Fortified wines have hefty doses of alcohol added. Dosing wines with spirits evolved after political problems between France and England in the 1660s denied the British their favored Bordeaux wines. Turning to Portuguese wines as an alternative, the British found them unappealing and not shipping-worthy.
The Portuguese discovered that adding brandy early in the fermentation process caused fermentation to cease – leaving a sweet, flavorful wine that traveled well and packed a punch.
The British loved the resulting product so much that many entered the Port trade, which is why most Portuguese Port houses today carry British names.
There are many kinds of Port. Those most likely found locally are Ruby, Tawny or Vintage. Ruby Port is the cheapest and least complicated. It is red, as its name implies, made from young wine aged about three years in barrels and tanks, and ready for consumption upon release.
Tawny Port is sometimes released young, but the most desirable Tawnies are 10 to 40 years old. Oak-barrel aging imparts their golden hue. They develop a nutty character and are not as sweet as Ruby Port.
Vintage Ports are the most rare and expensive. They come from a single harvest year of recognized quality. Producers must have the approval of the Porto Wine Institute before declaring a vintage. They are unfiltered and need decanting because, when stood upright, a thick, harmless muck collects in the bottom of the bottle. They have great aging potential and can last decades.
Port should be served with simple food, before or after a meal. As an aperitif, it is great with cheese straws, salty olives or nuts.
Port is also a grand finale to a meal when served with slices of apple or pear, toasted walnuts, Stilton cheese and a bit of chocolate.
Serve small portions. Most Ports last several months in the refrigerator, if properly sealed.
While Port today is served in casual settings, it is interesting to note the British aristocracy’s ritual for serving rare Vintage Port after a meal. The rules are as follows: The decanted Port starts with the host, who in turn pours a glass for the person seated to his right, and then passes the decanter to the person on his left, who in turn pours a glass for the person on his right, and passes the decanter to his left. This ritual continues until all are served.
When seeking a refill, the rules state that one should ask the person seated nearest the decanter if they know the Bishop of Norwich. This is a signal to pass the Port. If the unknowing happens to respond that they are unfamiliar with the Bishop, the correct reply is, “The Bishop is a good chap, but he never passes the Port.” Are we not glad America won the Revolutionary War?
Consider buying one of these locally available fortified wines as a gift for a friend or yourself:
Warre’s Optima 10-Year-Old Tawny and Warre’s Optima 20-Year-Old Tawny Port. $27.50 and $44, respectively, at Tyson Art and Frame in Golden Springs for small format bottle. From the Symington family, whose descendants have been involved in the Port trade since 1651. I favor the nut-like character and finesse achieved by oak barrel aging in Tawny Ports.
Fronseca Porto Bin No 27. $21.50 at The Wine Cellar on Quintard. A young Ruby Port sourced from Fronseco’s finest blends in non-vintage years. It is permissible to serve Ruby Port over ice with a lemon twist, as is done on the Continent.
W & J Graham’s “Six Grapes” Reserve Porto. $24.50 at Tyson’s. This wine, drawn from barrels tapped to make Graham’s pricey Vintage Port, is called “Six Grapes” because the best barrels from each harvest are marked with six grapes. A Ruby Port. Rich, sweet and delicious.