|As the weather grows chillier and the days become shorter, my 5:00 pm thoughts inevitably turn to shutting down the computer, hurrying home and curling up in my favorite chair with the newspaper and a glass of something delicious. At the risk of sounding even more prosaic, I must admit that my beverage of choice in times like these is most definitely ruby Port. I keep a mismatched set of thrift-store wine glasses handy in case guests stop by. On winter weekends the bottle beckons to be uncorked, its contents poured out in a deep garnet cacophony of aromatic fruit and subtle spice. Come Sunday night, it's time to do Saturday night's dinner party dishes, pour the last glug or two of Port into whatever happens to be handy and meditate upon the prospects -- and possibilities -- of yet another winter week. |
Port is a fortified wine, with a history as long and as complex as its finish. It's been enjoyed on its own and as a dessert wine since the 17th century. When the British were casting their ever-widening net of influence during the high Renaissance, their sights lit on Portugal, a small, coastal country that served as a provisioning point for the long sea voyage to the Caribbean and points further south. In an attempt to erode Spain's influence in this country, the British began insinuating their own goods (mostly cloth and other household items) into Portugal's marketplaces. When Portugal finally won independence from Spain (with a little push from the British), her trading loyalties with England were conveniently established.
Around the same time, France and England experienced a diplomatic flare-up in what was already a strained relationship. In 1678 the neighbors across the Channel declared war and did what any self-respecting seafaring country would do -- they blockaded each other's ports. As the English began to cry for French claret, the British wine merchants knew they had to fill the void somehow. So they began scouring the terraced, rocky slopes of Portugal in search of the next Bordeaux or Burgundy.
Apparently they didn't find it. The first wines to come out of Portugal's winemaking regions were thin, tannic and astringent -- not the silver-spooned Englishman's idea of fine wine -- and didn't survive the long sea voyage to England. But the English were desperate. So, they started adding Brandy to the so it survive the trek. Thus, Port was born.
The English quickly grew appreciative of this strong, sweeter beverage known as "Oporto" wine, whose name came from the city of that name at the mouth of the Douro river. By the middle of the Eighteenth Century, even with the reinstatement of the Franco-British trade lines, "Oporto", or Port, was a firmly established component of the British wine trade... and of every Englishman's wine cellar.
Today Port is made in just about every major winemaking region of the world and is experiencing a surge in popularity. What once seemed relegated to either snooty gentlemen in evening attire (in the case of vintage Ports) or brown-bagging winos (in the case of mass-produced "white Port") is now finding wider acceptance among barflies and restaurant-goers alike.
Many winemakers still use traditional Portuguese red varietals (touriga nacional, tinta roriz or tinta cao) in their Port programs, but other red and white grapes have been integrated according to regional preferences and agricultural conditions.
Port starts out as a warm, quickly fermenting mass of grapes that is vigorously and continuously agitated by either hand or machine. When the wine reaches about six or seven percent alcohol, 154 proof (77 percent alcohol) neutral grape spirits is added. The sudden shock of high alcohol concentration essentially kills-off the yeast and completely arrests fermentation. What's left is a sweet or off-dry fortified wine that weighs in at about 18 to 20 percent alcohol by volume. The syrupy liquid is then put into oak casks to age before being blended, bottled and shipped to consumers.
Though in Portugal itself there are many different types and styles of Port produced, we only see about three kinds in this country: ruby, tawny and vintage Port. Ruby Port is what most people think of when they hear the word "Port." Sweet, deep red and almost chewy in texture, ruby Port is made from heavily macerated red grapes and exhibits jammy red-fruit flavors and aromas. Tawny Port is made in a lighter-bodied style. It goes through a gentler maceration program and often is made in a drier style. The wine is then fortified and subsequently aged in both cask and bottle for at least six years. With time, much of the color and tannic structure of the wine precipitate out, leaving a nutty, golden-colored product that's substantially less fruity and lighter than ruby Port.
Most Port, like Champagne, is not vintage-dated. Port makers like to maintain consistency year after year and retain a certain amount of each harvest for blending with future batches. Once in a while, however, a single year's harvest is so stellar that it's vintage-dated and aged for a decade or two (or three or four) before hitting the market.
Port is best served in one- or two-ounce portions. Make sure your glassware of choice has enough nose room so you can get a good whiff before tipping a bit of the liquid into your soon-to-be-appreciative mouth. No grand swirling gestures, please. You'll just end up snuffling up a cloud of 40-proof ethanol while sloshing it into your carpet. So relax. Hold it up to the firelight and admire the color. Forget about your email in-box and stop to smell the roses. While you're there, check out the wild blackberries and strawberry jam layered in between a lush blanket of cassis and anise. And the tea and tobacco that resonate together throughout the long finish. And...