By Hunt Mallett –
One of my favorite songs this time of year opens with the line “When chimney smoke hangs still and low across the stubbled fields of snow, and angry skies reach down to seize the sorry, blackened bones of trees.” This draws the listener in to appreciate the “cure,” which, in this case, is the song’s title: “Hot Buttered Rum” (written by Tommy Thompson). In the wine world, the obvious substitute would be port wine. The classic sweet, warming sips of a port or similar wine enjoyed at the table or curled up in front of the fire, are hard to beat when it comes to fending off the blues and chill of winter. But what makes this wine so different than the red and white wines that pair so well with most of the meal? Let me provide a little background and reference a number of pairings that can enhance your enjoyment of this special wine.
Port wine comes from the Douro Valley region of Portugal. The British are credited with the development of modern port by providing a market for the wine producers in the 17th century when England couldn’t get wine from France due to war or some trade dispute. They discovered that in order for the wine to successfully survive the ocean voyage up from Portugal, a little brandy (distilled grape spirits) could be blended into the base wine to preserve it through the journey. This “fortified” wine stops further fermentation and results in a sweet taste and higher alcohol levels (18 -22%). This style was met with great favor and many English companies founded their “Lodges,” or port making wineries, in and around the city of Oporto at the mouth of the Duoro River where it enters the Atlantic Ocean. So, many of the great brands of port bear the names of their English founders such as Smith-Woodhouse, Grahams, Cockburn, Taylor and Dow.
The port style is typically a red, sweet wine, but it can be dry, semi dry and even made from white grapes. Other areas that produce the port style include Australia, South Africa and the US. Under E.U. law, only wines from Portugal can be labeled “Port” or “Porto.” There are two basic styles of port that are determined by the method of aging the wine: in wood casks (tawny), or in the bottle (ruby). Tawny port gets an amber-brown tint from the extended wood contact and has flavors of butterscotch and caramel, while ruby port retains more of the red color and has bright flavors of cherry and red berries. While many less expensive ports are blends of wines made in different years, a “vintage” port must have only grapes from those harvested in the year of the vintage. Only the best wine can be declared a “vintage” from a producer, so a producer may skip some years where the harvest doesn’t meet the standards. Vintage ports usually refer to the ruby style, but a tawny port made from a particular vintage is called a “Colheita” and will have a year on the bottle. Ports are among the most age worthy wines, meaning that they can continue to develop for many years once in the bottle. The high alcohol acts as a preservative to extend the life and development of port, as it does with maderia, sherry and other fortified wines.
Port can be enjoyed in a numbers of ways. It is an excellent aperitif, chilled or room temperature, and is often paired with desserts after the meal. Here are some pairings that can enhance both ruby and tawny port. Try them with roasted walnuts, Stilton blue cheese, almonds, dried fruits, Gorgonzola dolce cheese, and any type of dark chocolate. And for those that like it, a fine cigar.
So fortify yourself for those cold winter nights, and don’t forget the advantages of port on Valentine’s Day!
Written by Hunt Mallett, the owner and operator of Weinhaus, located on Patton Avenue in downtown Asheville.