I will always remember my introduction to Port wine.
I had thrown my first “Warm Up The Winter” party with my house mates at our big old Craftsman house on the bluff above downtown Santa Cruz. We were celebrating that we got our hot tub fixed and I made my first batch of porter for the occasion.
We’d ask people to bring for a potluck their favorite food or drink to “warm up the winter.” One of my grad school friends was carrying what looked like a bottle of wine — which it was, but not what I expected: this was Port wine, she explained, and it was fortified so higher in alcohol — and it was sweet so I needed to prepare myself, and once I was ready, she would share it with me.
She made it clear that this wasn’t some drink that a drunk might have in a paper sack: this was a really special beverage, a favorite treat, and she wasn’t going to waste it on someone who wouldn’t be willing to taste it properly and appreciate it.
Well, I was really enamored with my porter, but how could I pass this tempting offer up? So I got a new, clean glass, and we took off our clothes and jumped into the hot tub.
Because really the best way to enjoy Port is naked in a hot tub on a drizzly cold night with a bunch of friends!
And, true story this, not soon after, the cops came! I had to jump out of the tub, get my dress back on, and go talk to them!
That was quite an introduction to Port. And I’ve loved it ever since, but I can’t tell you what that first one was, police at the door while practically naked and dripping wet and all. Me that is — not the police or the port…
So what exactly is Port?
Basically, Port is a wine made from grapes grown in the Douro region of northern Portugal that has had fermentation arrested by the addition of a distilled spirit which typically leaves behind sugars and so it is generally sweet and fruity on the palate. Being fortified also allowed the wine to be shipped from Portugal to England starting in 1678; when England was at war with France a few years later, and French wine became less attainable, the sweet and smooth Port became very popular with the English. This also helps explain why so many Ports have English names: they were that involved with the trade.
By 1756, the Douro became the third official appellation, with Italy’s Chianti first in 1716 and Hungary’s Tokaj second in 1730.
While Portugal has over 2000 indigenous varieties of grapes, and over 100 varieties of grapes are grown in the Douro that can be used to make red port, most Ports include one or more of these five:
- Tinta Barroca,
- Tinto Cão,
- Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo),
- Touriga Francesa, and
- Touriga Nacional
with the last one the most well-known and desired but also the most difficult to grow and only giving a small yield.
White ports use white grapes:
Port comes in all three colors — red, white, and rose — and several styles: ruby, tawny, late bottled vintage, and vintage:
- Ruby: Brightest and fruitiest, after fermentation the wine is aged in cement or steel and blended with other vintages to match he house style. Most affordable and easiest to attain.
- Tawny: Aged in barrels over a number of years, the wine oxidizes and turns from red to “tawny” with the older vintages more brown than red.
- Vintage: Based on growing conditions, some years are designated as vintages. Grapes may be aged in oak or steel for at least 2.5 years and then they are bottled and cellared for 10 or more years. Reports from a 1990 tasting of an 1815 Port indicate it shows well.
- Late Bottled Vintage: Sometimes they decided later to call a Port a Vintage Port — but these are more accessible for drinking earlier.
If you’re new to port, you should know that like any wine, you store it in a cool, dark but not cold place on its side to keep the cork damp to make it last longer. Exposing the wine to light and heat will cause it to deteriorate. Serve it in a small Bordeaux shaped glass at cellar temperatures around 60 degrees. In the summer, I like putting a few chips of ice in it in the evening. Once it’s open, Port will last longer than wine, but it will be best if enjoyed within a few weeks or months, and be sure to keep it in a cool, dark place with a stable temperature.
This summer and fall, I was sent several pitches for Port, including one at Halloween for Port with candy. (JUST SAY NO to Halloween candy and wine pairing ideas! But if you HAVE TO have wine with your Halloween candy, sure, Port, would be what I would recommend. And Port would be a great pairing for hanging out on a cold night opening and closing the door a bunch of times!)
So I suggested we do a port dinner: using port in various preparations AND drinking Port along with the meal.
And that’s what we did — prepared dinner with port and then paired them. Here are our results just in time to warm up your winter!
- Taylor Fladgate Chip Dry White Port SRP $20
- Cockburn’s Special Reserve Port SRP $18
- Dow 2012 Late Bottled Vintage Port SRP $24
- Croft 430th Anniversary Reserve Ruby SRP $24.99
- Graham’s 10 Year Tawny Port SRP $36
- Dow’s 10 Year Tawny Port SRP $36
- Graham’s 20 Year Tawny Port SRP $50
White Port Tonic
using Taylor Fladgate Chip Dry White Port with poached pear
Stilton Walnut Balls
Pear Gorgonzola Bruschetta
using Dow 2012 Late Bottled Vintage Port
Rhubarb and Goat Cheese Salad
with a Croft 430th Anniversary Reserve Ruby reduction sauce
Roasted Brussel Sprouts
with Cockburn’s Special Reserve Port reduction sauce
Pork Wellington with Cherry Port Reduction
using Graham’s 10 Year Tawny Port
Eaton’s Mess: Strawberries and Raspberries macerated with a touch of sugar
using Taylor Fladgate Chip Dry White Port
Taylor Fladgate Chip Dry White Port 19.7% ABV; $19.99 SRP
sample sent for review consideration
While Taylor Fladgate pioneered dry white apéritif Port in 1934 and Chip Dry has built a devoted following throughout the world, I’d never hear of it because it has only recently become available in the United States. After sampling it with food, in food, and as an apéritif, I think it will become quite popular and you should check it out!
“Chip Dry” is made from selected dry white ports produced from white grapes grown in the eastern area of the Douro Valley in Portugal and that is fermented longer so it is less sweet.
No Chips seem to be involved but I can assure you the wine is “dry” compared to a traditional red port — even if it is still a port. Perhaps it is called “Chip” because it is so crisp.
Traditionally served chilled as an apéritif with ice or two parts tonic with fresh mint or lemon with salty foods like olives or almonds, we found it a refreshing and lower alcohol alternative to gin with or without the tonic water.
Color: Golden, buttercup
Nose: Minerals, herbaceous
Palate: Nice and light for a port
Pairing: Went great with the Humboldt fog cheese, great with fresh fruits. Great with our rhubarb salad, the tart rhubarb loved the lemon citrus notes.
With our dessert, Sue had to go back to the white port for the perfect pairing. the light citrus sweetness of the port went so wonderfully with the fruit cream and meringues.
Cockburn’s Special Reserve Port SRP $18
sample for review consideration
A blend of younger ports aged five years in oak, it’s bright and fruity but still smooth, rich, and mellow.
Color: Very ruby, super pretty
Nose: Cherry and alcohol
Palate: Bright fruit, rich, you don’t taste the alcohol as much as you can smell it. Somewhat simple.
Great for cooking or cocktails because of the intense flavor and character.
Pairing: Awesome with the poached pear and gorgonzola brochettes, liked the Stilton, pâté is out of this world, fantastic with the espresso coated Toscano cheese– we were surprised and impressed by how well this port went with food.
Croft 430th Anniversary Reserve Ruby 20% ABV; $24.99 SRP
sample for review consideration
Founded in 1588 and celebrating its 430th Anniversary this year, Croft Port is the oldest Port house in the world. The label displays a reproduction of the work “Sinking of the Spanish Armada in 1588” by the Dutch artist Jan Luyken, which is part of the collection of the Rijks museum in Amsterdam. This would make a great holiday gift or hostess present because of the presentation and the quality.
Color: Ruby with a tinge of purple, dense
Nose: Caramel, caramel apple, candied apple, alcohol.
Palate: Bright fruit, sweet up front, caramel apple on the back side.
Pairing: Great with the Stilton cheese balls, great with the bruschetta, not fantastic with the Humboldt fog, really brings out the espresso crust in the Toscano.
Dow’s 2012 Late Bottled Vintage Port SRP $24
sample for review consideration
Late Bottled Vintage Port is a single vintage Ruby Port that may spend up to six years in the barrel before being bottled and released. Dow’s produces Late Bottled Vintage Port from only the best years. The 2012 LBV comes from the Quinta do Bomfim and Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira vineyards. A very dry year with cooler than average summer temperatures offset effects of drought and provided a gradual and balanced ripening of the grapes.
I’ve bought this before a few times and I like it in the summertime with a few ice cubes. It’s great for camping and on ski trips. I think it offers a lot for the price.
Nose: Smells like brandied cherries and black currant jam
Palate: Nice bright fruit, cherry and black currant, balances out the sweetness.
Pairing: Great with our poached pear bruschetta, but a bit too sweet for the pâté. It likes the smoked gouda, great late night snack – have a smoked gouda grilled cheese sandwich with this wine.
Graham’s 10 Year Tawny Port SRP $36
sample for review consideration
Aged in seasoned oak casks in Graham‘s historic lodge in Oporto, two miles from the cool Atlantic Ocean where the moist ocean air imparts a freshness and vibrancy resulting in a Port that’s balanced with just enough acidity.
Color: Cherry cola without the bubbles
Nose: Smells like tawny port…
Palate: Sweet caramel and candied apple, amber, sandalwood, musk.
Pairing: Great with the pork Wellington, brussels sprouts, and potatoes. I especially liked it with the brussels sprouts, Sue liked the herbs in the Wellington with this wine and the cherries as well. Sue made a rice pudding the night before with some left over rice and brought it over because she thought it would go great with the port– and she was right on the mark. We poured a bit of the 10 year port over the top and it was just perfect. The spice in the pudding set off the richness of the wine.
Dow’s 10 Year Tawny Port SRP $36
sample for review consideration
Dow’s is known for its characteristically drier house style.
Color: flat Dr. Pepper
Nose: Brandied cherries, caramel.
Palate: While not dry, it does have a drier finish over the Grahams.
Pairing: So good with the Stilton balls! We felt that the Graham’s was better with the brussels sprouts, good with the potatoes; this wine wants a fair bit of salt to set it off so think about salted caramel with nuts.
Graham’s 20 year Tawny
I was sent a sample last winter which I wrote about here; I purchased this bottle at the Ventura Wine Co.
Matured for an average of seven to nine years in seasoned oak casks, this Tawny Port preserves some of the grapes’ ripe fruit flavours and tannins with plenty of complexity achieved by almost a decade of aging in oak. Graham’s points out that Charles Symington, Graham’s Master Blender, “includes in The Tawny some wines that are considerably older so that The Tawny possesses more of the distinctive characteristics of long aging in oak casks.”
Aromas: Complex orange peel and cinnamon aromas, prunes, raisins and figs. A full and generous flavour, with a long, clean finish.
Occasions & Pairing: Perfect match with almond tart or crème brûlée; or on its own, as a fine after lunch or dinner wine or even as an apéritif.
Serve slightly chilled.
Color: Very golden in the glass, more amber or copper than red.
Nose: So complex! Toasted walnuts, caramel, vanilla, the alcohol is still there but so many other characteristics!
Palate: Smooth, almost buttery, caramel, butter toffee, butter toffee nuts, nice lingering finish.
Pairing: Roasted veggies were fantastic with the wine. We got an “Oh my God” out of John when he was tasting a brussel sprout with the wine. It was also very nice with the herbs in the pork wellington. Fantastic at the end of the meal with good chocolate: a perfect ending. At the end of all the sweetness, Sue just wanted to end the meal with a taste of the stilton balls and the 20 yr port.
In the end, we didn’t need to have all seven ports with the meal to warm up the winter, however the different ports used in preparation of all the food made a big difference.
We needed the different ports to complete the complexity of the meal. Next time, though, I think I’d pair the main course with a regular red wine from the Douro!
And speaking of more wine from the Douro, stay tuned for more wine from Portugal — and we’ve got two from the Douro!
Just got back from a Porto and Douro exploration trip. Was the first time I had dry port and the tonic cocktail, will be sharing it with friends over the holidays for sure. Nice pairings and info Gwen!
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