Any Port in a Storm
Generations ago, Port was the traditional after-dinner drink among the British aristocracy. After the dessert, the ladies would be expected to depart modestly to the sitting room while the men remained at table and lit their obligatory cigars. The decanted Port would then be served and passed to the left, clockwise around the table in the time-honoured fashion. This custom has largely disappeared but in certain privileged classes, Port often appears after dinner though any ladies present are no longer banished to another room. Because Port is less known these days, let’s just pull together a few essential facts.
- Port is a sweet, red fortified wine from Portugal.
- The name “Port” is derived from the city of Oporto which lies on the Atlantic coast at the mouth of the Douro River.
- Port is made only in the Douro region about fifty miles east of Oporto, using a selection of local grapes.
- For top quality wines, grapes were traditionally crushed by treading on them in shallow granite troughs (lagares) but today the process is mostly automated.
- There are ten different styles of Port and two distinct categories: those aged in wood (or in tanks) and those aged in bottle.
- Vintage Port is the most expensive and prestigious style but accounts for a tiny proportion of the total production.
- Port often carries flavours of raspberry, blackberry, caramel, cinnamon, and chocolate.
- It makes an excellent partner for fine chocolates or assertive cheeses.
We don’t need to concern ourselves with all ten Port styles, only the few you might encounter in these parts. Ruby Port and Tawny Port (technically known as “young tawny”) are the simplest, the least complex, the cheapest and the most popular. They blended in the style of individual port producers from wines which have been matured for up to three years. So what’s the difference? Well, the basic difference between ruby and tawny is the colour and the flavour. Both are sweet but ruby has a fresh, fruity flavour, whereas tawny is more reminiscent of caramel and nuts. Tawny is allowed more oxygen contact in the barrel, producing the characteristic rusty colouring. Ruby pairs well with fruity desserts, chocolate or soft cheese such as Gorgonzola and Stilton; tawny is more suited to sweet pies and dry cheeses like Parmesan.
Aged Tawny Port is a different animal entirely because it’s matured in the barrel for much longer until the colour fades and the aroma and taste take on a more complex character. It’s usually sold as being ten, twenty or even thirty years old and its high quality is reflected in the price. Finally, we have the most sought-after and eloquent of them all, Vintage Port. In the Port trade, the word “vintage” is applied to wines of exceptional quality made in outstanding years. It’s aged in bottle for a considerable time; it fetches extremely high prices and it’s intended for long-term cellaring. In Britain, the cheapest Vintage Port is about £30 per bottle (Bt. 1,400) but a good 1960 vintage would be about £200 per bottle (Bt. 9,000). Older and rarer vintages will set you back much more. You might also come across Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV) which is cheaper than vintage port.
British wine merchants played a significant role in the history of Port. Originally, British companies shipped the wine in bulk to England for bottling, which is why they are still known as “shippers”. It’s also why some of the oldest and finest Port companies have reassuringly English names such as Croft (founded in 1588), Warre (1670), Taylor (1692), Sandeman (1790), Dow (1798), Cockburn (pronounced COH-burn) (1815) and Graham (1820). Port is usually sold under the name of the company so other top names to remember are Quinta do Noval (1715), Ferreira (1751) and Fonseca (1840). Stay with these well-established brands and you won’t go wrong. Incidentally, in this context the Portuguese word quinta means “estate”. Today all Port is bottled in Portugal and it’s always fortified by adding neutral grape spirit to the blend, two or three days into the fermentation process. Originally, this was done partly to stabilize the wine for its voyage to Britain but also to satisfy consumer demand for a sweeter wine.
Because Port is about 20% ABV it’s served in small glasses rather like half-size wine glasses with a tulip shape to focus the aroma. We had a set of crystal Port glasses in the family for years. They had flared rims which caused the aromas to drift into the air instead of towards the nose. They were pretty glasses, but pretty useless.
Ferreira Ruby Port (Portugal) Bt 1,095 @ Villa Market
Since 1751, the Ferreira (feh-RAY-rah) name has been synonymous with high-quality Portuguese wine. This is an intense, purplish red colour and the aroma of fully ripened and slightly jammy fruit fairly wafts out of the bottle as you pour it. On the palate, it’s silky and smooth with plenty of sweet fruit and a pleasing, slightly syrupy texture. At 19.5% ABV, it’s rich and full-bodied and there’s a satisfying balance between the sweetness of the fruit and the seductively soft tannins. The wine has a long and warming finish which seems to go on and on.
In Britain, Port is usually served at the ambient temperature, though in our tropical climate, a few degrees under won’t do it any harm. Some people prefer Port with ice. Just remember that lower temperatures tend to dull the aroma so you’ll have to wait a bit longer for it to emerge. This would make a fine partner for strong cheese, fruit tarts or even chocolate desserts. This wine is superbly made and it’s a classic example of a high quality ruby Port. If you are a newcomer to the world of Port, this would make a splendid introduction.