Port is intense, powerful, seductive, explosive wine. It’s fortified, and fortifying. Most of us think of winter as the time to drink it, and the category is popularly consigned to Christmas gifts and a nip alongside a wedge of Stilton and a roaring fireplace. I get that. The epistemological challenge, though, is that port is much, much more complicated than the stereotype suggests.
Port is produced from grapes grown in the Douro Valley of Portugal. Something called “port” is made in Australia, the U.S. and elsewhere, with juicy red-wine grapes and an approximation of the traditional method: fortification with brandy to halt fermentation while sugars remain, various types and levels of barrel-aging of several different vintages together. I’ve tasted some yummy versions, but none of them is true port.
True port uses grapes grown along the steep, schist-heavy hills that slant down to the tortuous Douro River. Absent that, you are not drinking the essential, unique interactions true port stages among sweetness, spice, bitterness, concentration and minerality.
In my own recent experiences tasting a variety of ports and learning more about the land where they’re made, I’ve come across a surprising parallel: German riesling. Anyone who knows me might roll eyes and say, “Of course. You think everything good is like riesling!”
But look: Very old vines, growing on steep slopes in a narrow valley above a twisting river, which necessitates hand-harvesting. Quick-draining soils uncommonly rich in minerals, and uncommonly poor in nutrients so that the vines need to dig deep.
And in the glass, the grail: sweet, savory, bracing and soothing, all at once. Sometimes thrillingly kinetic, at other times impossibly elegant, at still others ferociously intense; on rare occasions, all of those. Aromatically diverse, from fruits to flowers to spices. Austere one minute, immoderately giving the next. Time-bending finishes. Capable of unimaginably long aging. Surprisingly harmonious with a wide variety of food (more on that below).
Granted, what’s in the glass gets there differently from German riesling, a single-varietal wine whose apogee is in crystalline textures, clarity of expression due in part to the absence of oak, diaphanous, natural acidity playing off natural sweetness, all with low alcohol.
Port, conversely, is usually a blend of several indigenous grapes. It tastes enveloping and wild rather than precise and placid, and at its best is challengingly dense. And there’s the alcohol.
The relatively high alcohol of port, 19 or 20 percent, is there for good reason, but in an objective sense it is the category’s Achilles’ heel. I love how various ports can illuminate and exalt so many different foods. But I’m not really able to swig the stuff uninhibitedly, else I’d be soused in under an hour.
Most places you look for pairing suggestions, you hear the same few ideas over and over: blue cheeses, nuts, dried fruit. With a ruby port (aged in stainless or concrete tanks rather than wood, to prevent oxidative aging, fined and filtered, emphasis on deep red fruit), eat chocolate.
Ah, but. I recently participated in a port event where we matched different wines with savory dishes. A dish of lentils, roasted cauliflower, raisins and burnt cheese (as in what seeps out of a grilled-cheese sandwich and into the pan) was magical alongside Warre’s Otima 10 Year Tawny ($29 suggested retail for 500ml, though often available for significantly less; Pine State). This beautiful wine’s combination of herbal, nutty and smoky aspects was a perfect, even delicate foil to similar aspects in the food.
I also love the unctuous, spicy-salty-sweet character of some ports with foods such as barbecue and some Chinese cuisines. At that same dinner, hoisin-glazed steak with fig, peanuts and shredded lettuce was set off magnificently by the tremendously complex Warre’s LBV 2002 ($29, Pine State). This wine’s mushroom, black fruit and Turkish-coffee notes are startlingly intense and widespread, and for me deserving of more than just a little plate of cheese and smoked almonds.
Other ingredients I’ve played with successfully while drinking this style of port are braised red cabbage with balsamic vinegar, fermented black bean sauce, beets, unsweetened cocoa, carrots roasted on coffee beans. (If you’re on a budget, try a basic ruby port with take-out Chinese.)
“LBV” refers to “late-bottled vintage,” and to my mind offers some of the greatest value. Rather than being bottled a relatively short time after entry into the barrel, LBVs are matured in wood for many years before release. You get the character of a vintage wine, tempered and integrated by the time in the barrel, without having to wait the decades that a vintage port needs in the bottle to come around.
Warre’s LBV gains complexity from its lack of filtration out of the barrel, and a rare hold-back in-bottle for several years before sale (the 2002 was bottled in 2006). The lack of filtration means that it, like vintage ports, needs to be decanted.
Another standout LBV, also unfiltered, is the Smith Woodhouse 2000 ($31, SoPo). It gives up all sorts of medicinal-herb notes to balance the plums and woodsy aspects, and while it’s livelier and more direct than the Warre’s, it still tells fascinating stories.
The magical kingdom lies in vintage ports. Only years that yield exceptional fruit are declared vintage-worthy, by consensus of the various port houses in the Douro. These wines are capable of decades of aging in bottle. They’re fun to try when young – the just-released 2011 is being called the best declared vintage in 20 years, if not many more – though you should be ready for insanely brash spiciness, rich but cutting, and you should bring a capacity for imagination (of what the wine will become) borne of experience.
The Quinta do Vesuvio 2011 ($75, SoPo) is a tremendous example: fungal, tannic, explosive. The Cockburn 2011 ($73, National) is gorgeously dense, pushing rich fresh fruit at first before starting a landslide of rocks.
Quinta da Cavadinha 1998 ($45, Pine State) is from a high single vineyard, though not (to your wallet’s relief) from a consensually declared vintage. It’s still incredible: compact and inky, with a schisty iron character, mint chocolate, fig and balsamic.
We’re in the realm here of extravagant costs. But we’re in the realm of even more extravagant wines.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog is soulofwine.com, and he can be reached at: