How to choose the perfect Port

wine tipsChristmas is almost upon, and it’s time to take the Port out of storage. If you’re in need of a refill, our wine specialist Matt Dicks, WSET qualified Beers, Wines and Spirits Specialist for Waitrose, picks his selection of the best Ports on the shelf this festive season…

Before starting this article, we must beg the question what do two ports make? The answer is simply a harbour. Whilst this may not be the best joke to be pulled from a Christmas cracker, nor from my joke book, it does give us a reminder that the festive season is fast approaching and some of use may be on the lookout for warming drinks to serve during the colder months. However, there’s more to port than merely a boring, last-gasp tipple at the end of an illustrious meal. You may also have previously tasted it and thought of it as a sickly-sweet beverage which is confined to a thimble sized glass. 

In the past this fortified tipple may have had a whiff of nostalgia about it, coupled with shrinking sales worldwide, one may point the finger towards port’s demographic of maiden aunts, members of musty men’s social clubs and characters in a Agatha Christie novel sitting in leather-clad armchairs smoking a cigar. But, all is not lost as there are a new generation of port fans skipping merrily towards Lisbon, on the trail of something new, exhilarating and exciting. Gone are the days where port was the tipple of choice to pair with Stilton on a yuletide evening, it is now accepted by the masses as an all year-round trendy drink. 

Putting our own thoughts and encounters with port aside, this historic drink is produced in one of the most picturesque parts of the world, the Douro Valley, where vines are grown gracefully on terraces lining the sides of this steep sided valley. Comprising of the majestic rain-swept city of Oporto at the western end (the rainfall totals here are like those of Manchester) and the baking hot Douro Superior at the other, close to the Spanish border, this is a product the Portuguese are justifiably proud of.

The sheer steepness of the granite-laden valley sides means that most of the work in the vineyard must be done by hand and a blend of indigenous black grape varieties is used, with Touriga Nacional recognised as an important variety. Traditionally, grapes were trodden by foot in large, concrete lagares. Whilst this still happens, mainly for marketing purposes and for some top-end ports, the use of mechanisation is now the standard production procedure. In the spring after harvesting the wine is shipped down the river to the coastal town of Vila Nova de Gaia, where it matures in aerated lodges. 

With so many styles to choose from, it may be hard to know where to begin, so here are my top tipples for pure port pleasure: 

Cockburns Fine Ruby Port 

Ruby ports are a blend of young wines from different harvests that are aged for an average of two to three years in oak vats before being blended and bottled. This full-bodied port, with ripe red fruit flavours of fresh cherry and raspberry is complimented by a long, elegant finish. 

Taylor’s Late-Bottled Vintage Port 

Ports labelled as late-bottled vintage emulate the vintage-style, however they do not throw a sediment (or crust) are therefore ready to drink. Rich and full-bodied, this fruity port is aged five to six years in wood prior to bottling. Displaying layer upon layer of fruit and spice, firm tannins and a very long, harmonious finish. The perfect pairing for a slice of homemade fruitcake. 

Graham’s 10-Year-Old Tawny Port 

This delicious port has spent a minimum of 10 years ageing in seasoned oak casks turning it from bright ruby to a deep, glowing tawny colour. Toasted nuts and dried figs on the nose are followed by mellow caramel and toffee richness on the mouth. Delicious when served chilled as an apéritif. 

Fonseca Guimaraens Vintage 1998 

This second wine of the renowned Fonseca house is from an undeclared but very good vintage. Big and vibrant in flavour showing notes of dark and ripe cherry, plum and damson with hints of liquorice. The voluptuous fruit needs a well-flavoured partner so try with strong cheeses or rich chocolate desserts. 

Offley Rosé Port 

Here is the result when you combine the freshness and delicacy of rosé wine with the elegance and charisma often associated with port. Pushing the boundaries of port into unchartered territory, this vibrant and fruity port is bursting with red cherry, raspberry and poached plums and doesn’t require decanting. Try with baked Camembert. 

Taylor’s Chip Dry White Port 

If you are looking for a great tipple to serve when greeting friends at your home then this benchmark dry white port should be firmly at the top of your shopping list. Taylor’s pioneered the white port style more than 50 years ago and it has been a favourite in households to this day. Serve well-chilled over ice with tonic and a sprinkling of fresh mint leaves for that perfect refresher. 

For more wine tips follow Matt on Twitter @vinopatrol

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