By Robert Rabine
It’s finally getting cold and the holidays are here. Now is the perfect time to snuggle up next to the fire with a good glass of fortified red wine from the Douro Valley. A glass of what? From where? Port…you know, from Portugal.
When I was younger I had two misconceptions about port: (1) I used to think it gave me a hangover from all the sugar. Wrong. It was from all the assorted cocktails and glasses of wine I drank before actually getting to the port. (2) They added alcohol to port because the Portuguese wine itself was so bad. Well, not exactly. Initially, in the 1690s, they added a small amount of aguardente (similar to brandy) to plain red wine to stabilize it for shipping. Port was established as a protected appellation in 1756, but by the early 1800s the product had evolved into something quite different. Gradually, they began adding the aguardente to the barrels to stop fermentation while the wine was still sweet and strong (20 percent alcohol). It eventually became something similar to today’s port.
It’s called port because it was always shipped from the seaside city of Porto on the Atlantic coast of Portugal. Which is weird, if you think about it. That would be like calling all wine from Napa Valley “San Mateo.” Port is actually grown and bottled in the hot, dry Douro Valley along the Douro River in northeastern Portugal. There are three sub-appellations that make different types of port reflecting their distinct terroirs. Most inexpensive ruby and tawny ports come from the Baixo (lower) Corgo. Tawny ports are barrel-aged and allow for considerable oxidation and evaporation in the barrel; hence their brownish color and somewhat nutty flavor. The Cima (upper) Corgo is hotter and gets less rainfall. It produces the best bottle-aged vintage and ruby ports. These are characterized by their bright color and freshness.
More fun facts: The grapes used in red ports are usually a blend of five or six varieties, both indigenous (like touriga nacional) and imports (like tempranillo). There are also white and rose ports. A LBV, or late bottle vintage, has spent more time in the barrel before being bottled due to lack of demand. Serve port at around 63 degrees Farenheit. The glass should be around 4 ounces and have a small bowl with sides that angle inward, like a shorter, fatter champagne flute. Vintage ports can be incredibly long lived. Always decant older ports, but drink them right away. The individual port houses – like Dow, Warres, Cockburn – decide when to declare the year a “vintage” year-meaning worthy of aging, but it must be approved by the Institute of Port. It’s in Lisbon. Not surprisingly, I have actually been there.