As we plunge into the depths of winter, the thoughts of wine lovers turn to port. Visions dance in our heads of post-prandial pleasure, sitting in plush leather chairs with a generous glass, a chunk of well-aged Stilton or cheddar, a handful of walnuts and a plate of dried fruit. (And some would say a good cigar, although I wouldn’t.)
Call it the hedonism of youth, the solace of age. Or, as some do, call it the “adult candy” of the wine world. Some even allege you can chill it and sip it at picnics. Or serve it with ice cream.
But what is port?
Port is made in Portugal, not surprisingly, with grapes from the steep, hot, arid Douro Valley that cuts through the middle of the country. The grapes are Portuguese, little-heard-of elsewhere – Touriga Francesa, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Amerela and Tinta Cao and others.
After picking, the grapes are carted to the winery and poured into giant open vats of concrete or granite called “lagares.”
Then they are crushed – in many port houses by human foot. First comes the “corte” or cut, in which teams of workers march shoulder-to-shoulder in rhythm on the grapes, sometimes to military march music. Then comes the “liberdade,” or liberty, in which the workers tread free-style, sometimes to American rock music.
Some wineries do this mechanically, but where’s the fun in that?
The heat of feet and natural ambient yeast cause fermentation to begin. When the fermentation is about half finished, creating an alcohol level of about 6 percent, the juice is poured into another big vat, and natural grape brandy that’s 77 percent alcohol is added in a ratio of one liter of brandy to four of juice. This stops fermentation, and raises the alcohol level of the finished port to 17 percent to 20 percent. And since the fermentation was stopped before it used up all the natural grape sugar, the resulting port is quite sweet.
Now we have port. But it’s only the beginning. Port is made in several quite different styles:
• Ruby port is aged in large oak vats for two or three years before bottling, so it’s young and lively and very fruity.
• Late Bottled Vintage Ports come from better grapes and are aged four to six years, so they’re more complex, but still brightly colored and fruity.
• Tawny ports are aged in wood for much longer — 10, 20, 30, even 40 years. They become tawny in color and take on flavors of nuts and caramel. Once they’re bottled they’re ready to drink, and don’t profit from further aging.
• Vintage ports come from the port houses’ very best grapes, and are made only in years when the grapes come up to this standard. They age in vats for a couple of years, then often much longer in bottle. They’re muscular and powerful.
• 2009 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port: inky color, intense floral and mint aromas, powerful flavors of black raspberries, spice and bitter chocolate, muscular tannins benefiting from long aging, long, smooth finish; $96.
• 2007 Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Port: powerful and intense, with aromas of black currants and spicy flavors of black cherries and mocha, medium-sweet with dry finish; $22.
• Dow’s Fine Ruby Port: bright ruby color, intensely fruity, with aromas and flavors of red raspberries and chocolate, full-bodied and smooth; $14.
• W.H. Graham’s 10-Year-Old Tawny Port: deep tawny color, aromas and flavors of nuts and dried fruit, powerful and medium-sweet; $34.
• W.H. Graham’s 20-Year-Old Tawny Port: golden color, with aromas and flavors of hazelnuts and dried lemon peel, quite sweet; $55.
• Warre’s “Otima” 10-Year-Old Tawny Port: lightly tawny color, aromas and flavors of nuts and candied fruit, medium sweet; $26.
• Fonseca “Bin 27 Finest Reserve” Port: (Sometimes called a “vintage character” port, it is a blend of Fonseca’s best grapes from several years, then aged four years and bottled ready to drink; it has deep ruby color, intense black plum, cherry and spice flavors, full body and long finish; $15.
• Croft Pink Port: maybe the first rose port, made deep pink in color by shorter contact with the grape skins, to be drunk chilled, over ice or in cocktails; it is quite sweet and fruity with aromas and flavors of ripe strawberries; $19.
Fred Tasker has retired from the Miami Herald but is still writing about wine. He can be reached at email@example.com.