Port: The sweet red wine may be more versatile than you think

Hamiltons’ is pouring Messias 10-year tawny port, a sweet red wine from Portugal that’s often served with dessert. Photo: Elli Williams Hamiltons’ is pouring Messias 10-year tawny port, a sweet red wine from Portugal that’s often served with dessert. Photo: Elli Williams

With the holidays nearly here, and the weather looking dreary and foreboding, could there be a better time to get into port? The richness, residual sugar, and alcoholic punch it brings to the end (or beginning) of a night seem tailor-made for this time of year. And yet, with so many stylistic interpretations and official designations to wade through, port wine remains one of the least understood and appreciated styles in the market. As a result, marketing and reviews have entirely too much influence over the consumer. Let’s work on that.

First, a bit of a port primer: porto, officially, comes from the Duoro Valley in Portugal. It is the oldest known protected wine region in the world—dating back to 1756—so it’s no surprise that lore and branding tend to play a large part in the market. Port is generally thought of as a dessert wine due to its elevated sugar levels, and neutral grape spirits are added at a point before fermentation is complete, arresting the fermentation (a process known as fortification). This both increases the residual sugar of the final product and elevates the alcohol percentage, which is typically between 18 and 20 percent.

Most port is made from red grapes—though white port is becoming more and more popular, especially for use in cocktails. Portugal allows some 100 varietals to be used, but most port is produced from the same four or five varietals most of which you’ve probably never heard of; Touriga Francesca, anyone?

While there are many different types of red port bottlings, the most common are tawny, ruby, colheita, and vintage. Tawny is aged in barrels for a number of years (often a decade or more, which is typically noted on the label), which imparts a nutty, woody character and a brownish-red color. Ruby port is fermented and aged without oak, and thus is deep red in color and has more ripe fruit flavors and aromas. Colheita is tawny port from a single vintage that is aged in a barrel until it is ready to be bottled; the vintage is typically noted on the label. Vintage port is the cream of the crop: wine from a particularly good vintage (which are officially “declared” by the port houses), aged for several years in barrels, then bottled.

Vintage port ages well (it often needs a decade or more of cellaring) and can be immensely rewarding if you have the patience. The tradeoff, however, is the cost; vintages from well-regarded houses regularly top $100 per bottle, and aren’t approachable for years. Colheita, when you can find it, can be a great deal because the aging has already been done for you, but it’s relatively unknown in the U.S. Some of the best values, though, can be found in age-dated tawny, and young ruby from some of the best producers.

Pairing port with food can be tricky due to the high alcohol and sugar levels, but many desserts can be accentuated by these characteristics. Ruby and vintage ports play well with bitter chocolate dishes and those laden with fruit, like compotes and cobblers. tawnies and colheitas match up well with a greater variety of ingredients. While chocolate-centric recipes will not suffer alongside a tawny, some of the more nutty, raisiny, and savory items, like cheese plates, can be the perfect mates for the browner ports. In fact, when it comes to the dryer tawnies, pre-meal aperitifs are often an excellent (and unexpected) time to enjoy a small glass.

Two port picks for any storm

Both of these wines are affordable enough to be easy gift ideas (and both conveniently come in attractive gift boxes), but are tasty enough to be something that you’d love to drink yourself as well.

Quinta Noval Black (ruby port): A modern take on ruby from one of the premier port houses, this bottling is obviously targeting a younger crowd. (In fact, attached to the neck of the bottle are cocktail recipes.) However, for those who are new to port and/or are put off by the reduced, raisiny, earthy characteristics of the more traditionally styled wines, this is a perfect segue. It has more acidity and brightness than your typical port, with punches of raspberry, blackberry, and tobacco evolving into a richer finish of fruit compote and dark chocolate. The finish is silky and precise, without any lingering alcoholic harshness.

Retail cost: $22.99. Poured by the glass or bottle at The Old Mill Room at the Boar’s Head Inn, available for purchase from The Wine Guild of Charlottesville, or by contacting your favorite local wineshop.

Messias 10-year tawny port: One of the premier values in this market, the messias pairs with innumerable dishes both sweet and savory. On the dryer side of the tawny style, there are subtle citrus notes woven between almonds, dates, and cedar that help keep the wine from ever being too heavy. Its texture is slick and soft, and despite its relatively light weight, it has enough sugar to coat your palate. Most impressive, though, is the complexity and depth of the wine as it opens up. The Messias pleasantly evolves for days or weeks in its bottle after being opened, gaining more oxidative sherry-like notes and abandoning any tannic edge it may have had when first uncorked.

Retail cost: $25.99. Poured by the glass or bottle at Hamiltons’ and Maya, available for purchase from The Wine Guild of Charlottesville, or by contacting your favorite local wine shop.

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