Of all the different experiences the world of wine has to offer, Port is one of the most totally hedonistic and sensual available; especially when paired with something as equally indulgent as an exquisite chocolate. All Ports are sweet and highly alcoholic (for wine), and almost all are red.
As the name suggests, these wines originated in Portugal and the best are still produced there. Wines produced and bottled in the Douro Valley in Portugal are labeled as “Porto” or “Oporto.” Similar wines made in California, Texas and Australia and are labeled as “Port.”
So what make Port Port? As with all wines, it starts with the grapes. There are over 40 varieties of grapes that are used, the main varietal being Bastardo. All Port grapes can achieve very high sugar levels in the hot Portuguese summers, and also have very thick skins, which provide the requisite tannins and color.
Once these luscious grapes are picked, they are pulverized before going into the fermentation tanks, and then continually mixed with the juice during most of the fermentation process. This mixing of the skins with the juice allows for the maximum extraction of tannins and color.
As wine ferments, the level of sugar in the juice gradually drops as it is turned into alcohol. Dry wines are fermented until all the sugar is gone which naturally stops the fermentation. With Port, the amount of sugar is monitored and when it reaches the desired level, the wine is poured into wooden barrels that already contain some grape brandy, which inactivates the yeast and increases the alcohol level.
What we now have is a wine that is very aggressive with fresh, young, intense fruit flavors, lots of alcohol and lots of sweetness. While this might sound like fun, it is actually undrinkable at this point. There are two methods the wine maker can use to mellow it out. He can either age it in the wood barrels, or in its bottle.
In the later category is Vintage Port. Made only in exceptional years, it is transferred from the barrel to its bottle after a very short period of time, requiring 10-15 years or more of aging before reaching its prime. It must always be decanted to separate out its copious sediment. A funnel and coffee filter work well. Vintage Portos are never inexpensive, but often worth it. Great examples are Dow’s 1977 at $95.00 and Ramos Pinto 1983 at $35.00. Try one with a Teusher Champagne Truffle, English Stilton, favorite cigar, or as the perfect final punctuation to a meal all by itself.
The quintessential wood aged Port is Tawny Port. Not leaving its wood barrel for between 10 to 40 years, it does all of its mellowing out in that environment, resulting in a nutty, rich, amber wine. When purchased, it is ready to drink and needs no decanting. Taylor Fladgate 10 year old at $25.00 or 30 year old at $80.00 are two of the nicest. There’s no better ending to a fine dinner than a great Tawny with a Hazelnut Torte.
A simpler type of Port is Ruby Port. Aged in wood for 4-6 years, it has many of the ways of a Vintage Port about it and is quite a bargain. Warre’s Warrior Porto is a very pleasant introduction to Port at $14.00.