Port wine has recently been thought of as a rather dated drink for fusty old men, and surrounded with some sort of strange unfathomable rituals; decanting, passing it clockwise from right to left, let alone the confusing number of different types and House brand names!
However I am encouraged to find lots of younger people enjoying Port, mainly the lighter styles which don't need decanting (and who would have thought as recently as ten years ago that Gin would all of a sudden become the most fashionable spirit on sale!?).
I suppose history has a lot to answer for in the image Port has. You can go back to 1703, when Britain (who was at war with France), signed a treaty with Portugal both Military and importantly for Trade. The British could not get wines from France, but the British Navy had a useful Port at Oporto in the Douro region of Portugal. Here is where they managed to discover many good wines.
They soon discovered that in warm climates the wine lasted do much better if fortified with Brandy, so the wine as we know it now was created. The Navy also started the traditions around passing the Port, from starboard to port (right to left). In the meantime, the landed gentry back home also found that Port aged very well and became much better to drink after years in the cellar, however after a few years it threw a thick sediment, so needed decanting.
At this time English and Scottish merchants set up thriving wine businesses in Oporto, and they still flourish today. Names like Taylor, Graham, Cockburn, Smith Woodhouse, Croft, Sandeman and many more are some of the names still thriving.
Anyway, what better time to explore Port and its delights than over the Christmas holiday at the end of a good dinner, or just sitting in front of a warm fire?
Anyway, what better time to explore Port and its delights than over the Christmas holiday at the end of a good dinner, or just sitting in front of a warm fire? I will hopefully give you a quick guide to help.
The entry level for Port is Ruby Port. This is young juicy sweet wine with a good wallop of alcohol at 19%-20%. Every port House has one, and they are very good value. Try Taylor’s Fine Ruby for £9.99. Sweet, rich with lots of fruit and perfect with Blue Cheese. Stilton is a perfect match, and what better way to finish a Christmas feast?
Another Ruby, but much more complex and elegant is Late Bottled Vintage or LBV. Young wine from a single vintage which has been aged in the Port House's cellars and then bottled ready for drinking. These don't throw a sediment so don't need decanting. (If you find what is called Traditional LBV, they will need decanting, but more on that shortly)
One of my favourite LBV's is Taylor's, now incredible value for a wine worth at least £15 but currently at Amazon for £9!
We then come onto Tawny Port, and these come with an age, either ten year old, 20, 30 and even 40 year old. These in some ways are my favourite wines, as you get all the benefits of a mature complex wine, without having to decant or age the wine yourself. These wines are aged in barrel by the producer, often and mostly blended to give a mature style but still with good fruit. Graham’s 10 year Old is excellent and on sale for £15.35 at Waitrose.
But I was intriqued and delighted to find a 40 year old in Aldi for £34.99. This is delicious, gentle from age, but with a cornucopia of flavours, nuts, dates, prunes, raisins, yet sweet and luscious. Great value for such an esteemed old wine.
Then we come on to the top wines, which do need decanting. If you don't have a decanter handy, you can use a jug.
Carefully open the bottle without shaking or disturbing the sediment. It is good to have good light as you pour it so you can see when the sediment starts to make the wine cloudy. Tip the sediment away, or use in the gravy, then wash out and drain the empty bottle.
Pour the wine back into the clean bottle. This can actually be good fun to go through on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning - as long as you don't get in the way of the cook!
These aged wines are given a Vintage around three or four times a decade only, when the vintage is at its best. They are expensive and can be kept for many years. The 1927s 1945, 1948, 1955 and 1963's are all still superb if they have been kept well. They are slightly nutty and pale but still have lovely intense fruit.
On the ladder to the very finest you can find great wines declared in lesser vintages but from the best vineyards. They are called Single Quinta, the quinta being the farm where the grapes are grown up the Douro valley. Quinta De Terra Feita from Taylors has the 2005 on sale at Majestic for £24.99 when you mix six.
Finally we get to the top of the tree. Every House has its Vintage Port and good merchants often have several to choose from.
One of the great things about Port is that it is a complex wine, given complexity by skilfull blending of different grape varietals, different vineyards, and for some Ports different Vintages. All these different component wines making complex and beautifully balanced wines.
There are also some oddities, some of which are great wines. The Colheita Ports are Vintage wines aged in cask till ready rather like Tawny but from a single good year. Kopke make great wine in this style which Waitrose have the excellent 1999 vintage for £32.99.
Then there are some "Crusted " ports, Fonseca make a good wine for £14.69 in several outlets. and as the name suggests it is aged in bottle and throws a sediment, so needs decanting.
Finally there is White Port and a thing called Rose Port. I have to confess that I haven’t tried Rose Port, which I guess is a marketing idea to try to broaden the market following the trend and fashion for rose wines. Try Baronesa de Vilar from Laithwaite’s – I’d love to hear your thoughts. They describe it as the perfect aperitif with flavours of Strawberry, Cherry and redcurrant.
White Port made from the various white grapes grown up the Douro, and mixed with tonic and a large sprig of fresh mint, as drunk in Portugal, makes a wonderfully refreshing summer drink when it's hot. I recommend the Quinta da Pedra Alta White Port from Master of Malt.
So try a few glasses of some good warming Port over the Christmas holiday, but remember it is fortified and at 19-20% alcohol is four or five times the strength of beer and nearly twice the strength of wines, so be careful, and treat it like the treat it is.
Christopher Burr, MW,
11th December 2020