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Port report
What you don’t know about one of the world’s finest wines — but should

Many people don’t realize that port is actually a kind of wine — fortified wine, to be exact. That’s because it’s rarely served with food. In this country, wine is paired with food; more than 70 percent of all wine consumed is drunk with a meal. But port — when was the last time you saw someone order port with anything other than dessert? And even then, it goes with only a limited number of desserts, such as chocolate and other heavier items.

Relegated to the " after dinner " world, port does not always receive the respect it deserves as one of the world’s finest wines. And it’s true that many vintage ports (i.e., from a particular fine year) are extremely expensive, ranging from $40 and up for a bottle to $20 a glass at a good restaurant. It’s also quite sweet, somewhat sticky, and not to everyone’s taste. Some folks, given limited exposure to port in any of its manifestations, wonder why it’s important.

Let’s start with the basics. Port is made in Portugal, and is usually shipped from the town of Oporto, which lies on the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Douro River (the same river is called the Duero in Spain, and runs through the Rioja and the Ribera del Duero wine regions). Port as we know it was first made because English seafarers realized that the fine Portuguese wines they loved would travel across the ocean better if they were spiked with a bit of brandy; now, of course, this fortification process, which also sweetens the wine and generates its high alcohol content, is the essence of port. Vintage port usually improves with age, and can last for more than 100 years; other ports, once bottled, do not improve therein.

Port is crafted by a handful of " houses " — including Dow’s, Warre’s, Graham’s, Fonseca, and Sandeman, among others — many of which are owned by the British, who for hundreds of years have helped make and market the wine (per capita, they still drink the most port). Production is now controlled by a body known as the IVP, which, in 1974, began requiring all port to be bottled in Oporto (it had previously been shipped in barrels and then bottled at its destination). " Bottle-aged " port followed the introduction of taller bottles that were easier to lie down on their sides, which allowed port to be stored and aged in sealed bottles (superior to barrels for this purpose).

Vintage ports generally reach their prime after about 20 years. The English have taken a particular fancy to port, but in this country, the beverage has not developed quite the same following. Generally, all the major houses will declare a particular good year " vintage " ; they make this declaration three times per decade. On three occasions in the last century, there were back-to-back years of such quality that some houses declared one year to be vintage, while others declared the next. Even in non-vintage years, many excellent ports are often made.

The other major category of port, aside from bottle-aged, is wood port. These, too, are fortified with brandy, and come in three distinct styles: ruby port, aged in wood for many years, but remaining quite reddish in color; tawny port, usually aged in wood at least 10 years and sometimes as long as 40, making it lighter and browner; and white port, which resembles vintage except that it’s made with white grapes and is usually served chilled as an apéritif or cocktail before dinner. Twenty-year tawny ports are some of my favorite after-dinner drinks; I find them to be lighter and more versatile than vintage ports. They taste of toffee and chocolate, but with complex spices. The best are not cheap, but at $10 to $12 a glass, they are well worth the price.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about port is how to deploy it properly: it should be served either with dessert or just afterward, as it makes a wonderful segue from dinner to subsequent entertainments. And while connoisseurs may gurgle and coo about vintage ports, I think you’ll find that even basic port, like the Warre’s Warrior or your basic LBV (short for " late-bottled vintage " and generally less expensive than regular vintage) are interesting, complex wines, with hints of coffee, licorice, and chocolate. I find port conducive to sharing (a few sips are usually all I need), and it seems very civilized not to rush after a fine repast, but to relax, have a glass, and unwind.

While port-style wines are now produced around the world, including in Australia, California, and South Africa, all true port comes from multiple estates (and vineyards) in Portugal. Some single-vineyard " Quintas " are also gaining renown and esteem. In these harsh winter months, if you have the time and a few extra coins in your pocket, why not have a delicious, soothing glass after a satisfying meal?

1985 Dow’s Vintage. Yowza! A chocolate-coffee-toffee powerhouse, with restraint, a tightly wound core of rich berry fruit, and a slight hint of anise on the finish. Despite its power and focus, it should be versatile enough to pair with a chocolate cake, a tarte Tatin, or even a pear dish with some crème anglaise.

Fonseca 20 Year Tawny. Toffee and coffee notes, very subtle and bewitching, with all kinds of wood flavors (cedar, oak, pine). I even get a hint of Queen Anne cherry. Accompanies non-fruity desserts, but also worth drinking on its own as dessert.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

Issue Date: January 17-22, 2002

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