Snowed In 

Port is the perfect winter fireside sipper

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I always look forward to the first big snowfall of the winter. In part, it’s because I can’t wait to get back on skis. But, there is a second, less-ambitious motivation for me to pray for snow: Port. If you’re looking for a tasty new tradition to acquire, I suggest sipping Port to usher in the season’s first snow. For me, Port and winter go together like, well, Port and Stilton.

I’m talking, of course, about the real stuff. There are good Port-type wines from down under and, now, even from the good ol’ U.S.A. But, just like real Champagne only comes from the Champagne region of France, real Port comes solely from the Port region of Portugal, in the Douro River Valley.

It was in the Douro River area that British wine merchants in the late 1670s discovered how fortifying relatively simple Douro wines with brandy not only made them “shockproof” for shipping in warm weather, but also resulted in a sweet but powerful wine. As a result, British entrepreneurs essentially invented the Port business, which is why well-known Port has names like Dow, Graham’s, Cockburn, Sandeman, Smith Woodhouse, Taylor Fladgate and Warre’s. For centuries, the Brits made and marketed the stuff, as well as drank most of it. Today, the United States constitutes the world’s biggest market for vintage Port.

Since it’s a fortified wine, Port is relatively high in alcohol—about 20 percent. It’s made primarily with five red grape varieties from the Douro where, amazingly, there are more than 50 types of red grapes grown in a region only 70 miles long. The five grapes most commonly blended to make Port are Tinta Roriz, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cao and, the most important one, Touriga Nacional. Each grape contributes something unique to every batch of Port: body, floral aromas, color, spiciness, delicacy and the like.

There are 10 styles of Port, including young tawny, aged tawny, vintage character, late-bottled vintage, traditional late-bottled vintage, vintage and single-quinta vintage. There is even white Port, although it’s pretty rare. I’d rather not get too bogged down in a discussion of the differences of each style. My best suggestion is to buy a handful of bottles of Port of differing styles and throw a Port tasting to discover your favorites.

Thankfully, Port is relatively inexpensive. Even vintage Port tends to be cheaper than vintage Champagne. A bottle of Port from the classic, monumental year—probably the best vintage year of the century—of 1963 will set you back $200 to $250. I recently spotted a bottle of 1963 Dow vintage Port for $225, and a Sandeman from the excellent 1997 vintage for $75. Plus, Port can be a good investment; it doesn’t get cheaper with age and can be kept for decades.

I’ve mentioned this before, but my love affair with Port began during graduate school, watching Brideshead Revisited on PBS and going through a period of being a Bertie Wooster wannabe. The best Port I could afford, however, was Fonseca Bin 27. My fondness for Fonseca carries through to today. And, while I wouldn’t turn up my nose at a nice bottle of the 2007 vintage Fonseca Port for $100, I still think that it’s impossible to beat Fonseca’s Bin 27 non-vintage Port, priced at a very tempting $19.95, for everyday sipping. It has characteristics of vintage Port—rich, lush fruit with hints of chocolate, soft tannins and well-balanced acidity—at a decidedly non-vintage price. No need for decanting or any fancy preparation or serving rituals; just pop the cork and enjoy.

Ted Scheffler Twitter: @Critic1

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