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Ports in Chilly Storms
By Paul Lukacs
Nov 1, 2016
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Port is the ideal cold weather wine.  With the forecast here on the east coast calling for the first frost of the season this weekend, it’s time to stock up.  A glass of port can prove wonderfully warm and soothing.  It will comfort body as well as soul, especially on those cold dark nights when, in the poet’s words, “winds roar hollowly, the owl hoots from the elder . . . [and] your heart cries to the loving-cup.”

Port is warming because it is fortified with brandy.  During fermentation, when only about half of the grape sugar has been converted into alcohol, the unfinished wine is poured into barrels partially filled with brandy -- which raises the alcohol content and stops the fermentation dead in its proverbial tracks, leaving a good deal of sugar in the wine.  That is why port tastes simultaneously strong and sweet.

True port comes from grapes grown in the Douro River valley in northern Portugal.  Both the name and the style of wine are imitated elsewhere, but just as New World sparkling wine, no matter how tasty, is not real Champagne, other wines are not real ports.

The Portuguese began fortifying Douro red wine in the eighteenth century for export to England.  British drinkers, prevented by war and politics from buying their beloved French claret, found dry Douro wine coarse, but they liked the new sweet version.  They have been buying it ever since, and English more than Portuguese taste continues to dominate the port trade.

As with other types of wine, English taste tends to value age--which in this case means vintage port.  Although a mere two percent or so of total production, this is the Douro’s most famous wine.  Rough when young, vintage port acquires subtlety and sophistication with time spent in bottle.  Its tannins soften, and its flavors evolve over time, allowing a wine that starts life brawny and one-dimensional to become smooth and complex.

The difficulty with vintage port is that this evolution takes a very long time.  A wine will be released onto the market two years after the vintage, but it won’t really be ready to drink for ten, twenty, or even thirty more years.  That explains why the British novelist Evelyn Waugh declared it to be “the comfort of age,” and “not for the very young.”  It also explains the tradition of celebrating a child’s birth with the purchase of vintage ports to be drunk decades hence.

Those of us with less patience (or with already grown children) can find solace in a range of other ports, all of which are matured in cask rather than bottle.  Sometimes called “wood ports,” these range from fruity renditions that offer satisfying but uncomplicated drinking to more nuanced, multi-layered ones that possess incredibly nuanced aromas and flavors.  They are all related by the fact that they are ready to drink when purchased.

The most basic wood ports are called “rubies” because they are dominated by ripe fruit flavors and have a dark reddish-purple color.  Many, being made from grapes of lesser quality, seem dull and uninteresting, but a number of producers specialize in wines that taste exuberant.  The best tend to be house blends.  They taste much the same year after year, with each reflecting a specific house style.  First-rate examples include Graham’s overtly fruity Six Grapes ($21), Fonseca’s opulent Bin 27 ($18), and Taylor Fladgate’s ($19) slightly more restrained First Estate.

“Late bottled vintage” and “vintage character” ports take you a step above basic rubies, but that step is not a very large one.  These wines spend about six years in cask, and they do tend to offer greater depth of flavor.  But the word “vintage” in their designations is quite misleading.  A “late bottled” wine will likely have been made with grapes from a harvest that the producer has not deemed worthy enough to declare as a vintage year, while “vintage character” do not even come from a single harvest.  So while in theory these wines should resemble vintage ports, in practice most of them taste like especially fiery and powerful rubies.  While I generally shy away from these awkwardly named wines, two that I have tasted recently and consider worth buying are Churchill’s Vintage Character ($19) and the powerfully spicy Warre’s Late Bottled Vintage 2003 ($27).

Without doubt, though, the best wood ports are tawny ports.  As their name suggests, these are relatively light in color.  Some are made from immature grapes or slightly oxidized wines, but the best tawnies acquire their amber hue from having spent years in cask.  Over time, their initial ripe berry flavors fade and soften, being replaced with a panoply of subtler flavors that resemble nuts, caramel, and spice even more then fruit.

Like good rubies, some tawnies are identified with brand names.  Ramos Pinto Superior (a bargain at $18), Dow’s Boardroom ($23), and Warre’s Nimrod ($31) are all fine examples.  But the finest tawnies invariably carry an indication of age on their labels.  Each producer maintains a distinctive house style, achieved by blending wines from different casks as well as from different vintages.  A ten or twenty year old tawny thus may contain up to three dozen different wines, its age being an estimate rather than a precise designation.

With an aged tawny, the producer has done the work of storage and aging that the consumer has to do with a vintage port.  Yet since the producer has matured the wine in wood rather than glass, a tawny will taste softer, nuttier, and less overtly fruity than its vintage cousin.  These wines lack the bite or grip of vintage ports, but they more than make up for it with their wonderful subtleties and nuances.

You can find five year-old tawnies, but the real magic of these wines begins with the ten year-olds.  Graham’s ($32) and Fonseca’s ($30) Tens provide delicious examples.  The latter is sweet and full on the palate, while the former, a persistent standout, seems almost ethereal, with a smooth texture and an ever evolving finish.

Many connoisseurs consider twenty years to be the best age for tawnies.  Wines of that age will have spent enough time in barrel to acquire all sorts of complex flavors, but not so much as to seem dried or stale (as older examples sometimes can).  Sandeman’s Twenty ($50) tastes seductively rich, with aromas and flavors that echo honey, roasted nuts, cocoa and spicy caraway.  A personal favorite, it is paradoxically both intense and refined.  By contrast, Dow’s Twenty ($53) is extremely elegant and supple, being marked by impressive balance.  With wonderfully complex flavors that hint at toffee, orange peel, nuts and cedar wood, it exemplifies the term “finesse.”  Warm and so very satisfying, this and all the wines recommended above will soothe even the most bitter cold weather howl.