When it comes to wine and wine-based beverages, the number of options out there is near-countless. Not only are there hundreds upon hundreds of varietals of grapes, but once those grapes are turned into wine, the spectrum of potent potables expands even more. One category, fortified wines, is often overlooked, even though it shouldn’t be, and of the fortified wines, we think there is one you should try ASAP: port.
Though port is a complex and versatile beverage, it, unfortunately (and undeservedly) is typically relegated to either one of two pigeon holes: fireside sipping in a Churchill biopic or as a dessert drink after holiday meals when you’re quietly waiting for your relatives to leave. Both cases often require a cigar in hand to complete the picture. And there’s a simple reason for this: People do what they know, and what port is known for being consumed during stuffy, semi-formal occasions often presented through a Victorian lens.
We’re not saying that a Churchill biopic or post-dinner digestif aren’t excellent times to consume port, because they definitely are. We just think poor, misunderstood port deserves attention outside of parlor-time at the end of a long cold Dickensian night.
So, in order to give port the respect and attention it deserves as one of the most storied beverages in the wine and spirits world, we put together a quick and dirty guide to all things port.
What Is Port Wine?
Port is a fortified wine, which essentially means that it’s a careful blend of wine and spirit (in this case, brandy). The blending achieves two things: It makes the drink stronger (better for customers) and it makes the drink more shelf-stable (better for producers). Historically, though, the blending was done to achieve the simplest way to export wine cheaply and safely over long distances.
Because of the rich, syrupy liquid that results from the process of adding spirits to wine, however, port is located on a far corner of the wine world’s diagram along with other strong wines like Madeira, sherry, marsala, and vermouth. It can be used more or less in the same ways as those spirits: consumed straight, mixed in cocktails or punches, or as an ingredient in cooking when a recipe calls for a lot of flavor and a little de-glazing.
Styles of Port
There are four main styles of port. They are:
A bright and fruity unaged white grape fortified wine. There are some older ones that can be consumed on their own, but most of the white port on the market today is best in cocktails. (You can read more about Porto Tónicos, the current most popular way to drink white port, here.)
The most common style of port, it’s vibrant red and equally vibrant in flavor. Generally, they’re aged in steel or concrete tanks so they don’t take a lot of flavor from wood or oxidization. They can be used in cocktails and are great in punch recipes. Reserve Port is a particular subcategory of Ruby.
Tawny ports are aged in oak barrels and mellow in flavor and color over time. They’re great neat as a dessert wine or as a casual beverage early on in the night. They’re typically aged about five years.
Vintage and Late Bottle Vintage
Vintage ports are made entirely of grapes from a single vintage. The main difference between vintage and LBV is that the former is more expensive, coming from a year that is a Declared Vintage, which are years when the wine industry collectively agrees that they have had an exceptional harvest. LBV may not have notoriety, but it’s often significantly cheaper (and sometimes just as good) as regular Vintage port.
How to Drink Port
Vintage, LBV, and tawny ports belong in your hand, in a glass, on their own. With few exceptions, there isn’t a lot of reason to mix these beverages, though you will occasionally find tawny used in some cocktail recipes in place of vermouth (which we enjoy thoroughly).
We mentioned using ruby port in punch recipes, but one of our favorite drinks is the white port and tonic. It’s a simple half and half mixed drink, to taste (we like a little more tonic in ours). It’s good for day-drinking and surprisingly well balanced for warm or cold weather. A few drops of citrus bitters can spice it up, but, honestly, the traditional lemon, lime, or mint garnish is all you need.
Best Port Wines to Try
White: Fonseca Siroco Extra Dry White Port – $20
One of the most popular white ports in the States, Fonseca Siroco Extra Dry is inexpensive to have on hand for those easy-drinking afternoon mixed beverages.
Ruby: Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve – $20
We like Graham’s Six Grape because it’s great to sip but can also double as a tasty floater on sour cocktails.
Tawny: Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny – $50
The 20-year-old tawny from Taylor Fladgate is a great benchmark for the tawny world, and its nutty, vanilla heavy character makes it a great first experience for anyone who wants to switch from whiskey, for instance.
Vintage and Late Bottle Vintage: Dow’s LBV Vintage 2011 – $25
An affordable but complex LBV that demonstrates port versatility no matter how you try and use it. If you’re only buying one bottle of port, consider starting with this one from Dow’s.
Article originally published by Clay Whittaker on December 17, 2017. Last updated March 2020.
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