Winter Warmth


It’s February and it’s cold, bitterly cold. Okay, that groundhog was right, but I’m not thrilled about it. According to folklore, if a groundhog emerges from its burrow on February second and fails to see its shadow, it will leave the burrow, signifying that winter will end soon in about 42 days. If the groundhog sees its shadow, like he did this year, the groundhog will pops back into his cozy burrow for another six weeks nap. Somehow, I’ve never understood the difference between 42 days and six weeks.
So for these cold winter nights, after digging out from under 18 inches of snow, winding down and relaxing after dinner, there’s nothing better than a small glass of port wine in front of a cozy fire. A glass of port can help create a special evening…add in some chocolate port and you have a treat that’s hard to beat.
What is it about cold weather that draws us to port? Is it the higher alcohol that warms the bones or is just a winter ritual to be enjoyed before a blazing fire? Saving port for the winter months is pretty much an American routine—served as an after-dinner drink usually shared with guests and some cheese.
What is port? Port is basically wine fortified with brandy spirit. This is added prior to the natural cessation of fermentation, so the wine is always sweet, as the addition of the strong alcohol kills the yeast converting the sugar into alcohol (the process of fermentation). The eventual alcohol content is still high, however (typically 20%), thanks to the brandy that has been added. Most Port is red, although some firms also produce a small amount of white Port. Port is synonymous with Portugal; and “real” port is produced only in Portugal, although wineries in other countries sometimes make what is called a “port-style” wine. In the United States, port-style wines are usually called fortified or dessert wine and made using the port process. Most ports are a blend of traditional Portuguese varieties from the Douro Valley, such as Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca,
Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz and Tinto Cão.
Ruby port is a young and simple style and is considered to be the lightest and easiest to drink of all the port wine varieties. Although these wines are bottled and will continue to age, like a regular red wine, these ports are made to be consumed immediately after bottling because they have already matured during the two to three years spent in wood casks,  Ruby port’s youthful, sweet, and fruity nature is a great match with dark chocolate and dark-colored fruit such as black cherries, blackberries. These characteristics are what make ruby port the perfect choice for someone who is new to port wine as well as the occasional or casual port wine drinker.
I often recommend NV Jonesy Port (Australia) to many looking for an easy to drink port. This is a value-driven port made by Trevor Jones in partnership with importer Dan Philips. Jonesy is a non-vintage blend averaging 46 years in age. Its light to medium ruby hue is accompanied by an extraordinary bouquet of sweet candied fruit intermixed with notions of maple syrup, earth, and hazelnuts…a tasty treat.
Another favorite to recommend is the well-known Graham Six Grapes Port (Portugal). Six Grapes is one of Graham’s original Port blends, and is a very full-bodied, luscious wine drawn from the same vineyards as Graham’s Vintage Ports. Blended from two or three years’ harvests, the wine is an average of five to six years old when bottled. This port is seductive, with rich aromas of ripe plums, cherries and dark chocolate notes. On the palate it’s complex, with an excellent structure and a long, lingering finish.  Its extremely rich fruity style makes it a truly superb, rare and appealing Port. Serve it in a glass with at least a six ounce capacity so that you may appreciate the wine’s aromas. Six Grapes pairs particularly well with dark chocolate, but is also fantastic on its own as a luscious dessert in a glass.
Tawny port is the most popular of port wines in the United States and is wine aged in oak for a long time, resulting in a tawny color. The age will be stated on the label, frequently ten or twenty years, less often thirty or even forty years. It is lighter in body and color than a Ruby port with the refined, soft characteristics of a vintage port. A Tawny offers port lovers the delicate and balanced flavors of a vintage port, without the vintage port price tag.
Tawny ports possess forward ripe, dark fruit flavors such as plums and blackberries and have a relatively high level of tannins. Vintage Tawny ports have a drier mouth feel than the non-vintages and contain more delicate ripe, dark fruit flavors such as dark cherries and currant with a slight hint of butterscotch and caramel. The tannins in vintage Tawny are considerably more mellow than that of a non-vintage.
I personally an think of no better way to finish any meal than with a Tawny port as these ports gain a candied, caramel, and hazelnut character and are similar to Spanish sherry in weight and complexity. Tawny ports pair beautifully with blue cheese, créme brulee, almond biscotti, dried apricots or pears and foods with honey, nut and caramel flavors…oh, just some of my favorite things. The classic English pairing is a slice of Stilton blue cheese and walnuts with a glass of Tawny port.
One of my favorite “everyday” Tawny ports is NV Whisker’s Blake Tawny Port (Australia). Whiskers Blake Port is especially selected from premium aged tawny ports. All components are matured in small oak casks for an average of 8 years. It has a rich tawny color with olive hues and the nose is reminiscent of chocolate with coffee overtones.  Loaded with caramel, chocolate and almonds, this is like drinking a liquid candy bar. The palate is smooth and mellow with good length and a dry finish. Classic rancio characters are also evident in this delicious wine.
For more special occasions (and a higher price tag) I do enjoy Warre’s Otima 20 Year Old Tawny Port (Portugal). Warre’s Ports are distinguished for their structure, power and softly perfumed nose. This port has a particularly fresh and elegant style. It’s a fine translucent copper color blend of 20 Year Old Tawny Port with beautiful soft nutty aromas gained by a full twenty years ageing in seasoned oak casks. This lovely port is rich and delicate, but never cloying; the tannins and acidity ensure balance and perfect length.
The best and most expensive ports are bottle-aged ports such as vintage and single quinta ports. Port vintages are declared depending on the quality of the vintage, some houses declaring much more frequently than others. In general a vintage is declared about three times each decade. A declared vintage means that the Port house feels the wine is of the necessary quality to age well in bottle. The wines see up to two years in oak, but then do the rest of their ageing in the bottle. They may need upward of fifteen years before they are ready, and may last for decades more. This is the finest quality level of Port.
One particularly good recently declared vintage port happens to be Fonseca Vintage Port 2007. In exceptional years Fonseca will make the decision to ‘declare’ a classic vintage port, and 2007 was such a year. Only the finest wines, selected for their great intensity, depth and aging potential, were bottled under this vintage label to make this impenetrable, inky black wine with purple highlights.  As would be expected of Fonseca, the nose is dominated by a massively potent and concentrated fruitiness, packed with dense blackcurrant and blackberry aromas. Notes of coffee and exotic wood and hints of wild herbs and mint. The palate is rich and luscious, with thick velvety and wonderfully well-integrated tannins enveloped in succulent jammy fruit and rich dark voluptuous chocolate flavors. This is a wine of breeding, balance, and great complexity.
Other Styles of port include Single Quinta Port and Late Bottled Vintage Port.
Single Quinta Ports are basically single vineyard wines. Most houses have quintas (vineyards) where they source their best fruit. In non-declared years they will release the wine from the quinta as a single quinta wine. These wines can be excellent value, frequently close to vintage quality.
Late Bottled Vintage Port: Good Port houses still produce good LBV wines. Such wines have been aged in wood for longer than Vintage Port, four years in total, or five years for a Traditional LBV. This prolonged ageing results in a wine ready to drink at a younger age.
How long do ports last? Most Ports will continue to improve in the bottle for many years, but once opened they will only hold their best freshness for 4-5 days. Ruby and tawny ports are wood-aged ports, having spent more time in barrels, they will remain fresher after opening longer than bottle-aged ports. Ruby ports will usually retain their freshness for 1-3 weeks after opening; tawny ports last 4-6 weeks.
So stoke that fire, grab a warm and fuzzy fleece blanket, and serve a delicious platter of cheese and chocolate with some lovely port while cuddling with your honey.

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