A few words describe my passion for port: ebullient, religious, obsessed. With words flowing like a madwoman, I've converted more nonbelievers than Scientology, extolling its vinous virtues like Tom Cruise on a roll. It's just so damn good. Port's robust, lush caramel, dried-fruit sweetness is not only perfect with a salty slab of Stilton blue cheese but also effectively erases a sucky day at the office. But because it doesn't fall into the convenient dry table-wine category, it's unfortunately misunderstood. Time to right that wrong.
Port wine (or Porto in Portuguese) developed out of necessity in the 17th century. Back then, as today, Britain was one of Portugal's largest wine customers. After realizing that hot summer boat rides up the coast were cooking the red wine, Portuguese producers began adding brandy to stabilize it. This brilliant solution curbed spoilage, stopped additional fermentation and left the natural sugar unfermented, so a sweeter, higher-alcohol treat remained. This remedy is also why port remains fresh long after regular table wines go south -- six months to a year if you keep it airtight. Not that it lasts that long in my house.
From these creative chemistry origins 250 years ago, several styles emerged -- five varieties of red port and a rarely seen white version. Ruby port, the youngest and most alcoholic, with loads of up-front fruit, is the Britney Spears of port -- unrefined. But for the uninitiated, a soft, mellow tawny port is the better choice.
Both tawny and ruby are blends from several years, so there's no vintage on the label, but some tawnies carry a 10-, 20-, 30- or 40-year designation, indicating the average amount of time the wine spent in oak barrel. On the other hand, vintage port comes from a single harvest year. Rich, full of fruit flavor and aromatic, it's only produced when wine makers "declare" a vintage -- when the conditions are particularly notable. It's then aged in barrel for two years and peaks in flavor after 15 to 30 years of bottle age. Vintage port is drinkable before then, but only if a desiccated tongue rocks your world.
The fourth variety of port is late-bottled vintage, produced from grapes harvested in one year, 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 years. These often taste smoother and less sweet than regular rubies and cost slightly more.
And port ain't cheap. But there's a reason. True Portuguese port endures a rigorous quality schedule. It begins in the vineyards, steep and rugged, that must be handpicked. Once produced, every bottle is sent to the governing Port Institute for approval, where it's judged for color, taste, aroma and chemical composition. If a bottle passes, it earns a unique quality seal.
Like the rules for Champagne, wineries outside Portugal shouldn't legally call their fortified wines "port," but they do. Australia's and California's fortified wine prices, often $10-$20 lower than ports, reflect a less restrictive approval process -- the winemaker's whim. They make port-style wines out of anything they feel like, or they use the traditional Portuguese varieties -- Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão. Although I feel slightly guilty, like I'm buying a knockoff Kate Spade on Canal Street, they're pretty tasty. And they make my sucky days less painful.
Taylor Fladgate 40-Year Tawny Port (Portugal) Sw = 6. $135. *****
Grant Burge 10-Year Tawny Port (Australia) Sw = 7. $20. **** 1/2
Galway Pipe Tawny Port (Australia) Sw = 7. $30. **** 1/2
Fonseca Bin 27 (Portugal) Sw = 5. $18. ****
Benjamin Tawny Port (Australia) Sw = 6. $12. ****
Sandeman 20-Year Tawny (Portugal) Sw = 8. $40. ****
Clocktower Tawny Port (Australia) Sw = 6. $15. *** 1/2
Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. * (star) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.