Once thought too potent for female consumption, gentlemen excused themselves from the dinner table and feminine companionship to retire for a Port and a good cigar. Happily, it is now a gender-neutral libation.
Portugal’s wine history pre-dates Roman antiquity. In the 15th and 16th centuries Portugal became a great trading nation. When England and France were at odds, the British turned to wines from Portugal in lieu of favored Bordeaux.
Portuguese wines traveled twice the distance of their Bordeaux counterparts to reach England, often spoiling in transit until it was determined that adding a dose of brandy preserved them for traveling.
Later, winemakers learned that adding brandy early in the winemaking process created a new style of wine, with a preserved rich color and concentrated sweetness. The added brandy arrested fermentation before yeast converted all the grape sugars into alcohol.
The resulting sweet wines traveled well and became a great hit with the English, many of whom invested in Portuguese wineries and shipping firms. Today, many top Port houses carry British names and still have British ties.
The British developed a unique Port etiquette still used by those who take their Port seriously. Proper British manners dictate that, when serving Port, the host first picks up the decanted Port and pours a glass for the person seated to his right, then passes the decanter to the diner on his left, who then pours for the person on his right, passing the decanter to the left until everyone at table is served.
If, after being served, a diner desires another glass and no one offers to pass the Port, the diner turns to the person nearest the Port and inquires if they know the Bishop of Norwich. If the person being queried answers negatively, then the person requesting the Port replies, “I say, he is an awfully nice fellow, but he never remembers to pass the Port.”
Port comes in basically two styles: ruby and tawny. Both styles spend time in wooden casks. Tawny spends a longer time, and over the years of aging is exposed to more oxygen. This oxidization gives the wine its tawny color and nutty taste.
Ruby ports spend less time in barrels, thus receiving less exposure to oxygen. They retain their ruby color and are ready for consumption when bottled.
There are many different categories within these two styles. All Ports are blends, usually of several different varietals and vintages.
The most expensive and rare Port is Vintage Port, coming from a single harvest of exceptional quality. Vintage Ports are aged in casks for a short period of time before bottling and put down to age further for several years. They retain their ruby color but take on additional nuances as they age.
Port may be served as an aperitif along with hors d’oeuvres. I find it especially yummy with bleu cheese-stuffed olives or as dessert with fruit, cheese, nuts and chocolate.
Port has longevity after opening. Properly sealed and stored in the refrigerator, it retains vitality for several weeks.
Port should be served slightly chilled in the proper glass. In the absence of a Port glass, use a white wine glass, because, like other wines, Port needs room to breathe and evolve.
Don’t settle for cheap imitations when an array of the real thing from Portugal is available locally. Try one of these:
Graham’s “Six Grapes” Porto. $25.50. At Tyson Fine Wines and Things in Golden Springs. Graham’s calls this their “discovery Port.” I call it yummy. Made by the Symington family from the same grapes used in their Vintage Port, but unlike Vintage Port ready to drink upon release. Great as an aperitif.
Fonseca Bin 27. $20 at The Wine Cellar on Quintard. Much like “Six Grapes” but by a different Port producer. Ready to drink when released.
Graham’s 20 Years Tawny Port. $59.50. Expensive but delicious. Nutty and creamy with flavor hints of fig preserves and caramel. Better for desserts like spice cake or crème brulée.
Contact Pat Kettles at firstname.lastname@example.org.