Random thoughts on the world of wine, presented in no particular order.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Any port in a storm.

Port refers to a type of wine, made by adding alcohol during the fermentation process, before the yeast have completely converted the sugar of the grape juice into alcohol.  Why add alcohol?  Well, it kills off the yeast (yeast die at about 17% ABV), and results in a sweet wine (as there's still residual sugar).  It's also quite strong -- most range between 18% and 21% ABV.  Most wines float between 12% and 15%!

Port is also extremely long-lived, due to the alcohol and sugar.  Properly stored, sealed and on it's side in a cellar at 55 degrees Fahrenheit, a bottle of port will be drinkable for 60 or 80 years... or more!

A bit on the history of the wine may be in order.  Port was first made in Oporto, in Portugal, at the request of the British.  Since, at the time, the British were involved in open warfare with the French, they needed a source of wine, and so turned to Portugal.  Alas, Portuguese wine was unable to withstand the rough sea voyage from Oporto to London in barrels -- it became vinegary and undrinkable -- so the Portuguese thought to add more alcohol to the wine, to better allow it to travel.  Port was born!

Traditional Ports generally fall into two categories of wines: barrel-aged and bottle-aged.  Barrel-aged Port tends to be a tawny, almost mahogany color, and exhibits nutty, sometimes gingerbread or spicy notes.  They come in a dizzying array of varieties (and prices!) but it generally comes down to aging -- the older the wine, the more you pay.  See, a barrel-aged Port isn't just something that sits in a cellar.  No, the barrels get topped off each year, so a 40-year tawny (which you should expect to pay around $100 to $150 for) has had, literally, a lifetime's work put into it.  There are two exceptions to this rule, which will be discussed later.

Then, there's bottle-aged port.  These are also called ruby ports, and they tend to be more red in color, exhibiting more berry flavors, and definitely more tannins.  These roughly break into vintage and nonvintage ports; vintage port coming from a defined "good vintage" year (as declared by the port house that makes the port) -- good years in recent memory include 1977, 1985, 1994, 2000, and 2003 -- and nonvintage ports including a blend of several years, to make a distinct "house style."  Vintage port is small production -- about 2% -- but it is the star of a Port shipper's catalogue.  Ruby ports either are aged in huge barrels over time (with little oxygen contact due to the relatively low ratio of surface area to volume), or bottled relatively quickly.

Hmm.  Vintage and nonvintage, with nonvintage being a sort of continuous product that makes money, while vintage is special and makes reputations.  Kind of like Champagne, do you think?

The two exceptions to the rules of barrel-aged ports are "colhita," which is vintage-dated tawny port -- I'll have to claim ignorance on what it's like, as I've never had one, although I would expect it to lack the breadth of flavor that you find in most tawnys, but with a lot more depth in the flavors it does have (sort of like vintage Champagne, Armagnac, and Cognac).  And there's Late Bottled Vintage, or LBV port, which is barrel-aged longer than normal vintage port and often filtered before bottling.

Why do that?  Simple; vintage port takes years to mature in the bottle... decades, really.  I shudder now to think of all the 1994's I drank when I turned 21...  over 10 years ago.  The turning point, for me, was a bottle of 1977 that I splurged on.  Tasting a matured port... well, it's luxuriant, deep, and eminently gratifying.

So if you've got space in your cellar, and the patience to wait 15 to 20 years, pick up some 2000 or 2003's (a full bottle should run $40 to $80, and a half should be $25 to $50 or so, depending on the producer and where you buy it).  And pick up a 2003 LBV while you're at it.  If you have the money, and your local shop has some, pick up some 1977, 1983, or 1985, to see what the fuss will be about in 20 years over the 2003's.

And, if you lack the patience, pick up an LBV anyhow.  Instead of dessert, serve wine.  And a little fresh fruit (raspberry tortes come to mind, as do fresh cherries).  Relax, and enjoy the magic of Port.

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