A Question of Port (Pass Port to the Left)

Norwich Bulletin - 1998


An old English saying goes "all wine would be port if it could"

Port is an excellent after dinner drink, especially during the holidays. Its complexity and richness rounds the end of a good meal, and is a perfect foil to such simple after-dinner desserts as walnuts and apples. Cox's Orange Pippin, that hard-to-find variety of apple, is ideal.

What is port? Simply put, port is a fortified wine. Raw brandy is added to wine at the end of it's fermentation. Stopping the fermentation process creates a residual sweetness which blends in time with the raw brandy. As many as twelve different types of wine grapes are used, including such rare and strange-named types as Touriga, Bastardo, Mourisca and Tinta Francisca. This classic "port" comes only from Portugal, but there are now many areas in the world that are producing excellent port-like beverages.

Although there are many types of port, three are most popular and easily found.

Vintage port is the ultimate in port experience. It is expensive, priced anwhere between $30 to $70, but this seems reasonable considering the experience. In Portugal, only exceptional years are deemed good enough to be declared vintage. "Quintas", or single vineyard bottlings by some estates, can be found in other years. The port is bottled after only two years of aging in wooden barrels. This means the port ages very slowly. It takes 20 years or more for the brandies and wine to meld into the rich, deeply colored and smooth wine that is port. Vintage port must be decanted the day before serving to separate the wine from the sediment, or "crust". Some ports still maturing after 50 years are, as you can imagine, hard to find. 1977 was universally touted as the last great year, but look for 1983, 1984, 1985, 1991, 1994, by Fonseca, Croft, Dow, Graham or Taylor.

Late-bottled vintage port is bottled after spending about five years in wooden casks. It matures much quicker, is far less expensive and is lighter in character but still retains the essential character of good port. Taylor and Quinta do Noval make exceptional L.B.V. ports for under $19. You might also try Ficklin and Woodbridge ports that are made in California using Portuguese methods and grape types.

Tawny Port is often preferred by drinkers who like a lighter port. It is aged for many years in wood which gives it its lighter color and character. Good Portuguese tawnies can be expensive, but excellent, reasonably priced examples (from $7 to $12) are now being produced in Australia, South Africa and California. Australia is making exceptional tawny ports. Try the Yalumba, Clocktower or the Seppelt Trafford Ports. All these are priced under $12. The advantage of the less expensive tawny port is that a bottle may be drunk over a number of days or even weeks. Vintage port should be drunk sooner or it will start to deteriorate.

A note on serving. Traditionally, the decanter or bottle of Port is passed clockwise around the table after dinner to stimulate conversation and good will. To pass the port across the table or counterclockwise invites the devil to make mischief, as apparently he resides behind your right shoulder!

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