The Serious Eats Guide to Port
It's a season for firelight and darkness, feasts and solitude, and a glimmer of something warming in the glass. Holiday foods are about spice and berries, nuts and chocolate, roasts and cheeses, caramel, ginger and jam. There's one wine that pairs with all of it, and that wine is port.
That's partly because port wears so many guises. Vintage might be port's dazzling star, but an impressive range of styles, from white to red to tawny, lets port flow effortlessly from reception through dinner to dessert, making it one of the most versatile wines on your holiday table.
What is Port?
Port is wine, made in Portugal's Douro river valley, and despite stylistic diversity, all red and tawny ports start life the same way. Production starts with a blend of native Portuguese red grapes—commonly Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz, and Tinto Cão. The crushed fruit is agitated during winemaking to produce a deeply concentrated and flavorful red wine.
But about halfway through fermentation, the winemaker adds a neutral grape spirit (essentially un-aged brandy), which kills the yeast and halts the fermentation. This yields a sweet red wine that's about 20% alcohol. Thus fortified, the wine is moved into grand wooden casks to age, and its evolution over the next few years will determine its ultimate fate.
The very best port lots from exceptional harvests will be bottled and labeled with the vintage year. That's the star—Vintage port—but it accounts for merely 1% of all port made. Drinkable but rambunctious on release, it's meant to be aged in the bottle for a decade or longer before opening. Extended bottle aging knits the wine's elements together, smoothing its fiery temperament and rowdy tannins, and deepening its complexity.
The remaining lots of port, and in lesser years all of the lots, get diverted to other styles, including the nonvintage red ports and aged tawnies—and lovers of diversity rejoice.
Nonvintage red ports see from two to eight years in the cellar before bottling. Short cask aging means they retain their red vibrant color, tannic texture, and spirited berry flavors. Youthful and intense, they're nonetheless ready to drink on purchase. Those labeled Ruby are only a couple of years old before release. Inexpensive and uncomplicated, they have juicy fruit notes and easy tannins. Premium Ruby and Reserve ports are essentially better breeds of Ruby, made with superior fruit and often better quality grape spirit.
Late Bottled Vintage port (LBV for short) is a mash-up of Vintage and Premium styles, and can be an excellent mid-range option for lovers of red port who lack the scratch or patience for vintage. After a few years in large cask, the wine is bottled and held for a several more years to integrate and soften. The label usually shows a vintage year, so take care not to confuse it for true vintage port, although its drastically lower price should be a give-away.
Tawny ports are made by moving some lots of young red port into smaller wooden barrels, called pipes, for long aging—up to 40 years—to be blended and bottled at 10-year intervals. Cask aging burnishes the wine an amber hue and adds flavors of nut, caramel, and spice. Ten-year tawnies retain some fruit character, while older wines become silky smooth and redolent of caramel.
Colheita ports are less common but delicious tawny ports that have been bottled after about seven years in small barrel, then labeled with their vintage year. They strike a lovely balance between fruit and nut characteristics.
White and Pink ports also deserve a mention for the holidays, since they mix so well with lighter fare and spiced desserts. White port is made from native Portuguese white grapes, usually in a drier style, and sees little or no cask aging. It's best served chilled as an aperitif or used as a cocktail mixer. Pink port is a relative newcomer, a rosé port made from red grapes, but lighter-bodied than fulsome red. Like white port, it can also be served lightly chilled.
It's a dizzying range of styles, but it can be simpler to think of just two main categories: fruity and nutty. The vintage and nonvintage red ports, plus white and pink ports, are fruity, while all of the tawny styles are nutty. Also very generally, younger wines are vibrant and intense, while older wines are mellow and complex.
Vintage port is the only quality port released young that's meant to be aged by the consumer. All of the others are enjoyable the day of purchase, because their time in the port producer's cellar has added refinement and polish, effectively pre-aging them so they're delicious on release.
Vintage port and older tawnies are best enjoyed within a day or two of opening, but younger red ports, young tawnies, and pink and white ports can be held for a week or so without losing their luster (storing them in the fridge helps, too).
Pairing Port with Holiday Fare
All of the different styles of port can be terrific for the holidays, pairing with holiday treats both savory and sweet.
The berry flavors and lively acidity in Reserve, LBV, and younger vintage ports allow them to pair with savory foods like roasted meats and game, aged cheeses (especially blue cheese) and charcuterie. Red port with rare duck breast or duck confit is delicious.
Red and tawny ports both pair beautifully with dishes featuring fruits and nuts, like venison mincemeat, and red meats served with fruit relishes or chutneys. They're also excellent with rich smoked cuts like pork shoulder or leg of lamb, as their woody caramel notes mirror the smoky crust of the meat.
Some people swear by tawny port with duck liver pâté, but I find the wine's flavors too dominant, and prefer a lighter port style. Try white port with it instead, and with delicate meats like poultry or grilled fish.
Ten- and 20-year tawnies are great with caramel and fruit puddings, and red ports are superb with fruit, coffee, or bittersweet chocolate desserts. Avoid milk chocolate, though; a dessert wine should always be sweeter than the dish, otherwise it'll seem flabby, so dark chocolate's a better match.
Younger ports of all colors can also serve as the base for spirited, food-friendly holiday cocktails. Their vibrant flavors let them take a chill without fainting, and their sweetness softens the edges of spirits, citrus, bitters, and other mixers. They're more wine-friendly than spirit-based cocktails, too, moving fluidly from reception to the dining table to partner amiably with the wine that's poured with the meal.
The very oldest ports, namely the 30-year and 40-year tawnies and aged vintage ports, are infinitely nuanced and best savored straight—crackling fire optional.
Eight Ports to Seek Out
Fonseca Siroco Dry White Port: ($20) Zesty and nearly dry, this golden-hued white port has hints of apple and almond cream. Serve it chilled in a wine glass, or pour it over ice in a highball glass, adding tonic and a garnish of citrus or mint. It pairs beautifully with salted almonds, charcuterie, pâté, and marzipan desserts.
Croft Pink Port: ($20) This port has a deep strawberry-rose color and flavors reminiscent of fresh strawberry, cherry, peaches, nut, and almond paste. Give it a little chill to mute its peaches-and-cream sweetness, or serve it with berry desserts. Bonus: its pretty bottle can serve later as an improvised decanter.
Fonseca Terra Bella Reserve Port: ($22) Made with organically grown grapes, this wine has brilliant red fruit flavors, a nice grippy texture, and top notes of mint and eucalyptus. It's good for sipping, but its herbal aspect makes it excellent with roasted herb-rubbed meats, and cheeses.
2008 Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Vintage Port: ($24) Inky red color with notes of cherry, redwood, and spice, the wine is easy to drink has a nice tannic bite. Serve it with bittersweet chocolate desserts, fruitcake, or Linzertorte, or with a cheese plate featuring aged and blue cheeses (Stilton's a natural).
2004 Taylor Fladgate Quinta de Vargellas Vintage Port: ($65) A true vintage port from one of the very best holdings in the Douro. This wine's still a youngster, but is recommended if you want to experience vintage port without the wait. Supple and integrated, it has juicy red berry flavors with bass notes of nutmeats, earth, and juniper. Sip it straight or serve it with roasted game or duck, cheeses, or dark chocolate. Vintage port throws a sediment, so this wine must be decanted.
Croft 10-year Tawny Port: ($35) This tawny is a red amber color with aromas of currant, nut, baking spice, and ginger. On the palate it's smooth, with hints of vanilla, caramel, and sweet tea. Pair it with apple pie, tarte tatin, raisin strudel, Panettone, or crème brulée.
Warre's Otima 10-year Tawny Port: ($20) A gorgeous bronze caramel color with notes of orange peel, cardamom, nutmeg, clove, and fresh ginger, this wine has glittering acidity with lingering hints of orange and roasted hazelnut. It's terrific on its own or paired with spiced cookies, gingerbread, almond cakes, or orange-scented desserts.
Taylor Fladgate 30-year Tawny Port: ($120) My favorite aged tawny of the moment, this wine is ultra smooth. Redolent of nut, roasted caramel, and vanilla bean, it finishes with a flare of acidity and spice. Infinitely deep and complex, it should be enjoyed straight, in small sips.
About the Author: Meg Houston Maker is a wine writer who contributes regularly to food, wine, and lifestyle publications. Find her musings about the pleasures of the table at Maker's Table and follow her on Twitter at @megmaker.
Tasting samples (except Warre's Otima) provided for review consideration.