I love port (or porto as it is called in its home country of Portugal). And I'm not afraid to say so. Yes, it's sweet, often very sweet. And it's red! And this time of year I just can't resist it. The only challenge is there are a variety of styles, so it can be difficult deciding which to buy.
The growing conditions in northern Portugal's Upper Douro Valley are extreme, with long hot summers, very cold winters, low average rainfall and rugged, rocky soils. But with a little human help, this environment creates a unique sweet wine. High alcohol (fortified with brandy) and bursting with fruit, port is a powerful wine, even in styles that fashion a sense of elegance. The richness of intense dark fruits and natural sweetness balanced with refreshing tannin and finished with an alcoholic kick always warms my soul.
A good place to start is with a ruby port, the youngest and most accessible style. Blended from several different vintages and aged three years in large vats to retain freshness, expect straightforward, grapey fruit. The Fonseca Bin No. 27 ($21) is a favorite for its intense, lively red fruits and good structure.
Vintage Port, made only from the best grapes from the best vineyards in the best years, is the most prized but naturally also the most expensive. Late Bottled Vintage Port can give you a taste of Vintage Port's power and depth at a much more affordable price. It is made from good wines of a single year that didn't quite make the cut for Vintage Port. After aging four to six years, it is ready to drink upon release. The 2007 Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Vintage ($22), notable for its full body and exuberant blackberry fruit balanced with fine acidity and soft tannins, is an admirable example.
Tawny port is known less for power and concentration than for complexity, purity of fruit and finesse. Tawny ports marry several vintages but spend extensive time in casks, for periods ranging from 10 to 40 years (the year on the label refers to the average age of the blended wine). Also, expect admirable balance, elegance and a distinctive nuttiness. While 20-year Oldtawnies can run around $60 and 30- and 40-year-olds can reach or surpass $100, 10-year-old tawnies are a great introduction to the style. Try the Taylor Fladgate 10 Year Old ($35), which presents pure vibrant fruit, hints of almonds, and fine balance.
Another outstanding example is the Warre's 10-year-old Otima ($30/500ml). Warre's was the first British port company established in Portugal in 1670. This fine tawny offers an intriguing mix of fresh and dried cherry and orange, with hints of toffee, almonds and caramel. It is balanced, intense and refined.
There also are some interesting port-style wines being produced in California. One I enjoyed recently is the 2008 Pedroncelli Four Grapes Port ($20). While many California producers make their port-style wine using zinfandel, this wine uses the traditional Portuguese grapes Tinta Madera, Tinta Cao, Souzao and Touriga Nacional. A little on the rustic side, it nicely conjures the character of a ruby port.
Although some experiment with drinking port during a meal, I still find it is best enjoyed chilled at the end of the meal, either with dessert or as dessert. Dark chocolate or blue cheeses are ideal matches.
However you enjoy it, try all the different styles and feel the winter cold melt away!