Savor this sweet, complex wine as the ultimate dessert beverage.
By Tobin Sharp

Those of us who live in Southern California don’t quite experience the full measure of weather found in colder climes, even when a chill hits the air. Nevertheless, as fall gives way to winter, this writer is ready for a glass of port.

Port wine is fortified wine. This means that 20 percent brandy – aguardente – is added to the wine to arrest fermentation and keep it sweet. Historically, higher alcohol content helped preserve it during long ocean voyages.

Port is from Portugal and produced exclusively in the Douro Valley. Five main grapes are used in port wine: touriga nacional, tinta roriz, tinta barroca, tinto cao and touriga Francesa. Since all ports tend to be sweeter, heavier and richer than most non-fortified wines, they’re placed into their own category; they’re mostly red grape wines and are therefore different from other dessert wine contenders.

Port wines tend to be barrel- or bottle-aged. The Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP) breaks this wine into two categories: normal ports (rubies, tawnies and white ports) and special-category ports (vintage and single quinta).

The normal ports are relatively inexpensive, starting in the $10 to $20 range per 750-milliliter bottle, and are easy-drinking and accessible; ruby ports are aged in concrete or steel to keep their red claret color (hence the name) and freshness, but are not known for aging. Tawny ports live in barrels for up to 40 years, and the process of oxidation and evaporation lend a nutty character. White ports are mostly used in summer cocktails; better-quality whites are often chilled and served on their own.

Vintage ports, though only 2 percent of the annual port production, are the superstars of the port world. They are only made when a vintage is “declared,” which happens about three years per decade – and can last for decades in a bottle. There are bottles from the 19th century that are still drinking perfectly. (Wines need sugar, acidity or phenolic compounds such as tannins to act as a preservative to last that long.)

The relatively recent great years for port wines (1963, 1977 and 1985, among others) are still readily available but they will run about $200 to $400 on average per bottle. Cheers!


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