Nothing evokes social panache like serving a good port wine. A carefully chosen port can get you laid, secure a raise or impress the in-laws. Since it's a mystery to so many, it always makes an impact, more than Scotch, more than liqueurs like Amaretto or Bailey's, and definitely more than regular wine. And, although this high-alcohol treat is an acquired taste, it's acquired quickly. The robust, syrupy, dried-fruit sweetness is made for sipping after dinner or for a late night snort. You sip because two glasses can render you a stumbling, slurring mess -- it's 17-22 percent alcohol (regular wine is 11-14 percent). But beyond that, sipping it is just the right thing to do.
Port wine (or Porto in Portuguese) developed out of necessity in the 17th century. Back then, as today, Britain was one of Portugal's biggest wine customers. After realizing that a summer's hot boat ride up the Atlantic was ruining the red wine, Portuguese producers began adding brandy to stabilize it. This addition of neutral spirits stopped fermentation and left the natural sugar unfermented, so a sweeter, higher-alcohol wine remained.
Amid several styles, there are five main varieties of red port (a white version exists but is difficult to find). Ruby port tastes fruity, light and young, and is the most unrefined. Its fruit-forward sweetness and alcohol aroma can overwhelm the uninitiated, so it's safer to start with a velvety, mellow tawny port.
Both tawny and ruby are blends from several years, so they're not tagged with a vintage, but some tawnies carry a 10, 20, 30 or 40-year designation, indicating the average amount of time the wine spent in an oak barrel. Recently released 10-year tawnies have been excellent deals, so don't feel pressured to shell out the extra bucks for the 20- or 40-years. Australia also makes some delicious and very affordable tawny ports, like the caramel-tinged Benjamin Port ($10).
Vintage port, on the other hand, is produced from a single harvest year. Rich, full of fruit flavor and aromatic, vintage port garners attention from aficionados who rave about it (including this one). Winemakers declare vintages when the harvest is particularly notable, but be aware that younger ones can taste a bit astringent and harsh. Some of the best port houses, albeit expensive, are Warre, Taylor, Cockburn (pronounced "Coburn"), Osbourne, Sandeman, Fonseca, Dow and Graham.
The fourth variety of port is late-bottled vintage (LBV), produced from a vintage-declared crop, but aged twice as long in oak barrels. And the fifth type, "vintage character," "special" or "reserve" port, is a blend of high-quality ruby ports from several different vintages. These often taste smoother than most rubies.
Because of the added distilled spirit, once opened, ports keep up to year if they are kept in a cool, dry area with an airtight cork. They will lose some of their freshness after a few months, but no worries.
Galway Pipe Tawny Port (Australia) Tastes like walnuts and macadamia nuts sautéed in creamy butter, then drizzled with sweet, opulent caramel. Has a beautiful, never-ending, prune-tinged finish. Simply gorgeous and worth like $90. Sweetness = 7. $30. Rating: **** 1/2
2002 Quinta de Roriz Vintage Port (Portugal) Smells like fresh raspberries, and tastes like a fruity shiraz that has been reduced to a rich, silky syrup. Decadent, luscious and fun. Sw = 5. $52. Rating: ****
Cockburn 1998 Late Bottled Vintage Port (Portugal) Aroma of almonds steeped in rose water, with the sip giving dark roasted or grilled berries. Finish of intense caramel and raisins. Sw = 6. $20. Rating: *** 1/2
Graham 10-Year Tawny Port (Portugal) Like ripe black cherries soaked in brown sugar, butter and maple syrup. After some time in the glass, it offers a pecan praline flavor that lasts for minutes. Sw = 7. $30. Rating: *** 1/2
Cockburn Fine Ruby (Portugal) It starts with big alcoholic chocolate and a dark cherry blast, but the fun disappointingly ends long before it hits the tummy. Sw = 5. $15. Rating: **