Exploring Port Wine, a Guest Post by Brian Penny

This is our final installment of guest posts by the indefatigable Brian Penny and his Incredible Regenerating Liver! Enjoy a vicarious tour of Portugal’s finest export.

Wine is one of those things most people either love or hate. Personally I’m a fan of wine and went through a few exploratory phases in my younger days to learn a little bit more about it.

Strong flavored reds like merlot and cabernet are among my favorites, but it’s the desert wines like reisling and port wine that really caught my attention. Port wine in particular stands out because it’s a fortified wine that not only elevates the taste, but the buzz as well.

As Valentine’s Day approaches and we push through the cold, wintery months, I decided to contact some wineries that make port wine to see what we can learn.

Port Wines

Difference Between Fortified and Port Wine

One thing about wine (and liquor in general) that’s important to know is the region where the drink was distilled. The type of water, weather, altitude, and other factors can greatly change the flavor. This is why Scotland is so particular about what constitutes scotch, Americans are about bourbon, etc.

Port wine is named after the city of Porto, Portugal, which was a trading center in the 1700s.

Although many countries (France, Australia, U.S., etc) make fortified wines, port wine is specifically from the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. However, this recognition is only in Europe – in the United states, port can be used to describe any fortified wine, whereas porto, oproto, and vinho do porto have been designated for port wine specifically from Portugal.

Port Wines Sandeman

Port Wine Production

There are five main grape varieties typically used in port wine: Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cao, Tempranillo, Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Nacional.

Ports can be red (ruby), white, or tawny, which is a red port aged in wooden barrels to achieve a golden-brown color. Whether or not the port is reductive aged in sealed bottles or oxidative aged in wooden barrels can drastically change the composition and viscosity of the port.

Grape liquor known as aguardente (an industrial brandy) is the spirit used to stop fermentation while boosting alcohol content. This process leaves sugar in the mixture, making for a sweeter drink.

Like any other wine, you can find port wines of a particular vintage, which means the year the grapes were harvested and the wine made. Portmakers are notoriously stingy with vintages, often only releasing a couple per decade. This makes them more rare, sought after, and expensive.

Ports are often aged in 5 and 10 year increments, and you’ll see some tawnies aged 40 years or more.

Port Drinking Etiquette

Because of its increased viscosity, ports are typically drank from brandy snifters, dessert wine sippers, or glasses made specifically for port wine.

White ports are often mixed with tonic water, a popular mixed drink in the Porto region. Throughout Europe, all types of port are used as an aperitif (pre-meal drink to stimulate appetite), and in most English-speaking countries, you’ll find port served at dessert along with chocolate, nuts, and cheese.

Gently sip – you’re not trying to outchug or race anyone, and enjoy the subtle flavors and sweetness of your favorite port.

Favorite Port Wines

Port Wines

Cockburn’s Special Reserve Porto

Cockburn’s special reserve is the first port wine I ever drank, at the age of 25. Along with Six Grapes, it’s one of few ports I ever saw in grocery stores in Arizona. As the cheaper option, I more than happily fell in love with what tasted almost like a thicker Welch’s grape juice.

Cockburn’s 20-Year Tawny Port

Taking that same great Cockburn’s blend and aging it for 20 years was all it took to add a nutty, smoky flavor that highlights the real complexity available in port wines. It’s like drinking creamy, liquid butterscotch.

Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage 2011

Dow’s late bottle vintage is a younger port than most on this list, but it’s still a great year for the winery. This full-bodied and fruity bottle has hints of chocolate that make it the perfect dessert companion to a fondue dinner.

Graham’s Six Grapes

Although there are six grapes on the logo, it’s not necessarily a blend of six different grapes. Graham’s Six Grapes is an award-winning selection of the best quality wines from the best quality vineyards that make up the best port for sipping with a cheese, fruit, and nut platter.

Graham’s 20-Year Tawny Porto

While Six Grapes is delicious, it’s bottled young, and the 20-year barrel aging process used on this fine wine gives it the exact kick it needs. Tasting like a slice of fruit-flavored cake topped with creamy vanilla ice cream, this tawny port is the best way to impress your date with your taste in wines and cap off the night.

Port Wines Sandeman

Sandeman Reserve Porto

The young porto from Sandeman is made of the best lots from each vintage aged for 5 years. It has a rich aroma and complex flavors blended with the fruity sweetness. It’s a great match for dark chocolate and fudge.

Sandeman 10-Year Old Tawny Port

Aged 10 years, Sandeman’s 10-year is fa full-bodied wine that’s known as the most flavorful of the line. This is due to the slight smokiness and hints of vanilla mixed in with the grape flavor, making for a unique port that’s excellent to sip on its own.

Sandeman 20-Year Old Tawny Port

With another decade of aging in wooden barrels, the 20-year tawny port from Sandeman maintains the flavor of the 10-year, adding a slight spiciness and almost citrusy aftertaste.  It’s great for appetizer platters and summer desserts.

Sandeman 30-Year Old Tawny Port

At 30 years, the Sandeman tawny port adds intense aromas of honey to the mix. The aftertaste is almost nutty, with a faint hint of hazelnut specifically. The deeper flavors and thicker wine are due to the higher angel’s share.

Sandeman 40-Year Old Tawny Port

The Sandeman tawny port aged at 40 years develops each of the flavors mentioned above in a bouquet of vanilla, honey, nut, fruit, and oak. Swirl each sip in your mouth and enjoy the peak of port wine production, perfected over centuries.


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