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Port is a fortified wine that originated in Portugal.
By Erica Cusumano | STAFF
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Port Authority
By Geoff Bland

My first impression of port involved images of Victorian men retiring after dinner to the billiards room to enjoy glasses of it and cigars, the children long in bed and the ladies excused for the evening.

As it turns out this image is not too far from the truth in the early days of the port trade. In the 1600s, the British were at odds with the French and the supply of French wine was diminished and expensive, so the Brits turned to Portugal for a new source of red wine. They quickly found out that the relatively light wines didn't travel well. Fortunately, some bright spark figured out that the addition of a little brandy to the wine stabilized it for shipment to England, thus the origin of fortified wine, the precursor of today's port.

Port wine is produced from the steep-terraced vineyards of the upper Douro river valley and is a blend of multiple local grapes. Traditionally the grapes are hand harvested and then combined in large concrete vats or "Lagares," where they are trodden by foot and fermented at high temperatures. When the sugar level falls to the desired level, distilled grape neutral spirits are added to raise the alcohol level to about 19 percent, at which point the yeast cells die and fermentation stops. This leaves a fortified wine with moderate residual sugar creating sweetness and high alcohol. Then, how the port is aged defines its classification.

Ruby ports

This is the simplest and least expensive style of port, and it is produced in the largest amount. Each port producer, or "house," aims for a particular style. These wines are often a blend of multiple years and are aged in large tanks for several years before bottling. These wines are meant to be consumed on release and do not improve in bottle. Major producers to look for are Fonseca, Taylor Fladgate, Grahams, Sandeman, Ramos Pinto, Warre's and other smaller houses.

Vintage character ports

Once again each house aims for a consistent style, and though these wines are richer than simple ruby ports, they are also meant for consumption upon release. Styles vary widely, with Fonseca Bin27 being a drier style and Grahams Six Grapes is sweet.

Vintage ports

This is the rarest and most expensive of all ports, and it is only produced in the finest of years, in which the major houses declare a vintage. This only occurs two or three times a decade, and in those years less than 10 percent of the wine goes into the vintage port. By law - these wines can age two years in small casks and must then be bottled. These wines take many years to develop in bottle, repaying your patience with the development of incredible complexity. If you are looking for port to drink tonight don't choose a young vintage. For special occasions, keep an eye out for wines from the great vintages of '94, '77, '63 and '48.

Late-bottled vintage ports

These ports are the perfect compromise between the richness of an aged vintage port and the pleasure of immediate consumption. They are aged from four to six years in cask and then bottled, making the wine much more approachable on release but still leaving room for short-term improvement in the bottle. At less than half the cost of a vintage port, they represent great value and immense pleasure.

Tawny ports

These wines get their name from the golden amber color they derive from extended barrel aging. The barrel is a more porous vessel than a bottle allowing for some oxidation, which over time converts the wine's natural red color to a more brownish hue. As the color changes, the wine develops incredibly complex flavors of caramel, toffee, raisins and roasted nuts. Wines simply labeled as tawny see three to five years in cask and may still show some reddish color. As the ports age they are often labeled as 10, 20, 30 or 40-year tawny ports. These wines will be blends of wines from different years and different barrels, but the average age of the blend must be the age specified on the bottle. Again, each house aims to be consistent in its style. With longer time in the barrel more wine is lost to evaporation - the "angels' share," as it's known - so the wines escalate dramatically in price.

Colheita ports

These ports represent some of the most distinctive on the market. They are tawny ports, produced exclusively from a single vintage, and vary significantly in style depending on the weather conditions and the ripeness of that particular harvest. Many producers limit production to this style of wine - look for producers such as Porto Kopke, which produces an excellent range of Colheita Ports.

The lighter style of ports may be chilled and enjoyed before dinner, as is common in France. The heavier ports are best after dinner with full flavored cheeses, crusty bread and pickled walnuts. Tawny ports also pair well with lighter nuttier cheeses but are excellent with desserts. n 


Story published Friday, January 9, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 1 )

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