Most of our wine consumption of wine is divided into two main groups: an aperitif to whet the appetite and stimulate the taste buds, and then the what we drink with a meal. From my experiences, most of my friends do not go beyond that. Although sweet desserts in all variety generally follow a meal, wines often do not. Possibly we are already sated, or simply we don’t have the tradition to continue the wine experience after the main meal. If our sweet tooth desires usually crave something sweet to complete the meal, usually salty, why not wine as well? There are numerous after dinner wines, generally mid-sweat to sweet, that do about the same thing, although they satisfy the palate differently. I admit that my personal taste in wine does not often go for sweet wines—“stickies,” as they are poetically called in England—but if I feel the urge, especially on a cold night, my choice would be for Port.
I doubt that there are as many drinkers of Port as there are consumers of table wines. Outside of England where Port is king, the wine is associated with stuffy old gentleman at their club discussing Conservative Party politics in front of their fireplace with their fine, aged Port in hand. If you have ever been invited to a gentleman’s club in London, you will know that the image is not already false. But apart from this Victorian image of stuffiness, Port can be enjoyed by all and should be.
What we call Port is really Vinho do Porto, a fortified wine that got its name in the 17th century from the seaport in Portugal, Porto, on the mouth of the Douro River. It is in fact the oldest protected appellation of viticulture, the name guarded since 1756. The grapes used to make Port is often, but not exclusively, Touriga Nacional, which is also used to make fine table wine, now more than before. What is distinctive about Port as opposed to a table wine is that it is fortified with natural grape spirits (aguardente—meaning fiery water, which it certainly is), which stops fermentation, leaves residual sugar, and ups the alcohol level. Usually the alcohol content in most Port ranges between the 18% to 20%. After the process of fortification, the wine is aged in wood in the cave.
Port can be rather complex, but in essence there are two styles that are generally marketed (I exclude Ruby Port which is very young and often wimpy): Tawny Port and Vintage Port. The first lives up to its name. It mellows in storage, oxidizes a bit, and when finished gives a golden-red color from which the name Tawny comes. It is often very smooth on the tongue, lively on the taste buds, and delicious with certain cheeses. The sweetness is a bit subdued because the wine has been aged in wood—the bottle will tell you how long, but often 10 years as a minimum; the longer the aging, the higher the price, and the more mellow the taste.
Vintage Port, on the other hand, is altogether another story. For most wine drinkers, vintage simply means the year when the grapes were harvested, indicated as such on the bottle. For Port, vintage implies not only the year, but also an extra quality. What is important to note is that the Port producer himself will announce a Port as “Vintage Port.” Samples are sent to a control board who approve or not, and if the quality is high enough, a vintage is officially “declared” for that producer, but not necessarily for others. Usually this happens only a few times per decade if the quality is high enough to meet the standards. When you buy Vintage Port, so named on the bottle with the year, you are in fact being guaranteed that the quality is high.
Although Port goes well with certain cheeses and fruity desserts, I don’t particularly find it necessary to pair it with any food. A small glass of fine Port..that’s all you need—is enough to finish a satisfying meal with a warm, delicious feeling that goes to one’s heart rather than the stomach.
Photo: Warre’s Port