Most of you know I have enjoyed port since my golfing trip to Portugal not long after 9-11. My golf and travel buddy, Mike and I traversed the countryside each day after a round of golf. Why? In search of vintage ports, of course.
Whenever I mention port to my friends, nobody ever seems to get as excited as I do. But I think if you are willing to give it a try, and keep an open mind, you will find a reasonably priced port to enjoy and share.
So, what exactly is a vintage port?
Vintage Port is the most renowned style of Port, and it’s also one of the rarest styles, constituting just 3% to 6% of all the Port made in any given year. Vintage Port is made only in exceptional years when Port shippers “declare” a vintage. All of the grapes in the blend will come only from that vintage, and only from the very top vineyards.
Vintage Ports are first aged just two years in barrel, to round off their powerful edges. Then—and this is the key—they are aged for a long time in the bottle. During bottle aging, the vintage Port matures slowly, becoming progressively more refined and integrated. A decade’s worth of aging is standard, and several decades used to be fairly common. Indeed, Ports from the 1950s are still amazingly lively on the palate (the 1955 Cockburn’s is one of the most hauntingly delicious wines I have ever tasted or felt . . . it was sheer silk).
To maintain the intensity, balance, and richness of vintage Port, it is neither fined nor filtered. This, coupled with the fact that Port grapes have thick skins and a lot of tannin, means that vintage Port throws a great deal of sediment, and always needs to be decanted. Finally, in the years a shipper chooses not to declare a year as vintage quality, the grapes that would have gone into vintage Port are often used to make a single Quinta Port.
But you need not pay big bucks for a vintage port when you are just starting out. Ask for a recommendation and buy a half bottle. My “cheap and cheerful” suggestion is a port from nearby Ficklin Vineyards in Madera. Or email or call me.
For those of you who love chocolate, I have great news. Port does EXTREMELY well with dark chocolate.
In case you forgot, here is a little port primer for your review:
The sweet fortified wine known as Port, from the Douro region of Portugal, is one of the most complex and ageworthy wines in the world. Of the top five most important styles, aged tawny Port gets my vote for the most sublime style of Port. (So-called young tawny Port, simple and not aged very long, are not often exported). Its flavors—toasted nuts, brown sugar, figs, and vanilla—are like some otherworldly sophisticated version of cookie dough. And the texture of a great tawny is pure silk. The wines used in the blend for an aged tawny are usually wines of the highest quality. Tawny Ports are kept a minimum average of ten years in barrel until they become tawny/auburn in color.
All Ports begin as a sweet wine with about 7 percent residual sugar (70 grams sugar per liter), fortified to about 20 percent alcohol. It is the maturation and aging processes that set the styles of Port apart. Tawny Ports are blends of Ports from different years. Each of those Ports has been kept in barrels for a long period of time. Tawny Ports are labeled as either 10, 20, 30, or 40 years old, and sometimes even more. The age listed on the label is the average age of all the wines used in the blend. And it’s not a rough guess. Port Shippers are required to document the wines in the final blend, and then that final blend is sent to the Port Wine Institute to be taste-tested by an expert panel before the tawny Port can be certified and sold.
A word about sweetness. While Tawny Port is sweet, it does not taste saccharin or candylike. At least the great ones don’t. Indeed, Tawny Port made well should start off tasting sweet but finish tasting dry. That’s because the acidity, alcohol, and tannin in the wine are all carefully calibrated to balance out the sweetness. Tawny Ports are among the best-loved Ports in Portugal, France, and Britain, where they are often drunk (chilled) both as an aperitif, as well as at the close of a meal. Whatever you do, please give port a try. I think you will enjoy it as much as I have.