season, it’s impossible to beat in terms of enjoying with those big holiday meals.

For consumers, though, Port can be confusing: There are so many different terms that are employed on labels that it can occasionally seem a bit overwhelming. From tawny to vintage to LBV to crusted and more, Port terminology is daunting. For an excellent overview of the various styles, click here--it’s a link to an easy-to-use guide, and an indispensable tool if you’re just getting into Port. Or, for that matter, if you need a refresher.

I’ll be posting more tasting notes here throughout the winter, but for now, I’d like to focus on four bottles of Dow’s and one of Graham’s, their Six Grapes Reserve. All of these wines would be perfect to open up as a treat for dinner guests around the holidays, and pair beautifully with everything from rich blue cheeses to dried fruits and nuts. And if you’re a cigar lover, you’ll have a hard time finding a better partner for your smokes than these.

Below are my tasting notes--the first of what will be ongoing coverage these next few months. (As an aside, the Dow’s notes first appeared in a column I wrote for Affluent Magazine earlier in the year.)

Graham’s “Six Grapes” Reserve Porto - High-toned aromatics jump from the glass--this is far more nuanced than most ruby Ports I’ve tasted lately, with hints of chocolate, raisins, and spice. The palate, all tongue-coating velvet, shows wonderful cherry, black tea, and caramel flavors, with even a hint of sultana thrown in for good measure. The finish lingers on with cooked sugar and a hint of the spice from the nose. One of the best deals in the Port world right now.

Dow’s 10 Year Old Tawny – Aromas of pecans and hazelnuts are balanced beautifully by a surprisingly fresh fruitiness and a barrel character that adds seasoning without overwhelming. This is a Port of remarkable structure, its body lighter than you might expect, though without sacrificing any sense of richness. The mid-palate shows both flowers and toffee, and the finish ends on a pleasantly bitter almond note. Delicious and almost dangerously drinkable.

Dow’s 20 Year Old Port – The nose here is much more dramatic, more exotic, than its 10-year-old counterpart, both spicier and possessed of greater density. And, despite the more obvious vanilla and alcohol, it still maintains a real sense of freshness, which is remarkable for a tawny this old. The nutty finish and bolder complexity make this both a perfect digestif and a steal for the price.

Dow’s 30 year Old Tawny Port – Cardamom and sweet tobacco are carried along a nose than can only be described as silky in its subtlety and elegance. This is a Port for contemplation, with warm brown sugar, grilled fruit, dried herbs, and earth all adding a fabulous sense of dimension and depth to the palate.

Dow’s 40 Year Old Tawny Port – The fact that this tawny still maintains a lively zip of acid and freshness is remarkable. So, too, is the sense that it is a completely unified whole, with spice and fruit and darker, deeper flavors in perfect balance. The overriding characteristic here is one of gently spiced caramel, but there’s so much more going on that you’ll need at least an entire glass—and maybe two—to parse it all. Call it the T.S. Eliot of Port: It demands rapt attention, but the work is more than rewarded in the end.


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