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Port wine
Rare vintage Ports

  Do you love port? Some other specialty drink?
Belly up to the message board
  Interested in wine?
Get a primer at CNN Food Central

Probably no other wine has as many arcane rituals associated with it as does Port.

For example, any old Port will need to be decanted because of the amount of sediment the grapes throw off in the bottle. The first stage in this process is to stand the bottle upright for a day, so that the sediment will go to the bottom.

Next, the bottle is opened, and the host begins the slow process of pouring the Port into a clear decanter. To add a bit of melodrama to the event, a lit candle is held behind the bottle's neck. When the host begins to see sediment, he knows it's time to stop pouring -- no matter how much the bottle cost!

Whenever Port is passed around a table, the proper way is to hand it to the left, clockwise, as did British sailors of old. They always passed their Port to the port side. Only the host may serve his own glass to the right. This is called a "backhander."

Then, there are the Port tongs used to literally snap part of the neck off bottles of very old Port. This institution was invented because it's nearly impossible to cleanly remove a cork from a bottle once it has sat in the cellar for some 30 or 40 years.

The mouth of the tongs is heated until it is red hot, then the host grips the bottle neck with it for a few seconds. After that, a cold towel or some ice is put in the same place on the neck. The next thing you hear is the clean cracking of the glass, thanks to the rapid difference in temperature.

A wine to enamor the dessert palate

The fine points of drinking port

June 10, 1999
Web posted at: 2:43 p.m. EDT (1843 GMT)

By Jim Burns

(Los Angeles Times Syndicate) -- Peruse many a dessert list around the country, and you'll spot another mini-trend in upscale drinking: by-the-glass offerings of fine Port. Long a part of the privileged European lifestyle, especially in Britain, Port is catching on with American explorers of fine wine and alcohol, albeit not at the rate of premium vodka martinis or single malt Scotch.

According to the Instituto do Vinho do Porto in Porto, Portugal, America still lags behind Great Britain in the consumption of quality Port, with France leading the way in total consumption.

That poses something of an irony, as it was Britain feuding with France that got the whole Port category started in the first place. Over some 500 years, since 1152 when royal marriage brought the two countries closer together, the British developed a taste for French wines. Because of continuing hostilities, by the mid-1660s the delicious Bordeauxs and Burgundies that British gentlemen craved were not available. Another source needed to be found, and the English made their way up Portugal's upper Douro River valley.

What they found in the city of Oporto in no way resembled today's Port wine, which is a sweet fortified wine with a high alcohol content around 20 percent. Rather, they discovered an old wine culture (since the Romans) that didn't possess the sophistication of the French industry.

What did eventually enamor the palates of the English turned out to be the wine made of some 20 grape varieties, including the now-dominant touriga nacional grape, that had its fermentation cycle stopped mid-cycle by the addition of brandy. This arresting left plenty of sugar in the grape must, which, in turn, gave Port its characteristic flavors.

Exactly how and when this technique came about is open to speculation. Apparently, wine merchants would add brandy to their Portuguese barrel shipments as a stabilizer before the ships sailed the rough-and-tumble ocean waters to British ports. But adding brandy to the wine to halt fermentation was another matter.

Three centuries of marketing

In 1678, two sons of a Liverpool wine merchant, in search of wine for their father's business, visited the monastery in Lamego, Portugal. There, the Abbott was in the habit of adding brandy to his wine for both flavor and punch. The concoction was called Priest Port. After sampling it, the duo bought as much as the Abbott would sell and returned to England, where an industry was born.

And, the industry was dominated by the British from the northern Portuguese city of Oporto. A trade agreement eventually allowed Portuguese wine to be sold for a third less in taxes than its French counterpart. Even today, most premium brands bear English names; Croft, Warre, Sandeman and Dow are all examples.

Pairing port and cheese

"I simply love Port. It's one of my favorite wines," says Mark Carter. His hotel and restaurant operation in Eureka, California, the Carter House/Restaurant 301, was recently awarded the Grand Award by Wine Spectator magazine. His cellar carries 2,300 bottles of fine wine.

The best place to sell Port, he says, is on the dessert menu.

"This is how we get the Port poured. Our dessert menu features five or six desserts, plus a selection of 10 cheeses, including a local goat cheese from Cypress Grove. Port is a natural with cheese."

Of course, tradition agrees with Carter, with the classic cheese pairing for Port being Stilton.

Carter also provides a full range of options for Port lovers, including ruby or tawny Port by the glass, selections of vintage Port from the 1980s by the half-bottle, and, if you really want to splurge, a 1927 vintage that sells for $750.

"With replacement costs for the '60s and some of the '70s over $100, you have to give your customers a full range to choose from," Carter says.

A port primer

Getting the hang of the Port styles is not difficult. For everyday consumption, there are two styles, ruby and tawny. Both are blends and both are aged a minimum of four years, with the tawny being lighter in style.

There is also a white Port that fits into this category, which is made from white grapes, and is served chilled. On the premium side, aged tawny Port differs from vintage Port in that it is aged in wood casks. As oxidation occurs, the original ruby-red color changes into a reddish brown, thus the name, "tawny."

Legal definition requires that tawny be stored either 10, 20, 30 or over 40 years in wood. You can see the storage length on the bottle's label.

Next comes the late bottled vintage (LBV) wines, which spend four to six years in wood before being bottled. These wines should be drunk when released.

The Port that everyone thinks of when they hear the name is vintage Port. The various producers only name a vintage year when the quality of the grapes has been exceptional. Recent vintage years include 1985, 1991 and 1994. Because of the huge tannins in these wines, they age in glass bottles for upward of 20 years before becoming the complex and special treat that has made them justly famous.

Copyright © 1999, Jim Burns
Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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