David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the column which ran on 11/11/2015:
Warm up with Port, the fortified wine
An English winter is dark, wet, and cold. The options for an indigenously produced warming drink is very limited. While the English can make many fantastic beers, their climate can’t grow grapes and grapes are needed to make many warming beverages like Brandy. But they do live next to two of the finest whiskey producing nations on the planet, Ireland and Scotland. But their contentious historical relationship means that acquiring whiskey can be problematic.
When the French, Irish and Scottish aren’t being neighborly what’s an Englishman to do to warm himself on a drab winter day? This was the problem confronting two enterprising merchants from Liverpool in 1678. So they set out to see what northern Portugal had to drink. It was here that they discovered a “very agreeable, sweetish and extremely smooth wine.” And when a tax treaty with Portugal in 1703 made Portuguese wine cheap to import, many British merchant houses set up shop and started to import what they called Port.
Port is a fortified wine. This means that during fermentation a grape spirit, brandy, is added to the wine boosting the alcohol content to over 15%. Yeast can’t live in liquid at more than 15% alcohol so the added spirit stops the fermentation. Stopping the fermentation allows for some of the grape sugar to be retained in the liquid and this makes for a sweet tasting beverage. It also makes for a beverage that travels well and keeps well, both great qualities if you need to transport your cargo home in a sailing ship.
The grapes used to make Port are all indigenous Portuguese varieties with some Spanish plants thrown into the mix. There can be more than seven grape varieties in each bottle. Calling it a mix is actually very accurate as the very best Ports still come from specific fields where the composition and blend of the grapes is unknown to even the producer. Historically, Port has always been made with a field blend. Now most of the blending is done at the winery.
Generally Ports are high in alcohol, sweet, and rich in complex flavors and aromas. There are two main styles: Ruby and Tawny.
Ruby Port is vibrant in color and youthful in its fruit aromas of blackberry, raspberry and chocolate. This port is aged for 2 years in large oak barrels and is a blend of vintages.
Tawny Ports are aged much longer. A minimum of 6 years in oak gives this wine the aromas of caramel, hazelnut and fig. Tawny Ports can also be vintage blends often marketed as 10, 20, or 30 year old. These vintages are averages so some of the wine could be considerably older in a 30 year vintage.
Confusingly, you can also find Port labeled Reserve, Late-Bottled Vintage and Vintage. A Reserve is a Rudy Port aged for 4 to 6 years. Late-Bottled Vintage means the wine is from one specific year, therefore not a blend, and then aged for 4 to 6 years, filtered and bottled. These wines are designed to be consumed upon release. Vintage is a wine from a specific year that was considered to have the conditions to produce an excellent wine. Vintage wines are not blended, they spend two years in an oak cask, then are bottled and cellared. Vintage Ports can be aged for 25 to 100 years but once opened they should be consumed the same day. All other port styles will last one to two weeks in the bottle before they degrade into tastelessness.
The English found Port to be just the thing to take the chill off a drab winter day. I suggest you try it after dinner instead of dessert. It’ll warm you up and make your day seem just a little bit sweeter.
David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He writes wine articles for the Duluth News Tribune, teaches wine education classes, and leads wine adventures in France. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.