Port Authority

A primer for the uninitiated oenophile.

Nothing evokes social panache or panic like serving port wine. Since port remains a mystery to so many, it always makes an impact, more than Scotch, more than liqueurs and definitely more than wine. And, although this high-alcohol treat is an acquired taste, it's acquired quickly. The robust, syrupy, dried-fruit sweetness is made for sipping after dinner or for a late night snort. You sip because two glasses can render you a stumbling, slurring mess -- it's 17 to 22 percent alcohol (regular wine is 11 to 14 percent). But beyond that, sipping port just warms the soul.

Port wine developed out of necessity in the seventeenth 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 was ruining the red wine, Portuguese producers got wise and began adding brandy to stabilize it for the voyage. This addition of neutral spirits stopped fermentation and left the natural sugar unfermented, so a sweeter, higher-alcohol wine remained.

There are so many styles of port, it's like explaining quantum physics, so bear with me. Five main varieties of red port exist (a white version exists but try finding it). The most popular, ruby port, tastes fruity, light, and young, and is the most unrefined. Its fruit-forward sweetness and alcohol aroma can overwhelm the uninitiated, so it's safer to wade in with a mellow, wood-aged 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 aging in the barrel. Recently released 10-year tawnies have been excellent deals, so don't feel pressured to shell out the extra bucks for older ones.

Vintage port, on the other hand, is produced from a single harvest year. Rich, full of intense fruit, vintage port garners attention from aficionados who rave about it (including this one). Winemakers announce vintages when the harvest is particularly notable, but beware of younger ones that can be a bit harsh and alcoholic. Some of my favorite port houses are Warre, Taylor, Cockburn (pronounced "Coburn"), Osbourne, Sandeman, Fonseca, Dow, and Graham. Late-bottled vintage (LBV) is a vintage port that has been 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 vintages. These often taste smoother than most rubies.

Although they use the "port" moniker illegally, Australia and California also bottle some delicious and very affordable fortified wines. Caramel-tinged Benjamin Port ($10) and nutty Ficklin Tawny Port ($15) are good ones.

Because of the added distilled spirit, once opened, ports keep up to a year if they are kept in a cool, dry area with an airtight cork. Serve ruby and tawny ports with a slight chill on them and you will be rewarded. 

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