Port: A Capital Idea

Posted: Mar 07, 2009 12:01 AM
Port: A Capital Idea

The chill of winter isn’t the only time to consider a warming glass of Port, the stuff with a capital P. But I can think of few other wines that so befit the climate.

The British love their Portuguese Port year-around, so much so that many of the great Port houses now have English names because they were bought by wealthy Englishmen. The names include the six owned by the house of Symington -- Dow, Grahamn, Gould Campbell, Quarles Harris, Smith Woodhouse and Ware -- as well as Robertson, Cockburn, and Croft.

As such, Port is nearly as great a part of British tradition as is the royal family. The lore of the drink is extensive, notably the vintage-dated stuff that carries images of dusty old bottles stashed in a dank cellar for decades. The best are long-lived and treasured.

During revolutionary times, Americans drank a lot of fortified wine such as Port and madeira, but we don’t view port as an almost national tradition the way the Brits do.

Port’s English heritage can be seen to this day in private clubs (men settle into oversized, fireplace-facing leather armchairs with a glass of Port) and universities (a special pleasure for professors and students alike). Even modest pubs offer it to ward off the chill.

One reason the great Port producers of Oporto, Porugal, have a more difficult time selling the stuff here is that many Americans are old enough to remember when port, the stuff with the lower-case p, was really not a very interesting drink. It was cheap, hot, harsh, and intended to create a buzz.

Mostly, it was downed it from the bottle, out of a paper sack.

The greatest Port of all, vintage Port, has the attention of wine collectors who love to age the wines until they get mellow. Most Port collectors have 20-year-old wines, and older. Wines from the great 1977 vintage are prized; the famed 1963 Ports are still considered to be youthful.

Tawny is the Port with the broadest distribution in the United States and that’s because it can be found at reasonable prices, needs no additional aging when it’s sold, and has some of the characteristics that harmonize with cheeses after dinner.

Tawny ports are aged for a long time in old casks, so the character they offer is more from slow, controlled oxidation and maturation than of wood. The aromas are fruity, but with a caramel and toasted nut sort of note to them.

The best old tawnies are 40 years of age (designated as such on the front label), followed by wines with less age, down to an average age of 10 years. The 40-year-old tawnies can be as expensive as vintage ports, and are sublime wines with smoothness and a balanced sweetness.

Regular tawny port from most of the major houses is often a treat with Stilton cheese and sourdough toast points. And when the cheese is all gone, I have no problem pairing an old tawny with dark chocolate.

Wine of the Week: Nonvintage Warre’s King’s Tawny, Oporto ($13) -- There are better tawnies on the market, but they run $20 or more. This lighter-styled wine has a faint hint of black pepper alongside plums, blackberry, and an uncomplicated sweet finish.