Port is not for the very young, the vain and the active. It is the comfort of age and the companion of the scholar and the philosopher.
Foodstuff: Port Wine
Shortened from Oporto, the city in northwest Portugal from which the wine was originally shipped; from o porto “the port.”
Port wine is a fortified wine made from grapes grown in the Douro Valley region of Portugal. (This is one of the greatest wine rivers in the world, as it also feeds the Ribera del Duero wines that come from farther upriver in Spain.) Also known as Vinho do Porto or Porto, this typically sweet wine is one of our favorite ways to end a meal, whether served with dessert or as an indulgence all on its own. In the kitchen, however, port’s richness lends itself well to enhancing sauces to accompany game meats and other savory dishes – and yes, we’ve been experimenting. Though port is most frequently known as a sweet wine, it can also be found in semi-dry or extra dry varieties – it all depends upon the fermentation process.
Port has a heavier consistency than non-fortified wines due to the addition of distilled, clear grape spirits to the wine juices during fermentation. These spirits halt the fermentation process, retaining the wine’s sweetness before all its sugar is converted to alcohol. (Note: Adding the spirits to the wine after fermentation results in a dry fortified wine such as sherry, which comes from Jerez in the Andalusia region of neighboring Spain.)
As with Champagne, there are many imitations of port crafted throughout the world, but under the strict guidelines of the European Union, only Portugal’s product can officially be labeled as port; within Portugal, the wine’s production is overseen by the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto. U.S. guidelines also specify that port from Portugal be labeled Porto or Vinho do Porto.
We can thank the English for port’s present popularity, as they found it an apt substitute for French wines during the tumultuous 1700s, when they were unable to purchase the grape juices of their wartime enemy. The Methuen Treaty of 1703 reduced import duties on Portuguese wines, enabling English merchants to have their fill of grape-induced reverie. The treaty also paved the way for English entrepreneurs, as can be seen on the Anglican labels of port wines from Sandeman to Taylor Fladgate.
Port was initially fortified to keep it from spoiling during the rough sea voyage from Portugal to France, but at that time its alcohol content was much lower (3% compared with today’s 19-22%). Quality unfortunately varied a great deal, however, prompting the creation of the Companhia Geral dos Vinhos do Alto Douro in 1756 by the Marques do Pombal. The organization was founded to oversee production qualities and prevent fraudulent activities among port producers. Today that duty is overseen by the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto.
Types of Port
Tawny ports are made from fortified red wines aged in oak barrels, a process that exposes them to gradual oxidation and evaporation. As a result, they gradually mellow to a golden-brown color. The tawny develops a nutty, complex flavor, and the resultant wines are blended to achieve the signature style of the winemaker.
To be called Tawny Reserve, the port must be a blend of wines spending at minimum seven years in oak barrels. Tawny “with an indication of age” is a blend of several vintages, with the average years in wood stated on the label. These ports can be labeled 10 year, 20 year, 30 year, and over 40 years.
The cheapest forms of Tawny Port are young wines made from a blend of red and white grapes. Unlike Tawny Reserve and Tawnies with an indication of age, they may have spent little or no time maturing in wood. Tawny ports from a single vintage are called Colheitas (pronounced col-YATE-ah, meaning harvest).
Garrafeira is an intermediate vintage dated style of Port comprising grapes from a single harvest (therefore it is not a blended port). Garrafeira is the result of some time spent in barrel and the remainder in large glass containers called demijohns.
Ruby port is the most common type of port, and therefore the cheapest. Unlike Tawny and Garrafeira ports, Rubies are aged for only 3 to 5 years, and are not aged in oak, so they do not develop the oxidization characteristic of tawny port. They are aged in stainless steel tanks after the fermentation process, preserving their bright red or claret color (hence the name). The wine is also fined and cold-filtered to remove sediments and particulates before it is bottled.
White port is made from white grapes, and can be used as the basis for a cocktail, or served on its own. White ports range in style from dry to very sweet, and should always be served cool or cold.
Vintage port has the smallest production, hence is the most coveted. The most highly prized of Portuguese wines, vintage ports are only made in exceptional years declared as such by the port house. Much as with Champagne, due to the need for highest quality, not all years are declared as vintage years; the decision is made in the spring of the second year following the harvest, when the quality of the wine can be determined. Vintage ports are aged in barrel for a maximum of 2 ½ years before they are bottled, and are usually aged for another 10 to 30 years in bottle before they are at the ideal point for drinking.
Unlike tawnies, vintage ports are only in barrel for a short time, and thus retain their deep colors and fruit structure. Older vintage ports are some of the most expensive wines in the world, because they can continue to improve with the years. (In Portugal, it is considered a great honor to purchase a vintage port from a baby’s birth year, to be drunk when they, like the wine, are mature.)
Serving Port: A Quirky Tradition
Port is commonly served after meals as a dessert wine, while white and tawny ports are typically served as an apéritif.
If you really wish to embrace tradition in serving your glasses of port, the English have (of course) developed a particular standard of etiquette for service, which goes way back to British naval officers.
Traditionally the wine is passed “port to port,” where the host pours a glass for the person seated to his right, then passes the bottle or decanter to his left (his port side). This process continues around the table.
If the port becomes forestalled at some point, it is considered poor form to ask for the decanter directly (and we know how the English feel about poor form). Instead, the thirsty person must ask the person with the bottle: “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” (said Bishop was apparently quite stingy). If the keeper of the port is unaware of the ritual (and so replies in the negative), the querent will remark “He’s an awfully nice fellow, but he never remembers to pass the port.”
A technical solution to the potential problem of a guest forgetting their manners and ‘hogging’ the port can be found in a Hogget Decanter which has a rounded bottom, which makes it impossible to put it down until it has been returned to the host, who can rest it in a specially designed wooden stand known as “the Hogget”.
In other old English traditions when port is decanted, commonly at the dining table, the whole bottle should be finished in one sitting by the diners, and the table should not be vacated until this is done (source: Wikipedia).
The sweetness of chocolate is a wonderful complement to port, as are stewed fruits. We love to poach succulent pears in ruby port and serve them with a chocolate raspberry sauce, and we are highly partial to figs poached in ruby port. Game meats and blue veined cheeses such as Stilton or Gorgonzola also go very well with this elixir (port does not go as well with milder cheeses, so take note). Tawny ports go well with almonds and almond desserts, or dishes flavored with caramel.
Naturally we couldn’t resist trying all sorts of port variations, from savory duck and veal dishes to some gorgeous Pastry Princess dessert specialties. See our Test Kitchen Notes blog for some port ruminations by her majesty.
Pear Panna Cotta with Port Gelée
Red & White Salad with Candied Pecans in a Port Reduction, Figs and Chèvre
Veal Scallopini with Grapes and Port Wine Reduction
Seared Duck Breast with Figged Port Demi-Glace
Chocolate and Caramel Tart with Port Ganache
Cherry Port Sauce
To find more port wine facts and history, visit the official site of port, the Instituto dos Vinhos do Duoro e Porto, as well as www.portwine.com, which has notes on everything from harvesting to sipping.
We also found the Culinary Institute of America’s Exploring Wine to be an invaluable resource for all sorts of wine information.
For food and wine pairing advice, we love to reference Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page’s What to Drink with What You Eat.