By Bill St. John
Special to Tribune Newspapers
9:07 PM EDT, April 10, 2013
Of all the wines that work well with cold weather at the top of the list must be port. The history of port alone is a winter's tale, a story best told at the fire-lit hearth.
Port is the only wine to have been invented by mistake and political intrigue. In the late 1600s, the British were at war with the French and — drat it! — no longer bought their beloved red wine of Bordeaux.
So, the British sailed down the Atlantic coastline until, literally, they came upon the next red-wine-producing area, the Douro River valley of northern Portugal. There they found ample red wine.
At the river's mouth is the town of Oporto, "the port" or "the door," the mother name of both port wine and the nation of Portugal itself. Oporto is much farther from the harbors of England than is Bordeaux and, to fortify Portuguese red wines for transit back to England, the British took to adding a small amount — about 3 percent in those days — of what we would call vodka to the casks of wine. (Back in bleak Britain, no one seemed to mind.)
One year in the early 1700s, it is believed, when one harvest made wines richer and sweeter than normal, the wine hit Britain to great acclaim. After then, the Douro winemakers crafted wines that were sweeter by the year and added greater increments of the spirit. These wines were the precursor of today's port.
To be frank, port is a wine of artifice. It does not occur on its own, the way most wines do when you crush grapes and leave the juice alone to ferment. Port is very sweet grape juice to which the winemaker adds pure grape distillate partway through fermentation. This arrests fermentation and results in a wine that boasts an elevated level of alcohol (17 to 21 percent by volume) and a marked level of residual sugar (around 7 percent).
That's the story. Since that beginning, port has become one of the world's more honored wines.
Recommended: Graham's Six Grapes Ruby: Straightforward flavors of dark red fruits. A better value than many other rubies. $16-$18
Dow's 20-Year Tawny: Honey-thick. Tastes of dried apricots and toffee. Moderately sweet, so even a bit refreshing. $40-$45
2008 Croft Quinta da Roeda Vintage: Liquid night. Buy for your child born in 2008 and serve it at her 21st birthday. $45-$50
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
What's the difference?
Ports have so many names! Vintage, ruby, fine ruby, reserve, tawny, late bottled vintage, vintage character, crusted — and even more.
I will make it simple. Only two types of port exist, those that are aged (1) in wood and those aged (2) in glass. After port is made, the thick, super-concentrated, black-red, sweet wine is aged in either glass bottles or wood casks.
Vintage port is the only port that is aged solely in glass bottles and is so called because it is made of one year's wine only, a year or vintage that is judged of higher-than-average quality by the winemaker. It also represents a mere 3 to 4 percent of all port production. It is expensive and it ages for decades.
All other ports are ports of the wood, that is, before being bottled they age in cask for a few or many years.
Ruby port spends two to four years in cask before bottling, after which it doesn't age appreciably. All the other "rubies," such as "reserve" or "fine ruby," are basically marketing. They have no legal significance. Ruby port is called such because it is deep red in color.
It is convenient to think of most other ports — late bottled vintage port, say, or vintage character port — as (high quality) rubies because that, in effect, is what they are.
Tawny port ages much longer in cask, sometimes up to 40 years. It gets its name because, while aging in wood, the red color casts off and is replaced with a tawny-red color.
For my money — though one would need a lot of it — tawny ports are the marvel, above all 20-year tawnies. Because many wines evaporate during their time in wood, they concentrate their flavors of nuts, honey and toffee and develop a voluptuous feel in the mouth.
Best foods for port are blue cheeses, dried fruits, nuts and dark chocolate.
Bill St. John has been teaching and writing about wine for more than 30 years.
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