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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wine Banter - Port or Porto?

Port is a fortified wine, which simply means a wine that has been fortified with brandy or another distilled spirit and then aged. You will see so many designations including Porto, Ruby and Tawny, White Port, Colheita, L.B.V, and Vintage Port - what does it all mean?

Let’s begin with Ruby Porto as this is the most common port offered in restaurants. Like all ports, Ruby Porto is typically served at the end of the meal. It is also considered to be a lower tier port unless designated by a vintage. Ruby Portos are great pairings for chocolate desserts or simply paired with a cup of coffee, espresso or cappuccino.

Tawny Porto often shows a number signifying how many years the porto remained in the barrel before bottling. The younger the tawny, typically the spicier the flavor is from the oak barrels. One of my favorite tawnys, though not inexpensive, is the 30-Year Tawny – it nearly always has a caramel quality.

Colheita is very similar in flavor to some of the younger tawnys, however, it has a vintage date on the bottle which means all of the tawny in the bottle comes from one vintage. Colheitas typically do not get better with age, but remain relatively the same.

L.B.V. (Late Bottled Vintage) Porto will show a year on the bottle and can be similar to vintage ports though Vintage Ports only spend two years in the barrel and are only from vineyard designated years, whereas the L.B.V. will spend from four to six years in the barrel. L.B.V.s typically exhibit flavors of red and or black fruit and, like a Ruby Porto, can be paired with chocolates and / or coffee.

Vintage Ports are typically declared only about three times per decade when the perfect conditions in Portugal have produced grapes worthy of vintage designation. Vintage Port will age for decades (in the bottle), provided temperatures are not fluctuating – the perfect temperature being 58 fahrenheit.

Ports are made from many varietals of grapes – Bual (pronounced “Bo-All”), for example, has a distinct citrusy quality – the younger the Bual, the spicier the Bual – which is derived from the barrels. However, as Buals are aged in barrels for longer periods of time, they begin to get more of a creamy buttery softness on the palate while still maintaining the beautiful citrus quality. If you see “Bual” on the label, it must be at least 78% Bual. The younger Buals, with their spicy quality are particularly good with desserts such as Bread Puddings – whereas an older Bual works well paired with a Crème Brulee – especially vanilla bean.

How long will port last once opened?

Tawny Ports and Colheitas are typically oxidized – due to the fact that they spend long periods in the barrel – and the barrels are being topped up, so as evaporation and saturation of barrels takes place, sometimes referred to as the “angel’s share” the barrels have to be topped up to keep the port from spoiling from over-exposure to oxygen. This means that they have already been exposed to oxygen, and can be left on the counter for months at a time after opening
Once opened, Vintage Ports have a much shorter life. One way to extend the life of a vintage port upon opening is to decant gently so as to separate the port from the sediment (leaving the sediment in the bottle). Once decanted, rinse the bottle three times in warm water – and then leave upside down for a about forty-five minutes allowing the moisture to drain out. Then, using a funnel, return the vintage port to the bottle, without the sediment and put its cork back in. The port should now last for seven to ten days on the counter.

In the onset of Winter and the holidays, port makes a great pairing for so many desserts, cheese plates and the like. Then there is the best pairing of all: good friends, conversation, a warm fireplace and a glass of port at the end of an evening.

John Haggard is owner of Sophie’s Cellars, The Sonoma Wine & Cheese Market in Monte Rio, California. Sophie’s Cellars is open 11am – 7pm, closed only on Wednesdays.