Three things to know about port wine:
• Port is fortified with alcohol.
• There are multiple varieties of Port to choose from.
• Port pairs well with sweet and savory recipes.
Somewhere in the history of the American beverage culture, we incriminated port wine. We made it harsh, arrogant, ancient, and solitary. We declared it too saccharine to accompany the meal; too pungent to warm the palate. An article in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year quite accurately pointed a finger at what has become the prevailing image of the wine as a lonely glass sipped in a dark study, and usually accompanied by a cigar. Port wine has been iconized as your grandfather’s drink, or maybe even your great-grandfather’s.
Perhaps there is a reasonable explanation for the pigeonholing of port, which has, historically, been a drink of ceremony, or ritual, and rarely shared with a meal. The bold flavor of the wine does not openly invite accompaniment, making the solitary image of the wine all the more defended. Port is a fortified wine—the winemaker adds distilled alcohol to arrest fermentation. The result is a wine that often harbors a sweeter flavor due to the residual sugars, paired with a potent alcohol content that can intimidate a meeker palate. Yet port was not always the bold contender it is today.
A Brief History
While several varieties of wine are often designated port, the only wine with the true claim to fame is the port wine that hails from the Duoro River region of northern-central Portugal. Port became popular in England after the Methuen Treaty of 1703, endearingly renamed the “Port Wine Treaty” for the generous effects it had on Portugal’s port wine export industry. During the War of the Spanish Succession, French wines became a tenuous import for England both due to the countries’ wartime opposition, and the high taxes levied on the goods. The new agreement entreated that Portugal’s wine could be imported to England at less tax than French wines, making port the popular wartime libation.
The actual creation of port as a fortified wine, however, followed this commercial agreement when the shipments from Portugal spoiled onboard long before reaching England. Port’s fortification was a means of improving shelf-life and ship-ability to its newly booming marketplace.
Port Wine Now
The image of this fortified wine is starting to soften, thanks primarily to a growing interest in the complex varieties and undertones of the drink, and a rising enthusiasm to meet pairing challenges head-on. While the historic English involvement in the port wine trade still resonates in the branding of many of the more popular port imports, the rigid tradition of this wine’s history is giving way to an exciting, if not entirely contemporary, reputation. Port is now claiming space more frequently at the dinner table and modern bar menu.
While it’s easy to think of port as classically a dessert wine, the styles of port are dynamic and numerous—white, tawny, ruby, late bottle vintage, Colheita, Garrafeira, the list continues. In general, flavors of ripe berries, figs, and toasted nuts are readily available to the port drinker’s palate, but each port style is distinct. Here are a few suggested pairings to make the most out of your port selection.
• Ruby and Reserve—textured blue cheese such as Gorgonzola or Fourme D’Ambert
• Aged Tawnies—Harder cheeses including Comte, gruyere, well-aged Parmesan, nuts such as pecans or walnuts, and richer meats including duck and foie gras
• White—semi-hard and mild cheese varieties, olives, and salted nuts
• LBV and Vintages—bolder flavored cheeses such as stilton, chestnuts, almonds, and game meats including venison
• Ruby and Reserve—dark, red fruits including berries, and chocolate tarts and mousses
• Aged Tawnies—dried fruits and berries, and sweet cream custards
• LBV and Vintages—fresh figs and dark, semi-bitter chocolate desserts
Boston University is pleased to offer a Port Tasting with Master of Wine Sandy Block. The event will feature further discussion of this diverse and uniquely fortified wine, accompanied by a pairing of Portuguese fare. Please call 617-353-9852 or visit http://www.bu.edu/foodandwine/ for tickets.
Graduate of Boston University’s Program in the Culinary Arts