How best to celebrate World Sherry Day, Sunday, May 26th?
By writing about port, of course.
Sherry Schmerry, Quite Contrary…
…we know where your garden grows. Spain, specifically Puerto de Santa María, Jerez and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Don’t get me wrong, I love sherry in all its oxidized, fortified, solerafied beauty, with its historical significance (a favorite of Christopher Columbus, William Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe) and more faces than Dr. Lao.
It’s just that I was born breech, and ever since, I have tended to do things bass ackward. So today I write about port, and on World Port Day in January, 2014, I will write about sherry. Or maybe I will write about Dutch warships since there is another World Port Day held annually in Rotterdam in commemoration not of the high-octane Portuguese potable, but of the place where big boats hide during storms.
Before I delve in the meat and potatoes and tinta barroca, tinta cão, touriga francesa or any of the other hundred approved port grape varieties, I should probably step up to the copita and offer a very brief, woefully inadequate overview of the wine and her many styles.
Port is made exclusively in the Douro Valley in Portugal; it is generally a sweet, red wine reserved for dessert. Like sherry, it is fortified, meaning that fermentation is halted before it’s done with the addition of a neutral spirit known as aguardiente. This preserves the natural grape sugars and raises the subsequent wine’s alcohol-by-volume to around 19%.
Port comes in many styles, but these can be whittled down in category to two:
- Wines aged in barrels, whose microscopic porosity allows for the passage in of air and out of evaporated port. So, the resulting wine is slightly oxidized and more concentrated, resulting in an odd, but desirable viscosity.
- Wines aged in airtight bottles, which leads to a much slower aging process and retains the bright purple color of youth until opened, whereupon these wines will tend to be much less long-lived that their oak-aged cousins.
Here’s a bit more detail:
Tawny Port: Tawnies begin life as ruby ports, then climb into an oak barrel for a minimum of two years, which imparts to their profile nice, nutty overtones. Tawny ports are slightly oxidized, which accounts for their burnished brown-gold color, and are medium sweet to sweet wines. Those that bear an official ‘age’ designation are blends of ports whose barrique-age averages 10, 20, 30 or 40 years.
Colheita: A tawny port from a single vintage specified on the label. Unlike ‘Vintage Port’, which sees about 18 months in oak, Colheita Ports may have been aged for up to 20 years.
Garrafeira: A rare incarnation that combines qualities both of oak aged and vintage Ports, the wine is highly regulated by the IVDP (Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto, Port’s legal advisory board).
Ruby: Ruby is the youngest, lightest and easiest to understand of the myriad styles of the genre. Characterized by fresh berry flavors, it is blended to the tastes of individual producers, but generally contains at least five of 48 allowable Port grapes. Bright, stable, sassy and full-bodied, Ruby is the cheapest of the bottle-aged Ports.
Vintage Character Port: Emphasis on ‘Character’. Such Ports are richer that Rubies and must be approved by the IVDP’s tasting panel—the Câmara de Provadores. They are considered to be the standard-bearers for a producer’s ‘house style’ and legally, they are now referred to as ‘Reserve’ Ports.
White Port: Formerly a winemaker’s afterthought, prominent shipper Ernest Cockburn once loudly opined that ‘the first duty of port is to be red.’ Thanks for that slice of brilliance, Ernie, and also for your nonsensical name—when I was a sommelier and somebody asked, ‘Do you have any Cockburns?’ I replied, ‘Only if I use sandpaper.’
Bouncy, lightweight and somewhat unsophisticated, white ports are made from a variety of white wine grapes, including esgana cão meaning ‘dog strangler’. They slip down nicely as an aperitif, lightly chilled and often mixed with tonic and/or Cointreau.
Rosé Port: Silly but sincere, this is Port’s red-haired stepchild; a new category released by Pocas and Croft of the Taylor Fladgate Partnership. Rosé Port is a bit of a joke, whose critical reception was something out of the demolition derby—in part because it isn’t particularly good.
Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV): Perhaps the least understood, and in ways, most palatable among the Ports, LBVs are the product of a single, but often ‘undeclared’ harvest; for the most part, they are ready to drink upon release. They can be found in two styles—filtered, which require no decanting, and unfiltered, which do—but which, unlike filtered Ports, can improve with a few more years of bottle aging. Meant to replicate some of the character of Vintage Ports, they are lighter, less complex, and certainly less expensive than the blockbusters from declared vintages, but the latter make up only about 2% of the regions output and can be priced into the low stratosphere. Nonetheless, LBVs undergo rigorous organoleptic testing by the Câmara de Provadores before they’re awarded the coveted Selo de Garantia—Port’s equivalent of an Emmy.
Crusted: A wine that wants to be all things to all people at all times, Crusted Port is blended from the two or three vintages and cask matured without filtration, resulting in its casting off a scab-like ‘crust’ of sediment made of grape residue. These wines are dense, velvety and ripe, but have never been well-known or particularly popular and today, the category is nearly dead.
Vintage: Finally, the most venerable, concentrated and long-lasting of the Ports, from vintages ‘declared’ by conventional shippers only about three times per decade. They’re barrel-aged for a maximum of 2 ½ years before bottling to preserve the ruby color and fresh-berry flavors, but they require another ten to forty years in the bottle before they reach full maturity. (Sensational wines from single vineyard sources in years not ‘declared’ are often sold as ‘Single Quinta’ Ports).
A Port in A Storm Still Should Be Warm
Although white port can benefit from a little chill, red ports should be served at room temperature—provided your room is around 65° F. These wines are meant as a post-prandial snort, which sounds sexual but is not, and is often served alongside cheese, for which port has particular affinity for stilton.
Trending currently is stirring up cocktails in which port takes center stage. I have sampled some dogs, but this one wound up being pretty intriguing:
2 oz. Sandeman Founders Reserve Port
1/2 oz. Ballentine’s Blended Scotch Whisky
3/4 oz. blood orange juice
3/4 oz. sweet honey-cucumber water (diluted honey in warm water in a 1:6 ratio, add cucumber slices, steep until desired flavor is achieved, remove solids)
Cucumber slice, for garnish
Add all ingredients except garnish sparkling water—club soda, seltzer, whatever. Pour bubbles over all.
Bung, Bung, Bung, Bung Bung, Bung, Bung, Bung, Bung, Bung, Bung, Mr. Sandeman, Turn On Your Beam, Mr. Sandeman, Please, Please Bring Us a Dream…
Dream on, George Massiot Brown. He’s the artist who designed the Sandeman label, among the coolest and most iconic logos for a wine I am aware of. It exemplifies the brooding darkness and furtive depth found in all really good vintage ports.
Founded in 1790 by Scotsman George Sandeman, his ambitious constitution saw a quick growth in his wine business, and in 1805, he became the first in the trade to brand his casks—this, in an era when ‘brand’ names (the origin of that term) were virtually unknown. The brand was registered as a trademark in 1877, making it one of the oldest in the world.
Seven generations later, a new George Sandeman sits at the helm of the company. He is a portoholic in the finest sense of the word, of course, but seems to have a particular affinity for his ‘Founder’s Reserve’—that, or he is trying to move it. In any case, he brings it up a lot, mentioning that it is a perfect match for dark chocolate (it is) as well as artesian cheese, pecan pie and tiramisu. It is, it is, it is.
And, that’s what Mr. Sandeman (actually, Emily at the thomas collective) sent me; the bottle arrived yesterday, and that is really why I am writing about port on sherry day—although, if that bit of blasphemy sticks in your craw like a bung in a barrel, be assured that Sandeman is equally well known for a remarkable line of sherries.
Sandeman’s Founders Reserve Porto, around $20: Selected from the finest lots of several vintages, then aged for five years, Founder’s Reserve is among the best value ports on the market. Jammy and dense, filled with black cherry, blackberry and especially, passion fruit, the wine shores up the inherent sweetness with a bracing, balancing acidity. Go for the Fizz if you are under thirty, but if you are all grown up, do it right: Bottle to copita to gullet.