Any Port in a (winter) storm
To make a long story very short, genuine Port is made in Oporto, Portugal. It is a "fortified" wine, meaning that it begins life as a regular red wine made from grapes but goes through an unusual wine-making process in which brandy is added to the fermenting juice before it is finished. The result? The brandy kills the yeast before fermentation is complete, leaving a substantial amount of natural fruit sugar in the wine and also adding a powerful alcoholic punch. Thus Port is a very sweet, very strong wine that is normally served after dinner, by itself or with cheese and nuts. It contains about 20 percent alcohol, nearly double the strength of table wines, so it's best sipped in small portions!
There are several different kinds of Port, and they vary substantially in cost and style. Vintage Port, the finest kind, is made entirely of grapes grown in a specific year, and it's not made every year, only in years when nature cooperates by providing very good grapes at harvest time. By nature, Vintage Port requires many years of age before it is ready to drink. A young one will be quite rough and harsh, and it needs time in the bottle to turn it into a mellow and wonderful treat. Vintage Port "throws" a substantial sediment with time, so it is customarily served by being transferred into a decanter, taking care to leave the muddy sediment behind. Depending on age and the reputation of the vintage, the price of Vintage Port may range from about $30 to $100 or more.
Another style, Tawny Port, is kept for many years in barrels before being bottled, a process that smooths and mellows the wine while its color turns from dark ruby red to a golden brown. Tawny Ports are deliciously sweet, usually have no sediment, and are ready to drink when you buy them. Tawnies are often labeled by the time they spend in barrel - 10, 20, even 30 years or more - and are priced accordingly, from $20 or so to $100 or more.
Ruby Port is non-vintage (usually a blend of several years), and is considered less fine; compared to a well-aged Vintage Port it's typically both simple and a bit rough. But at prices ranging from under $10 to $20 or so, it's a good starting point. You'll also see variations like Late Bottled Vintage Port, which is a sort of vintage-dated Ruby, and Colheita, a vintage-dated Tawny.
A few Port-style wines are made in the U.S., and a wealth of them - mostly in the Tawny style - come from Australia. These rarely reach the heights of quality of genuine Vintage Port, but they're relatively affordable and can make delicious dessert wines.
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Inky dark ruby in color, almost opaque. Fresh blackberry and "stone fruit," plums and prunes on the nose and palate. Warm and strong, a bit harsh at first but mellows and adds an aromatic note of menthol as it opens up in the glass, showing rich sweetness and tart, tannic acidity. Seems to lack the depth of the vintage style, but the price is right. U.S. importer: World Shippers & Importers Co., Philadelphia. (Dec. 25, 1999)
FOOD MATCH: A delight with a traditional British accompaniment, blue-veined Stilton cheese.
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Vol. 1, No. 49, Dec. 27, 1999