Wine & Spirits: Celebrate Port Day

Open up a bottle of Portugal’s legendary fortified wine on Port Day – and when you do, remember these 10 misconceptions.
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Tasting Port at Churchill Graham. Port can only legally be produced in Portugal's Douro Valley under strict conditions.

Last September I had the amazing opportunity to tour and taste at wineries in Portugal’s Douro Valley. This historical wine region about sixty miles east of the city of Porto is one of the world’s oldest regulated and demarcated wine regions. The Douro Valley is surrounded by rugged mountain ranges, with vineyards comprised of flaky, arid soil. Grapes grown on steep terraces carved out of granite and schist make for difficult winemaking — but breathtaking vistas and scenery. It’s this perfect combination of terroir that makes Port unlike any other wine in the world.

And it’s never been a better time to crack open a bottle of Port, especially if you have never tried it. The Washington, DC-based Center for Wine Origins, which works to protect wine place names (including Port and Champagne), is proud to announce that January 27 is “Port Day.” This day is meant to encourage the celebration of this truly unique wine that only comes from Portugal’s Douro Valley. Participating is easy. Anyone join Port Day online by blogging, tweeting, posting and sharing their thoughts about Port using the #PortDay hashtag. To stay up-to-date on the most current news regarding Port Day, visit http://bit.ly/vUenZr.

Still, a lot of confusion remains about the Port wine category — where it can be produced, how it should be served, and what it tastes like. I gleaned a lot of info during the time I spent with winemakers in the Douro Valley.

10 Common Misconceptions About Port

Port is a style of wine and can be produced anywhere

You may come across sweet fortified wines from Australia and other areas with the name “Port” on the logo, but authentic Port can only be produced in Portugal’s Douro Valley, with restrictions on the vineyards, grapes, yields and winemaking techniques used. That’s not to say there aren’t decent Port style wines made elsewhere (i.e. fortified, sweet and red), but only bottles from the Douro Valley are the real deal.

Port is my grandfather’s drink

Maybe so, but if you eschew the entire category just based on the notion that Port is for a different generation, you are missing out….

All Port is red

Though the majority of Port is red, producers also make a smaller percentage of white Port — ranging from dry and off dry, to sweet (sometimes called Lagrima). A few producers like Croft are even doing pink Port. Serving dry or off-dry white Port chilled as an apéritif, over ice with a lemon or lime slice is a great way to kick off an evening — you can also mix it with tonic, club soda or sparkling wine. Chilled pink Port can appeal to those who like sweeter rosé style wines. And sweeter white Ports are great with desserts made with fruit or custard.

Port and Sherry are interchangeable

Definitely not. Sherry is produced in the Jerez region of Spain, is fortified after fermentation, and runs the gamut from bone dry and briny, to sweet, to overtly oxidized. Port is produced only in Portugal’s Douro Valley, fortified with brandy during its production to halt fermentation. The resulting wines usually have some degree of residual sugar.

Chocolate is always the best partner for Port

Sure, a hunk of good quality chocolate enjoyed with a glass of fruit-forward red berry-tinged ruby Port can be lovely, but look outside the (candy) box as well. A good Tawny Port is like the caramel turtle of the wine world — its notes of nuts, caramel and butterscotch make it great with dry cheeses, and desserts like crème brûlée and sticky toffee pudding. (Tawny Port is my absolute favorite style — I love a glass slightly chilled served with figs, mascarpone and candied pecans drizzled with honey.) Dry white port pairs well with nuts, olives and lighter cheeses, and complex vintage Port is often best enjoyed all by itself.

The vineyards in the Douro Valley are among the oldest and steepest in the world. (Photo by )

You need to age Port for years or even decades for it to be drinkable

Sometimes…but usually not. Ruby Port’s bright, fresh berry flavors are best enjoyed in their youth, so drink it soon after you buy it. Ditto for white Port and Late Bottle Vintage Port—the latter is conveniently aged for you before you buy it yet can be held for a few years before opening. Tawny Port’s enticing nutty and caramel flavors come from years spent in wood barrels — this style is also ready to be opened right when you bring it home from the store. (Better Tawnies come with indication of age — 10, 20, 30 and 40 years — and gain complexity as they age. Colheita is a Tawny Port from a single vintage — also ready to drink right away). The only exception to the aging rule is vintage Port. This rarer variety — only produced in outstanding vintages — does require years of bottle age for the tannins to soften and for complex flavors to develop (similar to what a young, first growth bottle of red Bordeaux requires before being able to fully enjoy it.)

Once opened, a bottle of Port will last for months

Again, this depends on the style and the bottle. Ruby, Late Bottle Vintage, white and pink Ports should be refrigerated after opening them, and consumed in a few days. Since Tawny Port already saw some oxidation as its aged, it’s a bit more forgiving, and can last several weeks after you pop the top. Vintage Port may fade during the course of an evening, so plan on uncorking the bottle with a group of friends and finishing the bottle that night.

I’d like to try Port, but it’s all too expensive

There are lots of affordable bottles out there. Head to a wine store that stocks a decent selection (and a manager you trust), and ask for some recommendations. You can find a lot of entry level bottles out there for $20 or under — grab a few bottles of the top producers, and experiment to find out your preferred Port style. Look for the classic Port producers: Offley, Sandeman’s, Dow, Churchill Graham and Cockburn’s (pronounced “Coe-burns”) are good places to start.

All Port needs to be decanted before drinking it

Older vintage Port, which throws sediment, is really the only Port that needs to be decanted. Store it upright for a few hours to a few days before opening it. When pouring out the wine, hold a candle behind the bottle, so you can see when you are getting to the bottom. Stop pouring when you see the grains of sediment, and let them remain in the bottle. Alternately, you can use one of the decanters on the market that has a built-in decanting screen, like the Metrokane Houdini Decanter.

All wine made in the Portugal’s Douro Valley is sweet

Because the permitted amount of Port that can be produced is so regulated, winemakers need to find a place for their excess grapes. During my trip, I tasted a lot of outstanding dry wines (both white and red), made with the same grapes as Port —Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cao on the red side; Rabigato, Codega and Malvasia Fina on the white. Many were blends, ranging from non-cerebral, everyday house wines, to more ambitious, multi-faceted bottles. In general, many bottles are surprisingly wallet-friendly, and worth exploring in your neighborhood wine shop. (I’ll examine Portuguese dry wines another week.)

Kelly Magyarics is a wine and spirits writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, DC area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, and on www.twitter.com/kmagyarics.

Me in the Douro Valley during my trip to Portugal last September. (Photo Courtesy of Kelly Magyarics)

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