As the holiday season begins, it’s not uncommon to start seeing port pop up on menus. This rich, fortified wine, which is made in the Douro Valley of Portugal, is often underappreciated, particularly among those who are turned off by sweet wines. It originates from one of the world’s oldest demarcated winemaking regions and most winemakers make their variety using a blend that contains at least 60 percent of one of just a few major grape varietals.
The process by which port is made makes it sweeter (and with a higher alcohol content), which is why it’s often served either as an apéritif or a dessert wine. “It’s the perfect touch of sweetness at the end of a meal,” says Devon Broglie, a master sommelier and the associate global wine buyer for Whole Foods.
Port really has one of two tastes: either fruity, young, and intense, or nutty, old, and complex. Ruby ports deliver that fruity intensity, with spicy tones and a darker color. These ports are young fortified wines that have been aged in wood for about three years before their release. Because these wines are less about aging, they are more often a reflection of the terroir of a region.
By contrast, tawny ports are more of a reflection of the artistry of a winemaker combined with time. These wines are cask-aged for no less than seven years and develop more complex nutty, toffee, and dried fruit flavors as well as an amber hue due to aging in wood. A winemaker often blends aged tawny wines based on their development to create age indications, such as ten-, twenty-, thirty- and forty-year tawny wines.
“I like the fresh, juicy flavors of ruby port that remind me of plump, ripe berries,” Broglie said. “Whenever I’m pairing with a dessert, I complement dark fruit with a ruby. A tawny’s toasty, nutty caramel characteristics pairs well with chocolate and nutty desserts.”
It’s worth noting a few other benchmark styles of port that reflect quality. Vintage port is a bit different than what we refer to as “vintage” for regular table wines, which simply indicates a particular year grapes were harvested for a specified wine. Vintage port is a ruby port of a single year blended from several of a house’s best vineyards. This is only done when a port house declares an exceptional harvest for a particular year, which often doesn’t happen more than three times out of every decade. Vintage ports are bottled after roughly two years of aging, before the wine shed its tough tannins, making it necessary to bottle-age the wine for a significant amount of time—most vintage ports aren’t ready to drink until about twenty years after the vintage and can live many decades beyond that. These are the ports you often see meticulously decanted in fine restaurants because of the heavy amount of sediment thrown off during the aging process.
“The most amazing port I ever received was a bottle of Taylor Fladgate 1994,” Broglie said. “I drank it way too young, but it was a memorable experience that was truly about enjoying the wine for what it was and where it came from.”
The latest port vintage release is 2011, which is just now hitting shelves throughout the country. Check your local wine merchant for a list. You’ll likely pay at least $100 for a bottle, and you’ll need to lay them down for at least fifteen years before they’re just right, but the reward is well worth the wait.
Another notable term is “late bottle vintage,” or LBV. This type of port is from a specific vintage, but usually not from the best year. The wine ages four to six years in wood before bottling and is then ready to drink, unlike vintage port. LBVs are typically full-bodied, but not as hefty as vintage port.
While ports are some of the most celebrated wines of Portugal, it’s worth nothing that port “style” wines are made all over the world from South Africa to Australia, and even in Texas, where a few producers making some quality port style wines. (European Union Protected Designation of Origin guidelines dictate that only products from Portugal’s Duoro Valley may be labeled as port. Wines made elsewhere in similar styles must use terms such as “port-style.”)
In Mason, Sandstone Cellars winemaker Don Pullum has made a port-style wine called “XIII” using the traditional Portuguese Touriga Nacional varietal as the backbone for his blend. Similarly, Pedernales Cellars in Stonewall has devoted their port program to Portuguese varietals. Near Spicewood, Angela Moench of Stonehouse Vineyards uses American native grape, Norton for her port-style “Scheming Beagle”—a decadent pairing with a strong blue cheese. Messina Hoff offers a premium labeled Paulo Port which serves as a beautiful entry point for ruby style port.
The best way to determine your taste for port is to try a few when you’re out to dinner with friends. Order a glass of both ruby and tawny ports and taste them side by side. Ask your sommelier for suggestions on ports that best represent the flavor profiles.
“For ruby, Graham’s Six Grapes is a good value that’s easy to find and accessible,” Broglie said. “I like Taylor Fladgate ten-year as an introduction to tawny. It’s also easy to find, inexpensive and true to form. I’ve also tasted Texas port-style wines in the past from Haak Vineyards and Winery and Messina Hof that have been really nice.”
Here are a few authentic port and Texas port-style wines:
Croft Quinta de Roeda 2004 (Ruby – Single Quinta Vintage)
Graham’s Six Grapes (Ruby)
Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny
Fonseca Bin No 27 (Ruby)
Fonseca 2011 Vintage Port (Ruby Vintage)
Taylor Fladgate 10 Year Old Tawny
Taylor 30 Year Old Tawny
Texas Port-Style Wines
Messina Hof Paulo Port (Ruby)
Sandstone Cellars XIII (Ruby)