A guest post from Meg Houston Maker
Port. It’s not just a gentleman’s wine, and it’s not just for dessert. Even though port’s been made for over four hundred years, those misperceptions (and others) still linger. That’s made a lot of people avoid port altogether.
Have you been missing out? Read on for myths about port debunked plus tips on how to pour and pair it, too.
Port’s confusing—there are so many styles!
True, but it’s simplest to think about just two: fruity and nutty. Ports labeled Ruby, Premium Ruby, Vintage, and Late Bottle Vintage (LBV) are fruity. They’re red ports that, like red wine, have berry flavors and some tannin. Tawny and Colheita ports are nutty. They start life as red ports, but long aging in cask burnishes them a tawny brown color, softens their fruit and tannins, and adds notes of caramel, nut, and spice. Two additional styles are fruity, too: white port, which is dry, and pink port, a relatively new invention that’s lightly sweet.
Port is a liqueur.
False. Port is actually a sweet wine that’s been enriched with grape spirit (essentially un-aged Brandy) added during the wine making process. The spirit kills the yeast and stops the fermentation while there’s still a little sugar left in the grapes, and the result is a sweet fortified wine that’s about 20% alcohol.
True port comes only from Portugal.
True. Port originated in Portugal in the 17th century, when British wine exporters began topping their red wine casks with Brandy to help the fragile wine survive the sea voyage to England. Port-style wines are made elsewhere now, and outside of the E.U. producers can legally put “port” on the label (Madroña, Yalumba, and Hardy’s are good non-Portuguese brands).
Port is too sweet!
False—or true and false, depending, because sweetness is in the mouth of the beholder. Port is about 10% sugar, although the best ports strike a balance between fruit, acidity, sweetness, alcohol, and barrel-aging flavors. If you find red port too sweet, try a chilled white or pink port, or a lightly chilled 10-year tawny or Colheita.
Tawny port is inferior to red port.
False. Because of their barrel age, most tawnies are more nuanced and interesting than young red ports like Ruby, Reserve, and LBV. Well-aged tawnies—20 year to 40 year—offer exquisite layers of flavor and complexity and easily rival aged vintage port, often at a fraction of the price.
Vintage port is rare and special.
True. Vintage port is made only when the harvest is excellent and the wine has exceptional aging potential. Even then, just a small fraction of a winery’s total production goes into its vintage bottlings. The rest of it (and in non-vintage years all of it) is diverted to other styles. The vintage wine is priced accordingly.
All ports must be cellared for long aging.
False. Only vintage ports really need cellaring by the consumer. Vintage ports are sold when they’re young (the most recent vintage on the market is 2011), and while they’re drinkable now, they’ll begin reaching full maturity in 20 years and will continue to evolve for 50 years or more. Other styles of port have been pre-aged, so to speak, by the winemaker before release, so they’ll be delicious the day you buy them. Some people do cellar LBV and tawnies with success, but they’re really meant to be drunk soon after purchase.
Once opened, a bottle of port will last a long time.
False. LBV and younger tawny ports can stand being open for a week or two, but ideally not much longer. Vintage port, like vintage wine, degrades with exposure to air and should be drunk within a couple days of opening. (In my house, that’s not a hardship.)
Port is just for sipping.
False. Port is great for sipping, but it also makes an excellent base for cocktails. Lower in alcohol than spirits, it delivers flavor and a touch of sweetness to mixed drinks without packing a big alcoholic punch. Ports can be enlivened with citrus, fruit juices, sparkling water, bitters, vermouth, and liqueurs (even hard liquors like vodka or whisky). A breezy summer classic in the Douro is white port and tonic with a squeeze of lime. Port cocktails are companionable at the table, too, because they harmonize with the wine that’s poured with dinner.
Port is really expensive.
False. Excellent young red and tawny ports can be had for as little as $20. For less than $100, you can stock your bar with a range of five different ports for sipping and cocktails. Try Fonseca Siroco White Port ($15), Croft Pink ($20), Taylor Fladgate First Estate Reserve ($20), Taylor Fladgate LBV 2008 ($24), and Warre’s Otima 10-Year Tawny ($20).
Port is just for dessert, or to drink with Stilton.
False. The wide range of port styles gives you many options at the table. Serve white and pink ports as an aperitif, lightly chilled, with fresh young cheeses, salted almonds, and other crispy snacks. Pour ruby and LBV ports with bittersweet chocolate, berry desserts, and aged or blue cheeses (Stilton!). Reserve ports can be excellent with rare duck breast or roasted game. Tawny ports pair beautifully with sweet or savory dishes containing nuts, apples, and dried fruits, and with caramel desserts such as crème brûlée. Very old tawny and aged vintage ports are, to my mind, best sipped alone to savor their full character.
Mature vintage port can spoil you forever.
True, but wine lovers will find a lot to love in port’s diverse styles and serving options, and you don’t need to wait for a vintage year to find that out.
Meg Houston Maker, MA, CSW, is a writer curious about nature, culture, food, wine, and place. A certified specialist of wine and wine educator, Meg is passionate about traditional food-ways, artisanal food and wine production, and the human connection to landscape. She contributes to many print and digital wine publications. Find her essays about food, wine, and the pleasures of the table on Maker’s Table and follow her on Twitter @megmaker.