Trans-Port-ed by an after-dinner wine

In the last couple of years I have had the good fortune of being invited to two epic vertical wine experiences in New York and two in-depth Port house tours and tastings in Portugal.

Most readers here know a vertical tasting to consist of one wine label with multiple vintages offered side-by-side-by-side. Vertical tastings are illustrative and informative. All wines have a life span that can be described with a bell curve. Verticals will show different stages in the maturation process. Inexpensive wines are usually best consumed quite young and will not improve much. They will be past their prime within months or a couple of years and likely undrinkable after that. Better crafted wines of nuance and elegance will drink very well when initially released for sale but patience will be rewarded. The bell curve of their tasting time will ascend slowly and maintain a number of years, if not decades, of steadily improving flavors.  At some far-off future time the curve will eventually begin to decline, usually very slowly.

George Sandeman invited  a group of wine writers to Del Posto restaurant to taste through seven Sandeman vintage Ports spanning 56 years, the oldest being a 1955.  And more recently Adrian Bridge of Fonseca Port Wine hosted a sit-down dinner and vertical tasting at Bouley restaurant, coincidentally on the day Bouley was voted “best restaurant in America” by TripAdvisor.  At Bouley we tasted seven Fonseca vintage Ports spanning 76 years, the oldest of which was 1927. In my life I haven’t had the opportunity to taste many wines older than I am and each year that opportunity becomes a little rarer and a little more expensive.  At these two dinners, I tasted three vintage Ports older than I am and one that was older than my dad.

The wonderful thing about tasting Ports is each producer has a house style that shines through each Port style and price range of its inventory. Sure you can splurge and spend upwards of $400 a bottle for an older vintage Port. The opulence and complexity will emerge and many flavors of dried fruit, cinnamon, allspice, leather and unlit cigar might present.  But the lesser priced Ports from the same house will still display the house style and emit similar flavors, albeit with perhaps less texture, less pronounced flavors and a shorter finish.

I am a big fan of Ports. I recently returned from a trip to Portugal. Port wine grapes are grown in the very hot Douro Valley. The grapes are harvested and brought to the fermentation room.  Here the grapes are de-stemmed, placed in large open cement tanks and crushed by teams of barefoot grape stompers.  A few houses have brought in mechanical crushers that try to emulate the human foot in size and pressure but foot treading is by far the most commonly employed approach.

Then the juice is fermented for a while and shocked by adding a high alcohol brandy that kills the yeasts, preserving some of the natural grape sugars, which give Port its signature sweetness.  This wine is then put in oak barrels and transported westerly, originally by barge, now by train or truck to the Port lodges, most found in the city of Gaia, directly across the Douro River from the beautiful city of Porto on the Atlantic Ocean.  It is in these Port lodges that the oak-barrel aging and eventual bottling takes place. I toured and tasted through Churchill’s and Graham’s Ports at their visitors’ centers in Gaia and each house style was delicious and unique.

Port is a wonderful after-dinner wine, especially served with a simple dessert of Stilton cheese, bread, nuts and fruit.  All of these flavors will play off and enhance each other and make for a lingering and lovely finish. Port is also a sweet and sophisticated way to share with your honey in front of a roaring winter fire.  The glow of the fire, the glow of the Port, the glow of contentment will bring you together in ways you may have forgotten.  Savor and enjoy the glow.

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