Fortified wines come in all types and styles, but none enjoy the reputation that Port has. It’s seen as highly civilized, the beverage of the British upper crust. That’s partly because it’s perfect for enjoying by a roaring fire on a rainy London winter’s night. But also, its need to rest in the cellar for years meant that, historically, only the upper crust had the means to enjoy it properly. For Canadians, our love of Port probably has something to do with our nation’s ties to the British Crown, or, at least, our penchant for paying attention to what the Brits have to say about anything.
The fortified wine known as “Port” is made specifically from grapes grown in the northern Portuguese region known as the Douro, a rugged river valley that stretches from Spain to the historic centre of Porto Valley and its sister city of Vila Nova de Gaia across the river. The untamed river runs through a deep and sinuous channel carved out of the granite and schist soils. In order to grow grapes on the steep slopes, stone terraces were built. As a result, each vineyard in the Douro Valley is different (some face the sun, some get more rain, and so on). This means the best wines in the region are a blend from the best vineyards.
How Port is made
Traditionally, Port wine was made by pressing grapes in open fermenting tanks called lagars. The grapes were crushed by foot for several hours to extract maximum colour and flavour. After about half the sugar in the grapes was fermented, the wines were fortified with a neutral grain alcohol to stop the fermentation, keeping the natural sweetness and bringing the alcohol level to around 20 per cent. The wine was then transported for aging to warehouses in coastal Vila Nova de Gaia, where Port shippers such as Taylor Fladgate, Graham’s, Sandeman and Dow’s had their offices.
These English-sounding names were British firms that commonly had other interests in Portugal such as wool, livestock, or merchant-trading. During the frequent periods of conflict in Europe in the late 1600s to the early 1800s, the English found they could enjoy the quality wines from the Douro when it wasn’t politically appropriate to drink French wines or those from other out-of-favour regions.
Nowadays, Port producers can complete the whole production process in a single location, eliminating the step of shipping wines to Gaia for aging. Port can be classified as either barrel-aged or bottle-aged. Barrel-aged Ports are the tawny Ports. Over the time they rest in barrel, they gain oxidative characters (nuttiness) and lose both fruit and colour. Tawny Ports typically have an age statement such as 10, 20, 30 or 40 years, an average of the various Ports inside (the greater the age, the more prominent the flavour from barrel-aging). Colheita Ports are single-vintage tawny Ports, in which all the wine comes from a single year and is barrel-aged for a minimum of seven years.
All about drinking Port
Bottle-aged Ports have a dark, red-black colour and the category includes several styles. At the tip of the pyramid are the “vintage” Ports. Made in only the best years, they are flagships of the various Port houses, often a blend of several properties to create a house style. Single-quinta Ports are sourced from a single property in a single vintage in the Port house’s holdings, producing a very high-quality Port. Single-quinta wines can’t be blended with other vineyards, but, because the quality of the estate is so high, the wines are well-rounded, even in their youth, and provide good value in your cellar. Late-bottled vintage (LBV) Ports are single-vintage wines that, with additional barrel-aging, are ready to drink once released.
Port is best enjoyed after a meal and is typically paired with dessert courses. Tawny Ports are incredible with pumpkin or nutty desserts – even apple pies or butter tarts – while bottle-aged Ports are great with chocolate or fig dishes. All Ports go great with cheese (blue cheese is a classic pairing).
Once opened, Ports do keep a little longer than most wines. Young-vintage or single-quinta Ports are best finished within a week. For well-aged wines older than 20 years, the timeline is much shorter (somewhere between “by bedtime” and “by Sunday morning”). Tawny Ports can last much longer – I’d have no problem picking away at a bottle for two or three weeks.
Traditional “vintage” Ports can and do improve significantly in the cellar. The very best vintages and bottlings have a timeline measured in decades. Single-quinta Ports are typically best within 10 to 15-plus years of the vintage date. Tawny Ports and most other styles are released ready to drink, but don’t panic if they aren’t opened right away – there is always next winter, old chap.
3 perfect pairings
Whitehall: Colheita Port and parfait
The 1982 from Kopke ($18 by the glass) and Whitehall’s douglas fir pine parfait are a great match. The dessert’s bitter chocolate sorbet pulls out all sorts of interesting nuances in the vintage-dated tawny Port.
24 4 St. N.E., 587-349-9008, whitehallrestaurant.com
Charbar: LBV and chocolate-caramel flan
Port and chocolate go together like peas and carrots or Sonny and Cher. Ramos Pinto’s LBV ($8 by the glass) has black fruit and a little spiciness to balance out the richness of the chocolate and salted-caramel flan with candied pistachios.
618 Confluence Way S.E., 403-452-3115, charbar.ca
Bonterra: Tawny Port and tiramisu
One of the great dessert classics pairs so well with a beautiful tawny Port. The Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny ($7) is a steal on the menu and draws out the espresso and chocolatey notes. The 30 Year Old ($22) is a real treat, too.
1016 8 St. S.W., 403-262-8480, bonterra.ca
6 Ports to try
Fonseca 2008 Quinta do Panascal
Single-quinta wines mature a little faster than declared-vintage Ports. That said, the ’08 from Fonseca’s premium quinta is just starting to shine, so don’t feel you have to rush to enjoy the raspberry, cassis and cherry fruits or savour the herb and toasted-coconut aromas. $75.
Ramos Pinto 20-Year-Old Tawny Port
A great example of a 20-year tawny that, to my mind, delivers the best of fruit and barrel. Look for intense floral aromas with orange, sponge toffee and wood spice and a complex palate that seems a little lower in sweetness than others. Refreshing on its own or with nutty or toffee-flavoured desserts. $74.
Quinta do Noval 2007 Silval Vintage Port
This “second label” vintage port from Noval is a worthwhile acquisition for the cellar. The 2007 is still quite the monster, but it’s going to shine in a decade (or three), with intense dark fruits with a distinct chocolatey character along with deep spice notes. Plan on drinking it in about 2030 or so. $75.
Kopke 1965 Colheita Port
A real treat for fans of tawny Port. Layers of exotic orange, saddle soap, tea leaf and a little bit of fresh garden pea on the nose, in addition to all that toffee, wood and citrus-oil flavour you love. Perfect with butter tarts, roasted almonds or a crme Anglaise. $184.
Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Port
A classic and easygoing port to keep on hand. Named for the six grapes comprising the blend, this is a solid introduction to the Graham’s house. Juicy, plummy fruits with a clean, mint-leaf character throughout. Pair with good cheddar or some figs. $32.
Fonseca 2007 Unfiltered Late-Bottled Vintage Port
Prominent floral and savoury aromas with herb and plum notes. Being unfiltered gives the character a little extra oomph, but this LBV is ready to roll right now with chocolate brownies or blue cheeses. $29.