Slowly, port is shedding its image of old-fashioned grandeur. While the sweet after-dinner quaff still suffers from stodgy connotations of a pipe-smoking grandfather reading Proust by the fireplace, this antiquated perception is unfortunate. Like sherry, which has seen an explosive nationwide resurgence thanks to bartenders weaving it into their contemporary concoctions, port is a fortified wine modern-day imbibers are beginning to rediscover. Sipped on its own, it’s a silky complement to the likes of post-prandial bleu cheese and bittersweet chocolate ganache tarts, or can even be relished alongside pork tenderloin; incorporated into cocktails, it adds a luxurious heft welcomed in autumnal tipples. Behold, an abbreviated primer on Portugal’s oft-misunderstood wine.
What Is Port?
In the same company as sherry, Madeira, and Marsala, port is a fortified wine—not to be confused with dessert wines like foie gras–happy Sauternes from France or Tokaji from Hungary, which boast large quantities of natural sugar. A fortified wine means its fermentation process has been halted by a jolt of grape spirit or brandy. This additional surge of alcohol ensures residual sugar and the sweet, lush mouthfeel synonymous with port. History buffs, take note: This process traces its roots back to the 18th century, when a spat between Great Britain and France led the Brits to Portugal to indulge their usually French-sated wine habits. A reinforcement of brandy ensured the wine they procured would still be fresh after the long haul back home. A roll call of such well-known port producers, including Taylor’s, Croft, Sandeman, and Graham’s, signifies how intertwined port’s history is with Great Britain’s.
Port is made exclusively in Portugal’s remote, verdant Douro Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the northern part of the country that is hailed as the world’s oldest demarcated wine region. On intensely steep hillsides, narrow terraces of vineyards teem with indigenous grape varieties like Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, and Tinto Cão.
The mountainous landscape is staggering, best glimpsed from a train winding its way up from charming Oporto, the coastal city from which the wine takes its name. Although the grapes are grown in the Douro Valley, they have long been brought down the river in rabelo boats to be aged and bottled in the more weather-opportune caves of Vila Nova de Gaia, then marketed and exported from Oporto. At least one night in Oporto, say, dining on cod with “exploding” olives at Cantinho do Avillez and sleeping at the glamorous wine-themed The Yeatman hotel—where a treatment at the Caudalíe Vinothérapie Spa is mandatory—provides an urban contrast to the appealing rusticity of the Douro.
What Are the Styles?
Given port’s tremendous aging potential, it is available in a number of (admittedly confusing) varieties. These are the different types one is most likely to encounter on a wine list:
White port: Port immediately conjures the image of a brooding red wine, but less well-known white port is its drier, zippier sibling. Bartenders, realizing its potential as a quenching alternative to gin, are now keen to meld it with tonic in myriad permutations. In this form, or simply on the rocks with a slice of citrus, it makes for a perfect summertime aperitif.
Bottle to try: Fonseca Siroco
Pink port: Spawned from red grapes, pink port is a relative newcomer to the category. Fresh and light-bodied, it can be served chilled and mixes rather nicely in bright cocktails.
Bottle to try: Croft Pink Port
Ruby port: Affordable and accessible, ruby is a great entry point for port drinkers. Comprised of a blend of grapes that hasn’t been aged for more than three years, it’s fruity and meant to be savored young.
Bottle to try: Fonseca Bin No. 27
Tawny port: This blended port, a go-to companion for dessert, acquires its distinctive amber hue from prolonged aging in oak before bottling. When a tawny is designated a colheita, it means the bottle contains grapes from one stellar vintage.
Bottle to try: Taylor Fladgate 20-Year-Old
Vintage port: This top-notch port is the most revered, but constitutes just a tiny portion of port sales. Aged in a barrel, then unfiltered and further aged in the bottle, it acquires complexity (and crust) and stars the grapes of one spectacular vintage. Save it for special occasions.
Bottle to try: Croft 2011 Vintage Port
Late-bottled vintage port: Less expensive than coveted vintage port, these wines spend more time softening in wood and are ready to be drunk as soon as they are bottled.
Bottle to try: Niepoort 2011 Late Bottled Vintage
How Do You Drink It?
Port, in its naked, unadulterated state, is firmly entrenched in nightcap territory with good reason: It’s a heady send-off that lingers. Splurge on one of the great vintage ports and one might not crave anything else beyond good company and music. But it would also mesh nicely with aged Gouda or hearty venison. A ruby, abundant in fruit flavors, is a natural complement to desserts like blackberry cobbler or a juicy juxtaposition to a platter of smoked meats, while washing down salted almonds with white port is a magical sensation. Whether it’s with caramel flan or a chocolate layer cake, tawnies are what to seek out when the sweet tooth strikes.
But there’s now another alluring way to acquaint oneself with port, and that’s by drinking cocktails. Adrian Bridge, CEO of the Fladgate Partnership, which encompasses the brands Taylor’s, Fonseca, and Croft, says that Croft Pink was developed with cocktails especially in mind. “Port has an immense range of styles. The sommelier cares about the vintage port, but give the more accessible Croft Pink to a bartender and there are no rules. Bartenders have proven that port isn’t this scary thing that can only be sipped to toast the Queen of England,” he jokes.
At The Yeatman, which Bridge also runs, the Port Tonic is a staple, blending one part white port with two parts tonic, ice, and mint. An ideal summer tipple, it has been reimagined by countless bartenders, who turn to unexpected ingredients like basil and marmalade to give it depth. As the colder months wear on, however, it’s time for more nuanced creations like the holiday-perfect Coffee Cocktail. This frothy classic, which first appeared in the circa-1887 third edition of Jerry Thomas’s cocktail behemoth The Bartenders Guide, contains no energizing caffeine, but does unite ruby port and Cognac with a whole egg and simple syrup.
“The use of port in cocktails creates a great flavor combination because, depending on the style, it can add sweetness, tannins, and color at the same time,” says Alba Huerta, proprietress of hit Houston bar Julep. “The sugar levels are high, but the traces of wine production are also present. It can usually keep for a few weeks, unlike wine that keeps for a few days, so you can use it several times without the concern of it turning too quickly.”
Last holiday season, patrons of Cure, in New Orleans, were treated to the Bird of Paradise, mingling white port with Bittermens’ Commonwealth Tonic Liqueur, lemon juice, and whole nutmeg. Those who settle into Chicago joint Parson’s Chicken & Fish for the night can wait for their hush puppies with a Purple Drink, a mélange of table wine, port, and orange blossom water that tastes like a melted Popsicle. In New York City, at Brooklyn hangout Dram, Tonia Guffey makes the Feed Me Diamonds, an ode to the MNDR song of the same name. “It’s so eerie and beautiful,” Guffey points out. “It made me want to craft a drink around it.” The result was mixing Taylor Fladgate 10 Year Old Tawny Port with Armagnac, lemon juice, crème de cassis, and cinnamon simple syrup capped off with champagne.
“To be fed diamonds was something people would allegedly do to overthrow tyrannical figures. In this song, the dictator is her head fighting with her heart. She’s consumed by love. She says, ‘What’s the good in being good?’ To me that was like, ‘Yeah, fuck being good and behaving. Give me luxuries.’ So naturally I picked up a rich, round 10-year tawny port because it’s so decadent and elegant,” explains Guffey. “While it makes an excellent sipper, mixing with port is really sneaky and awesome because it’s got the body to hold up to spirits and the complexity is really wonderful. After shaking it up, I topped it with sparkling Brut, because again, if you’re going to be bad, be downright sinful.”
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