Ruby Sippers

Winter blues? Make your way to the port.

Nothing oozes social panache like serving a fine port wine. Being a mystery to so many, a carefully chosen port can wow a date, secure a raise, or impress the in-laws. And, although this cold-weather, high-alcohol dessert wine might be an acquired taste, it's usually acquired willingly after the first glass. Port's robust, syrupy, dried-fruit sweetness is made for sipping after dinner with a slab of salty blue cheese but also for a naughty nightcap. But beware: With its 17 to 22 percent alcohol, it can render you a stumbling, slurring mess. It's a chance, however, worth taking. >>>

Port wine (or Porto in Portuguese) developed out of necessity in the seven-teenth century. Back then, as today, Britain was one of Portugal's biggest wine customers. After realizing that a summer's hot boat ride up the Atlantic coast was ruining the red wine, Portuguese producers began adding brandy to stabilize it. This addition of neutral spirits stopped fermentation and left the natural sugar unfermented, so a sweeter, higher-alcohol wine remained.

Amid several styles, there are five main varieties of red port (a white version exists but is difficult to find). Ruby port tastes fruity, light and young, and is the Britney Spears of port — unrefined. Its up-front sweetness and alcoholic aroma can overwhelm the uninitiated, so it's safer to wade in with a velvety, mellow tawny port.

Both tawny and ruby are blends from several years, so they're not tagged with a vintage, but some tawnies carry a 10, 20, 30 or 40-year designation, indicating the average amount of time the wine spent in an oak barrel. Recently released 10-year tawnies have been excellent deals, so don't feel pressured to shell out the extra bucks for older stuff. Australia also makes some delicious and very affordable tawny "fortified wines" (what port should legally be called outside of Portugal) like the caramel-tinged, incredibly priced Benjamin Port ($10).

Vintage port, on the other hand, comes from a single harvest year. Rich, full of fruit flavor, and aromatic, it garners attention from collectors and aficionados who rave about it (including this one). Winemakers declare vintages when the harvest is particularly notable, but younger ones can bite back with super astringent tannins. They soften with age, thus the attraction for collectors. Some of the best port houses, albeit expensive, are Warre, Taylor, Cockburn, Osbourne, Sandeman, Fonseca, Dow, and Graham.

The fourth variety of port is late-bottled vintage (LBV), produced from a vintage-declared crop, but aged twice as long in oak barrels. And the fifth type, "vintage character," "special," or "reserve" port, is a blend of high-quality ruby ports from several different years. These often taste smoother than regular rubies.

And it gets better. Because of the added distilled spirit, once opened, ports keep up to a year if kept in a cool, dry area with an airtight cork. They will lose some of their freshness after a few months, but you can still enjoy with abandon. M

Recommended Wines

Galway Pipe Tawny Port (Australia) Tastes like walnuts and macadamia nuts sautéed in creamy butter, then drizzled with sweet, opulent caramel. Has a beautiful, never-ending, prune-tinged finish. Simply gorgeous and worth around $90. $30. eeee 1/2

Cockburn 1998 Late Bottled Vintage Port (Portugal) Aroma of almonds steeped in rose water, with the sip giving dark roasted or grilled berries. Finish of intense caramel and raisins. $20. eee 1/2

Graham 10-Year Tawny Port (Portugal) Like ripe black cherries soaked in brown sugar, butter and maple syrup. After some time in the glass, it offers a pecan praline flavor that lasts for minutes. $30. eee

Fonseca Bin 27 (Portugal) An almost feminine young special ruby with lively blackberry and dark roasted cherries. Balanced alcohol and dangerously easy to drink. $18. eeee

Sandeman 20-Year Tawny (Portugal) Honey with dried orange and roasted almonds. A bit of astringent alcohol, but quite nice. $40. eeee

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