Port is a wintertime powerhouse: 7 bottles to try

“The weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful.”

So goes the song. And you can picture yourself in a comfy armchair beside that fire, glass of port in hand, plate of Stilton cheese, toasted nuts and dried fruit on the stand beside you.

The combination is so perfect that, when I lived in South Florida, I would turn the air conditioning all the way down so I could have that fire and experience that perfection.

Port wine is a rich, fruity, powerful, sweet dessert wine from, not surprisingly, Portugal. Near the city of Oporto.

The grapes, grown in the nearby Douro Valley, are not widely known, with names like Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Barroca and others.

The secret to port’s many styles is how they are made.

In general, fermentation begins as with any wine, with yeast reacting with natural fruit sugars to make alcohol. In most wines, when all the sugar is used up, you have a wine of about 12 percent alcohol. In port wine, however, when half the sugar is used up, winemakers add powerful grape brandy that stops the fermentation. This results in a wine that is sweet from the unfermented sugar and nearly 20 percent alcohol from the muscular brandy.

From here, the port wine is made into several styles:

▪ Ruby port: Called “beginners’ port” by many, it is fermented, barrel-aged for three to five years, bottled and sold, resulting in a brightly colored, lively, extra-fruity wine made to be drunk young. It often is a blend of grapes from several vintages. Food pairing: cheddar cheese or a chocolate brownie.

▪ Late-bottled vintage port: Here, grapes from a single, good vintage are fermented, aged in barrels for four to six years, then bottled. The port is ready to drink as soon as you buy it. And it’s paler, mellower, with nutty flavors joining the intense fruit. Food pairing: crumbly goat cheese or vanilla ice cream with hot fudge topping.

▪ Tawny port: Made the same as ruby port, it then gets 10 to 40 years of barrel aging. Its color becomes, well, tawny. It loses some of its fruitiness, but replaces it with richer, more complex flavors from nuts to caramel to mocha. Food pairing: foie gras, cured ham slices, crème brûlée.

▪ Vintage port: This is the best stuff, and the most expensive. In only the finest years, the port is made, aged only a couple of years in oak barrels, then bottled to continue maturing for 20 years or more. Food pairing: Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey would insist on Stilton — the richness of the port matching the intensity of the cheese.

Highly recommended

▪ W & J Graham’s 2001 Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage Port, Portugal: deep purple hue, aromas and sweet flavors of black plums, cassis and spice, powerful and concentrated, still youthful, long, fruity finish; $60.

▪ Dow’s 20-Year-Old Tawny Port, Portugal: amber hue, full-bodied, aromas and flavors of almonds, caramel and spice, fairly dry; $53.

▪ Warre’s Late Bottled Vintage 2003 Bottle-Aged Port, Portugal: ruby hue, aromas and flavors of sweet cherries, spice and minerals, powerful, long finish; $32


▪ W & J Graham’s “Six Grapes” Reserve Port: inky hue, aromas and flavors of black plums, black coffee and licorice, rich and full-bodied, youthful, $23.

▪ W & J Graham’s 20-Year-Old Tawny Port: amber hue, orange blossom aromas, burnt brown sugar, sweet, smooth, hint of hazelnuts, viscous, long finish; $55.

▪ Dow’s Fine Ruby Port, Portugal: bright red hue, young and sweet and fresh and fruity, with aromas and flavors of red raspberries and chocolate; $16.

▪ Cockburn’s “Special Reserve” Porto, Portugal: floral aromas, sweet flavors of chocolate, cloves and black raspberries, concentrated; $18.

Fred Tasker: