Monday, May 3, 2010

Wine Q & A With What Exactly is Port?

Five or 10 years ago, it would have been far more surprising than it is today that the third most frequently asked wine question on is “What is Port wine?” After all, this most famous fortified wine is also among the most misunderstood, and for far too long, too many people associated it with the syrupy, overly sweet stuff that their grandparents sipped alongside their cherry-tobacco pipes.

These days, however, more and more wine lovers are discovering the unique charms of Port, and in all its varieties, too: From “grapier” young ruby to toffee- and caramel-rich tawny to age-worthy vintage bottlings, Port is staging a comeback that’s every bit as exciting as it is justified. And it’s doing so among wine lovers of all ages: I first fell in love with Port as a college student, and most of my friends discovered the beauty of them around the same time, too.

This has just as much to do with the increasing range of Ports available in this country as it does with our ever-growing wine culture: As more consumers delve deeper into the intricacies of the world of wine, more of them are discovering wines that they didn’t pay enough attention to before, from sparklers to more exotic reds and whites to fortified beauties like Port.

But the Number Three wine question remains: What exactly is Port?

Put simply and clearly on, “Port is a fortified wine. Grapes, usually red but sometimes white, are picked and crushed, then the must is fermented, just as in any table wine. But before the fermentation is finished, while strains of yeast are converting grape sugars to alcohol, distilled spirits (generally in the form of grape brandy) are added to the must. The spirits kill the yeast, thereby stopping the fermentation while some sugar remains in the must. This gives Port its two salient features: higher alcohol content (generally about 20 percent) and some residual sweetness.”

Of course, Port is made in a number of styles, which tends to confuse consumers, too. Fortunately, they are easy to understand and utterly wonderful to taste when learning about them, which makes an in-depth study of Port as delicious as it is instructive.

There are, essentially, four main types of Port you should become familiar with: Ruby, Tawny, Late Bottled Vintage, and Vintage, as well as other version in between. For an excellent primer on everything Port-related, check out this link to the Center for Wine Origins' Introduction to Port. (The Center for Wine Origins, in fact, is a great go-to for all manner of wine issues and information.)

We also have to address the issue of seasonality with Ports. After all, though they are most famously consumed in the wintertime as a hedge against the cold weather, Port is a fantastic spring and summer treat, too. I particularly enjoy a glass of Port--often sipped alongside a cigar--after a barbecue. There’s something about the sweet smoky flavors of barbecued meat that leads seamlessly to a glass of tawny and brings the evening’s eating to a perfect close.

Finally, I’d like to offer two recommendations as you begin your foray into the world of Port: If you find that you enjoy them (and trust me, you will!), see if you can buy a couple of bottles of vintage Ports from 2007--it will likely prove to be one of the great years in recent memory. And vintage Port represents one of the best quality-to-price ratios in terms of the number of years that the wines will age. (A bottle of great vintage Port that’ll evolve for several decades will likely be far more affordable than, say, a bottle of Burgundy with the same longevity.)

I’d also experiment with tawny Ports of various ages. To that end, I’ve included my tasting notes below for a series of four aged tawny Ports from the great house of Dow’s. I previously posted them this past winter right here.

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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