Corkscrew - Portly obsession

The misunderstood Portuguese gem

A few words describe my passion for port: ebullient, religious, obsessed. With words flowing like a madwoman, I've converted more nonbelievers than Scientology, extolling its vinous virtues like Tom Cruise on a roll. It's just so damn good. Port's robust, lush caramel, dried-fruit sweetness is not only perfect with a salty slab of Stilton blue cheese but also effectively erases a sucky day at the office. But because it doesn't fall into the convenient dry table-wine category, it's unfortunately misunderstood. Time to right that wrong.

Port wine (or Porto in Portuguese) developed out of necessity in the 17th century. Back then, as today, Britain was one of Portugal's largest wine customers. After realizing hot summer boat rides up the coast were cooking the red wine, Portuguese producers began adding brandy to stabilize it. This brilliant solution curbed spoilage, stopped additional fermentation and left the natural sugar unfermented, so a sweeter, higher-alcohol treat remained. This remedy is also why port remains fresh long after regular table wines go south – six months to a year if you keep it airtight. Not that it lasts that long in my house.

From these creative chemistry origins 250 years ago, several styles emerged – five varieties of red port and a rarely seen white version. Ruby port, the youngest and most alcoholic, with loads of up-front fruit, is the Britney Spears of port – unrefined. But for the uninitiated, a soft, mellow tawny port is the better choice.

Both tawny and ruby are blends from several years, so there's no vintage on the label, but some tawnies carry a 10-, 20-, 30- or 40-year designation, indicating the average amount of time the wine spent in oak barrel. On the other hand, vintage port comes from a single harvest year. Rich, full of fruit flavor and aromatic, it's only produced when wine makers "declare" a vintage – when the conditions are particularly notable. It's then aged in barrel for two years and peaks in flavor after 15 to 30 years of bottle age. Vintage port is drinkable before then, but only if a desiccated tongue rocks your world.

The fourth variety of port is late-bottled vintage, produced from grapes harvested in one year, but aged twice as long in oak barrels. And the fifth type – "vintage character," "special" or "reserve" port – is a blend of high-quality ruby ports from several different years. These often taste smoother and less sweet than regular rubies and cost slightly more.

And port ain't cheap. But there's a reason. True Portuguese port endures a rigorous quality schedule. It begins in the vineyards, steep and rugged, that must be handpicked. Once produced, every bottle is sent to the governing Port Institute for approval, where it's judged for color, taste, aroma and chemical composition. If a bottle passes, it earns a unique quality seal.

Like the rules for Champagne, wineries outside Portugal shouldn't legally call their fortified wines "port," but they do. Australia's and California's fortified wine prices, often $10-$20 lower than ports, reflect a less restrictive approval process – the winemaker's whim. They make port-style wines out of anything they feel like, or they use the traditional Portuguese varieties – Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão. Although I feel slightly guilty, like I'm buying a knockoff Kate Spade on Canal Street, they're pretty tasty. And they make my sucky days less painful.


Recommended wines

Taylor Fladgate 40-Year Tawny Port (Portugal) Sw = 6. $135. 5 stars

Grant Burge 10-Year Tawny Port (Australia) Sw = 7. $20. 4 1/2 stars

Galway Pipe Tawny Port (Australia) Sw = 7. $30. 4 1/2 stars

Fonseca Bin 27 (Portugal) Sw = 5. $18. 4 stars

Benjamin Tawny Port (Australia) Sw = 6. $12. 4 stars

Sandeman 20-Year Tawny (Portugal) Sw = 8. $40. 4 stars

Clocktower Tawny Port (Australia) Sw = 6. $15. 3 1/2 stars

Graham 10-Year Tawny Port (Portugal) Sw = 7. $30. 3 1/2 stars

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.

More By This Writer


Wednesday September 2, 2009 04:00 am EDT

This refreshing rosé blend made from grenache, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and dolcetto (an Italian grape) smells like sweet, perfumey fruit. On the tongue, itís soft íní elegant, with cranberry, sweet cherry, ripe strawberries and fresh, lively acidity. Quite perfect, really. Perfect for any occasion, even happy ones. Sw= 2. $17 retail. 5 stars.  

Available by the bottle at 4th and Swift in...

| more...


Wednesday September 2, 2009 04:00 am EDT
What to do during life transitions | more...


Wednesday August 26, 2009 04:00 am EDT
My first Wineries that Wow entry is Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery, a family-run business that has finally turned a corner. I haven't been impressed with them in years, until I tried this fantastic pinot noir from their estate vineyards. Elegant with lush, dark cherry earthiness, excellent tart acidity and ripe plum with a flirty, sweet raspberry and strawberry finish. Luscious and worth the... | more...


Wednesday August 19, 2009 04:00 am EDT
A look at what people are drinking | more...


Thursday August 13, 2009 09:40 pm EDT
image-1I walk in the door with sweat still dewing my face, having just transitioned from goosebumpy temps at the office, walking through roasting heat, then into a baking sauna doubling as my dark-blue vehicle. In 95 degrees, the air conditioning has little hope of keeping up and it groans under the stress. I refocus on positive thoughts, the contents of my fridge: ribeye steaks, homemade... | more...
Search for more by Taylor Eason

[Admin link: Corkscrew - Portly obsession]

Spider for Corkscrew - Portly obsession