It is a shame that port is customarily consumed after a meal. As such, it is often an afterthought and served to guests whose late-night state of inebriation often prevents any remote chance of appreciation. Such a pity.

Still, this fortified wine — soaked in history — is something special and best enjoyed away from the dinner table with a simple wedge of Stilton cheese.

There is no better time to enjoy a glass of port than these winter months. Instead of having a glass of cognac to ward off the bitter chills, we like port because it is less heady and doesn`t attack the stomach. Served with cheese or sipped just by itself, port is a satisfying partner to an engrossing book or a roaring fire.

Like many wine creations, port is a bastard child of mistake. Trade wars between the English and French in the 17th century sent the British wine merchants in search of a new source for their wines. They found their way to southern Portugal, where they found wine marginally digestible.

To ensure that the wine survived the voyage back to their homeland, merchants asked wine-making monks to add brandy during the fermentation process. Because alcohol arrests fermentation, sugar from the grapes was not converted to alcohol and the result was a sweet wine with high alcohol induced by the brandy.

The Brits back home loved the invention and the rest is history.

Port put Portugal on the wine map forever, an achievement that would have been difficult if winemakers had to rely on regular wine from the country`s obscure grapes.

Winemakers here are authorized to use more than 80 grape varieties, although until recently most growers were unable to identify what was planted in their vineyards. Since the 1970s, major producers have winnowed the choices to a handful of grape varieties and have vastly improved their viticultural methods.

The five black-skin varieties most recognized are touriga nacional, tinta baroca, tinta franca, tinta roriz and tinto cao. White port — an interesting alternative often served on the rocks — is made from viosinho, fina, malvasia and other white grape varieties.

Just recently, Portugal has making great progress in marketing its unfortified wines in the Douro region close to Spain. We recently tasted several versions using the same grape varieties common to port. These wines show Portugal has come a long way from making astringent, unbalanced wines. At the end of this column we give a couple of recommendations.

Over the course of history, port producers have been scarfed up by a handful of British companies, like Symington Family Estates, but the individual character of each of the brands has been maintained.

Here are some recommendations:

Graham`s Six Grapes ($20). We often recommend this port as a “starter“ for those unfamiliar with the beverage. Six Grapes is an easy drink that goes well with chocolate dishes. Rich texture, big in raisiny and plum fruit.

Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Vintage Port 2004 ($25). LBVs is seasoned in oak and then bottled when it is four to six years old. It is ready for drinking on release. This has blackberry notes with a touch a spice.

Dow`s 10 Year Old Tawny ($30). Tawnys spend time in barrels — in this case, 10 years. The process imparts a nice nutty character to the port, which is obvious at first sip. This one has toffee notes and a viscous mouthfeel.

Here are some very interesting wines from Portugal which are not ports:

DFJ Vinhos Vega 2005 ($13). We loved this discovery from the Douro region of Portugal. A blend of toriga franca and tinta roriz, it sports a floral, coffee nose and is followed by plum and blackberry flavors. Long finish.

100 Marias 2006 ($15). We actually liked this wine better on the second day, which suggests that you should let this breathe for a bit before serving. That opens the wine, made from aragonez and trincadeira grapes, into a delightful, full-body wine with blackberry and plum flavors.

MARKHAM

Markham Vineyards has released two single-vineyard cabernet sauvignons in the debut of its “Mark of Distinction“ series. Using grapes from its estate vineyards, these wines are truly distinctive.

The wines honor the groups making a “mark of distinction“ in their communities. This year`s recipients are Table to Table in New Jersey, which delivers food left at grocery stores to the hungry, and the Kansas Bartlett Arboretum, a 15-acre habitat for trees.

Markham The Philantropist Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($53). Big body with mocha and anise aromas followed by jammy dark berry and root beer flavors, spice and fine tannins. Absolutely delicious and worthy of cellar aging.

Markham The Altruist Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($53). More open than the first wine, the fruit-forward Altruist has a floral nose with ripe blackberry and cassis flavors. Sweet vanilla and toasty oak finish. 

— Relishmag.com