Winter is my favorite season. The food and wine that go with it are a big part of my love affair with these chilly months. This is when one can pull out those squirreled-away bottles of expensive, full-bodied reds. Napa Valley Cabs, Barolos and boutique-y Shirazes are perfect for this season. But when I think winter, I think port.
Arguably one of the oldest continuously made alcoholic beverages, port is one of my faves for a number of reasons. Aside from being delicious, it is affordable. Because a bottle of port isn’t meant to be drunk in one sitting, even among a group of friends, it is a drink that lasts for a while. It stands to reason, then, that a $20 bottle of aged Tawny is well worth the cash, since it can be enjoyed for an extended period of time. Even a splurge like a bottle of 1978 vintage port (which was an amazing year) is a bargain at less than $300, compared to a good year of Bordeaux or a Burgundy, which can easily run into the thousands.
Another positive attribute is port’s durability. Port is fortified (thus making it a “fortified wine”) by adding brandy to grape juice that is only partially fermented. This does two things: it raises the alcohol content and stops the fermentation. Brandy is added until the alcohol content is higher than 17 percent. At this point, the yeast cells are unable to continue converting sugars into alcohol, and the sugar that remains is what gives port its trademark sweetness. Since sugar and alcohol are both natural preservatives, most ports are drinkable for a month or more after opening. Granted, everything has a shelf life, but with port you have much more leeway.
If you are new to drinking port, you might want to start with something on the younger end of the spectrum, like a ruby port. Taylor Fladgate Ruby Port ($11.99 @ PJ Wine, 4898 Broadway betw. 204th and 207th streets, 212-567-5500) is typical of this style, which is aged for only two or three years, and is the lightest of all red ports. There are flavors of currants and raisins, along with orange peel, ginger and allspice. This is a delicious way to end a meal by itself, or a great pairing with roast duck breast.
For something heavier and warmer, try an aged tawny port. The Fonseca 10 Year Old Tawny Port ($32.99 @ 67 Wines, 179 Columbus Ave. @ 68th Street, 212-724-6767) is a stellar example of this style. Tawny ports are left to age in oak casks for much longer, allowing the tannins to soften and the port to become mellower. The color lightens and the flavors are reminiscent of caramel, figs, brown sugar and molasses. This is an indulgent treat, perfect for pairing with a pungent hunk of Roquefort blue cheese.
Vintage port has a steep price tag, and when released it is not meant to be drunk right away. But if you want the indulgence of a vintage port, you’re still covered. Late bottled vintage port has been aged, bottled and is ready to open and enjoy immediately. It’s also quite a bit less expensive. The Quinta do Noval LBV 2003 ($18.39 @ Cabrini Wines, 831 W. 181st St. @ Cabrini Boulevard, 212-568-3226) fits the bill perfectly without breaking the bank. Darker, more tannic and muscular, this port will remind you of a cross between an aged tawny and a full-bodied Claret.
Take your pick. I’m sure you’ll find that there is something here to warm you on a cold winter night no matter what your taste in dessert wine dictates.
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