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Port: It's Not Just for Winter any More
By Michael Apstein
May 7, 2013
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Many years ago, Carmine Martignetti, a friend of mine and head of Carolina Wines, one of New England’s best distributors, remarked to me after a chilly night that marked the beginning of Fall, that the “Port season had arrived.” He of course was referring to the cold months when Port, the uniquely sweet and warming wine made exclusively in Portugal’s Douro Valley, was consumed.

When I asked Adrian Bridge, CEO of The Fladgate partnership, the family-run company that owns Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft, “Do you drink Vintage Port in the summer?” he responded with a laugh and a smile, “Why not?” But then he spewed out statistics that only a CEO has at his fingertips. He noted that on-premise sales (sales in restaurants) of Port vary very little month to month. The type of Port consumed changes, but overall consumption, according to Bridge, is fairly constant. In the winter, restaurant sales of Vintage Port and Late Bottled Vintage Port do indeed increase, but in summer restaurants see a surge of sales of Aged Tawny Port.

The Wine of Relaxation

“Port is associated with relaxation,” Bridge continued. “It’s consumed at the end of a meal, perhaps in front of a fire. In the summer Port moves to the porch.” Although the location changes, Port remains a beverage of relaxation, according to Bridge, which explains why Port consumption remains constant during the year. Bridge continued, “It’s the oil of good conversation,” especially at the end of meal when guests become less formal and more animated, when the conversation changes, “to sex or politics, topics that might be off limits at the beginning of the evening.”

Aging Port: Bottle or Barrel

There are two basic kinds of Port, those aged in barrel, called Ruby or Tawny because of their color, and those aged in bottle, called Vintage Port. Another barrel aged Port, Late Bottled Vintage or “LBV,” tries--often successfully--to combine the best of both worlds.

All Port begins life the same way. Grapes are harvested and crushed, and fermentation begins. After three days of fermentation, before the yeast have converted all of the grape sugar to alcohol, the winemaker adds clear spirit, which raises the alcoholic content to 20 percent, thus killing the yeast and stopping fermentation. The result is a warming (from the spirit) and sweet (from the unfermented sugar) wine. These young wines age in barrel for up to two years while the blender decides which wines are destined to become Ruby Ports, Aged Tawny Ports, LBV, or Vintage Port. There is also a small amount of white Port produced from white grapes and bottled after two or three years of aging.

Vintage Port

If Nature has been kind in a particular year, and the wines particularly distinctive, an individual Port producer (a.k.a., lodge) “declares” a vintage: It bottles the best wine within two years of the harvest without blending it with Port from other years. On average, over the last 70 years, Port houses declare a vintage three times a decade, though the decade just past resulted in four general declarations: 2000, 2003, 2007 and 2009. And the current decade is starting well also, with most Port houses declaring 2011. Each producer has the option of which vintage to declare, and though many will cluster together in declaring vintages, some variation in decision-making is seen from year to year.

Vintage Port ages and develops in the bottle, often taking 20 or 30 years to reach maturity. It must be decanted before serving because it throws a sediment while aging. With consumers gravitating towards robust and vigorous wines, more and more Vintage Port is enjoyed young, according to Bridge. Still, there’s still a longstanding tradition of buying a case of Vintage Port upon the birth of a child born in a declared year and drinking it with him or her at age 21 and on other significant occasions.

Once opened, a bottle of mature Vintage Port should be consumed that evening because--like all fine, mature wine--it deteriorates after prolonged exposure to air. (Younger Vintage Port will hold up for several days after opening if stored in a stoppered decanter.) Hence, plan on sharing a bottle of mature Vintage Port with at least 6 guests. It’s a glorious way to finish a meal, either with hard cheeses or by itself. Although Vintage Port is the most revered and expensive kind of Port, it accounts for only about two percent of the market. Expect to pay up to $100 a bottle for newly released ones.

Late Bottled Vintage or LBV

LBV, a style of Port pioneered in the 1970s by Alistair Robertson, a former chairman of Taylor Fladgate, has become popular and adopted by many of the major Port producers. Like a classic Vintage Port, wine for the LBV comes from a single year and will not be blended with wines from other years. But unlike a classic Vintage Port, an LBV will spend between four and six years in barrel (instead of two) to hasten its maturity, round out its edges, and, happily for the consumer, leave the sediment behind.

LBVs are ready to drink when bottled, and generally will not benefit from further bottle aging because they have mellowed while aging in barrel. They are usually bottled using a stopper instead of a driven cork (avoiding the need for a corkscrew), do not need to be decanted, and will not deteriorate after the bottle is opened since they have already been exposed to air in a barrel for four to six years. Unlike a Vintage Port, you can enjoy a glass or two of an LBV, re-stopper it, and partake of another glass a week or two later. LBVs are still robust and in that respect are more similar to a very fine Ruby than a classic Vintage Port. Still, they remain one of the bargains in Port, costing only a little more than a Ruby while delivering far more complexity. Taylor Fladgate’s remains my favorite.

Aged Tawny Port

After about six years in barrel, the wines start to take on a tawny hue, lose their youthful vigor and replace their bright fruitiness with a captivating array of more subdued flavors that are reminiscent of dried fruits, caramel and nuts. The combination of complexity, elegance and persistence in Aged Tawny Port boggles the mind. The winemaking team selects only the highest quality wines for inclusion in the blend of Aged Tawnies. The length of aging, ranging from 10, 20, 30 to 40 years--is always indicated on the label and reflects the overall character of the Port, not its precise age, because the blend is composed of a variety of vintages. Aged Tawny Port, like an LBV, is consumer friendly in that it needs no decanting and it holds up for weeks after opening. It’s a marvelous way to end a meal. You can enjoy a glass and re-cork the bottle without fear of it deteriorating.

To approximate the cost of an Aged Tawny, multiply its age by $2.50 per year, according to Bridge, but his formula is a broad generalization at best since Taylor Fladgate’s 20-year old Tawny can be found at less than $50 and their 30- and 40-year-old sell for about $120 and $175, respectively. For my money, the 20-year old Tawny Ports, especially Taylor Fladgate’s and Graham’s, offer the most bang for the buck, delivering more suaveness and nutty complexity than the 10-year olds without breaking the bank.

Ruby Port

The least expensive type of Port, Ruby Ports are bottled after two to six years of barrel aging. They are fruity, firm and vigorous, and an excellent choice to match with for full-flavored cheeses, but a glass by itself is not a bad way to end a meal either. They are ready for immediate consumption and do not improve with further aging in the bottle. The labels can be confusing because the word Ruby is often not included. The ones aged five or six years are sometimes labeled Reserve. Common brands I can easily recommend that are widely available in the marketplace include Churchill’s Finest Reserve, Fonseca’s BIN 27, Graham’s Six Grapes, Ramos Pinto’s Collector Port, Smith Woodhouse’s Lodge Reserve, and Taylor Fladgate’s First Estate Reserve (each about $20).

A Drink for All Seasons

Bridge recommends keeping a bottle of Aged Tawny (10 or 20 year old) in the refrigerator. I took his advice and sampled a variety of them chilled. Not surprisingly, he’s correct. A bottle of each will be going into my ‘fridge so that I’ll have something to sip on the porch in warm weather. But here in New England, we still face another month of chilly nights, so I’m glad I still have some Vintage Port standing up in the cellar ready to be decanted….

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Email me your thoughts about Port at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein