A More Thorough Look at Port

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A More Thorough Look at Port
By Nick Jurkowski
As a follow-up to my introduction to port, I felt that it would be a good idea to explore more kinds of port, as well as some of the interesting conventions that go along with this fine fortified wine (after all, port gained its initial popularity in England, where they love nothing more than curiously oblique social customs).
In my last article, I introduced port by talking about three different types: ruby, tawny, and vintage. Naturally, nothing is ever that easy, and there are a large number of ports not covered under those three basic distinctions. Reserve, late-bottle vintage, white, garrafeira, single quinta, and crusted ports (every bit as delicious as they sound) all offer a unique character and flavors that would take an entire lifetime to explore in full. For the purpose of this article, I’ll focus on the first three that I mentioned, as they are probably styles that you, as an up-and-coming appreciator of port, will no doubt encounter.
Reserve port was, up until fairly recently, known as “vintage character,” which is a misleading term, as such a port does not come from a single vintage. Reserve ports might be better described as “premium ruby” – they are made in essentially the same process as a ruby port (though aged longer – around 5 years), but with the best grapes from the best parts of the vineyard. They are generally considered to have more body and fruitiness than a tawny port, but they are missing the extreme complexity of true vintage ports. You can find a wide variety of reserve ports for under $20, including two of my favorites: Graham’s Six Grapes and Sandeman’s Founder’s Reserve.
The Six-Grapes is particularly delicious, with a lot of fruity flavors punctuated by notes of licorice. Reserve ports are an excellent way to move up from cheaper rubies and tawnies without putting a major hurt on your finances.
The next type of port you should look into might be a late-bottle vintage, or a LBV. LBV’s got their start as, essentially, the leftover vintage port that remained in barrels too long. Over time, the styles have become distinct, and LBV’s do not require a vintage to be declared for them to be made (though they are still not made every year). Late bottle vintage ports are made with grapes from the same vintage, and aged in wood for four to six years. The main difference between an LBV and a genuine vintage lies in the fact that the LBV is fined and filtered, a fact that means LBV’s don’t benefit from much aging, and are ready to drink on release. These ports are another step up from reserve ports in price, generally costing $20 to $30. A nice $20 example of this style is Fonseca’s 2000 LBV. This port tastes very much of plums at first, and then settles into a spicy, almost chocolaty feel.
White port is port that is, surprise, made with white grapes. It ranges in sweetness from extremely dry to toothache levels (look for the “Lagrima” characterization for the sweetest). They are generally aged in oak, and take on a caramel color as they age (very old whites and tawnies can sometimes be nearly indistinguishable by color). I personally prefer the drier variants for aperitifs – if you can, find a bottle of Gilbert’s White Extra Dry. It retails for about $12, and makes a great drink for a hot day. They should certainly be served chilled.
Now that you have some more in depth port knowledge, you should probably arm yourself with the historical conventions under which it is served, so that if you find yourself on a ship of the line in the 18th century and are asked, “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” you’ll know what to do. First of all, it should be noted that port is often served warm. It should never be served over 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and some should be chilled or served cold. Secondly, you shouldn’t fill your glass more than half full, as that makes it more difficult to appreciate the aroma.
You should also know that port is traditionally served around a table by pouring for the person on your right and then passing to the person on your left. It is considered poor form to ask for the port directly, and if someone neglects to keep the port-train going, the host asks, “Do you know the bishop of Norwich?” If one unfamiliar with the custom responds with a negative, the host replies, “He’s a nice fellow, but he never remembers to pass the port.” Historians now agree that goofy rituals like this are what lost England her empire.
Armed with more tools to appreciate port, you can start spreading the word. The best way to enjoy a good bottle is with a little food (blue cheese is a favorite) and some friends, so round up anyone who is interested and give it a try. In no time at all you’ll be pontificating and asking each other about strange bishops, and if that isn’t living, I don’t know what is