Last: Any port in a storm will do

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If there is a liquid equivalent to comfort food, it must surely be port wine. It’s rich and warming, like slipping into a well-worn leather chair in front of a roaring fire. As such, we tend to think of it as a winter beverage, a treat to be enjoyed after a festive holiday meal.

Port producers don’t care for this trend, of course, although consumption is on the rise, and not just during winter months. At a recent port tasting with Taylor Fladgate’s sales manager Joao Rebelo, we started the event with a refreshing combination of Taylor’s white port mixed with tonic water, a simple cocktail that I will be revisiting in the future.

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There’s a wide range of styles in the port realm, and each has its place, be it with food, as an aperitif, a companion to chocolate (port is one of the very few wines that compliments the intense flavours of dark chocolate) and blue cheese. Rebelo likes a lightly chilled glass of tawny port at the end of his workday, a notion that struck me as very civilized as someone who enjoys the occasional aperitif.

Port wine production is centred in and around the Portuguese city of Porto (Oporto in Portuguese dialect) and along the steep banks of the Douro River region. As wine regions go, it’s one of the most stunningly beautiful destinations in the world. The city of Porto has a very cool Bohemian vibe to it and is fun to explore. Artsy neighbourhoods collide with old-world charm and kicking back at a café with a couple of Pasteis de Nata (Portugal’s beloved custard tarts) has found me reconsidering my choice of places to live. Mild winters, beautiful coastal beaches, wine, olives, seafood, and relatively affordable; what’s not to like? The language is a bit tricky, and should you visit, avoid making the mistake of using your smattering of Spanish there, they are not the same at all and the two countries, despite a friendly alliance now, have been at war with each other in the past.

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Joao Rebelo from Taylor Fladgate. cal

The history of Portugal’s famous fortified wine dates to Roman times but in 1675 the Port designation was recognized, and, in 1756, it became the world’s first Controlled Designation of Origin. In 2001, UNESCO added the Douro Valley to the World Heritage List.

The style of the wine in the late 1600s was light, dry and astringent, and they shipped a considerable amount of it to the U.K. It was an arduous journey, to say the least. To protect the wine from further degradation, the Brits started fortifying it with brandy, and it stuck. The style wasn’t embraced by all, but by the 19th century, it became the accepted fashion. The British company run by the Symington Group established itself as a dominant presence and today it owns Graham’s, Warre’s, Dow’s, and Cockburn’s, while The Fladgate Partnership controls Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft. The U.K. has traditionally been the largest export market for Port, but now it’s France and by a considerable margin.

Port is the most age-worthy wine in the world, largely due to the fact it’s fortified, but not entirely. The main grapes are touriga nacional, tinta roriz, tinta cao, and tinta barroca, although not exclusively. Touriga nacional is a dark, tannic red that contributes aggressive tannins to the wine, which aids in its longevity. At one time, the only way to get the wine to market was by barges on the Douro River. To this day, most vineyards must be harvested by hand as the steep, terraced sites don’t accommodate tractors. Treading the grapes by foot used to be common practice and some Port lodges still do it, partly because they like the results of foot treading, plus it’s fun for the tourists (side note: your legs will be purple from the knees down for several days). There is a range of styles but here’s a basic guide:

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Vintage Port: Produced from a single vintage and aged for two years in barrel prior to being bottled. They can age in bottle for up to 50 years (when the wine is from an exceptional vintage).

Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV): From a single vintage and aged for four to six years in barrel prior to bottling. Usually meant to be drunk upon release, although some can improve with age.

Tawny Port: Multiple vintages aged for three years in barrels, but usually 10 to 40-plus years prior to being bottled. They don’t improve with age; the wineries have done this for you. Unlike vintage ports, they don’t throw sediment and as such do not require decanting.

Colheita Port: Single vintage tawny style aged for many years in barrels. Like blended-year tawnies they do not improve with age.

White Port: Produced like other ports but made with white grapes, typically served as an aperitif. You can find both dry and sweet versions.

As a rule of thumb, tawnies can last for about a month after being opened while vintage ports should be consumed within a few days after being opened. You will also see the term “single quinta” which simply means the grapes for that vintage style come from a single farm, rather than blends from numerous sites. The tawnies tend to have nutty, dried fruit flavours, and become more so the older they are. Many tawny aficionados like the 20-year-olds because they offer a nice balance between fruit and the dried fruit/nut combination. Vintage ports have more red wine characteristics, albeit sweet and fortified. I like these with dark chocolate or with a big wedge of blue cheese, such as Roquefort.

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Here’s a word of advice: Port is delicious and as such I’ve found one glass is rarely enough. Two seems like a better idea but two glasses of a 20 per cent alcohol wine can impair one’s judgment, which can lead to three, and so on. The sugar/alcohol combination will not be kind to you the following day, trust me on that one.

I’d like to wish all the readers a safe and happy holiday season, I raise my glass to you. Cheers!

Geoff Last is a Calgary wine merchant writer, instructor, and broadcaster. He can be heard every Friday on CJSW’s Road Pops program between 4 -6 p.m. Media inquiries can be directed to [email protected]

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