The wine palate
As winter approaches, we need to start planning our drinking habits.
You would not want to be stuck in the unfortunate situation of having dinner on a cold night with no body warming, silky smooth, and round Port. Even worse, you could be drinking a sub-par port, cringing at the highly alcoholic flavor, wondering why it’s not the way you remembered it.
Fear not, take a deep breath, I have a little bit of information that might make this winter a little bit more bearable.
First, a little bit of history is in order.
The Port industry owes its success to the English who supposedly discovered and began to export this great fortified wine.
As the story goes, in 1678, a Liverpool wine merchant sent a few men to Portugal to learn the wine business. During a little hiatus from work, the men were vacationing up the Douro River where they ran into the Abbot of Lamego. They loved his wine; it was like nothing they had ever tasted. It was sweet, smooth, full bodied, and above all it was high in alcohol.
The Abbot admitted that the secret to his wine was that he fortified it with brandy.
The Englishmen were so overjoyed that they bought every drop and sent it back home. The English were already well involved in wine trading with Portugal by this time, but, when the fortified wines of Oporto began to be traded, the English basically monopolized the industry. Centuries later, the English are still a major driving force in the industry.
Port is made in a particularly unique fashion.
It took many years to figure out what the Abbot of Lamego was doing that made his fortified wine so special. Basically, he was adding the brandy, not after the wine was fermented, but instead during the fermentation process. This stunned the creation process, leaving some of the natural sugars in the wine, which made it sweet and easy to drink.
By the way, the added ingredients is not actually brandy. It is an alcohol distilled to 77 percent made from grapes, usually from southern Portugal. This "brandy" is called aguardent in Portugal and is added to the basic Port wine when its fermentation level reaches about 7 percent.
There are many styles of Port made from up to 48 grape varieties. The best are said to come from the grapes Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz aka Tempranillo, and Tinta Amarela and produce many styles of Port.
All styles derive from two basic stems, Ruby Port, which is bottle-aged, and Tawny Port, which is cask-aged. The aged Tawny and Ruby Ports will say either: 10-year, 20-year, 30-year, or over 40-year.
Interestingly enough, these wines are not necessarily the age that is posted on the bottle. They are meant to represent a port of that age. In most cases they are somewhere around the age stated on the bottle.
I generally prefer the 20-year versions as the older ones tend to taste a little to alcoholic. These are nice because they keep well. You don’t have to drink the whole bottle the day you open it. Crusted Port is the highest quality level non-vintage port and needs to be decanted as it is usually comes with a big pile of sediment at the bottom.
On the high end of the quality spectrum are the Vintage Ports. These are Ports that come from one particular year and are only produced in the best years.
Look out for ’94, ’97, ’00, and ’03, though. These wines are very young and need some time to fully develop and don’t open a bottle unless you are ready to drink the whole thing in one night.
As far as what food to pair with your favorite Port, I say nothing!
A great Port stands alone as dessert course all by itself. If you really want something, go with a plain bar of high quality dark chocolate.
People often have Stilton with their Port, but I think that is just a clever marketing scheme to push English product.
As far as Port selections go, the big shippers are really some of the best. Cockburns, Taylor’s, Warre’s, Churchill’s, and Fonseca are all reasonably safe bets and are all carried here in Utah.
So, curl up and get yourself a nice bottle Vintage Porto, it’ll warm you up better than your new Spyder Jacket, I swear.
Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in N.Y.C. and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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