For too long we’ve left the port at the back of the liquor cabinet to be dusted off only at Christmas and grandma’s birthday.
For too long we’ve left the port at the back of the liquor cabinet to be dusted o! only at Christmas and grandma’s birthday. It’s time for a fresh look at this sophisticated drink.
Port? Surely that's something enjoyed only by people with a sweet tooth who don’t like “proper” wine? Or by stuffy men in period dramas when they toddle off to the library after dinner?
Certainly in New Zealand port has been traditionally pigeon-holed as a drink for the more mature tippler, unceremoniously consigned to the drinks trolley of the retirement village on bridge night.
But it’s time for a pause and re-think. In this golden age of the gourmet, in which we increasingly pride ourselves on our sophisticated palates and willingness to experiment with new flavours, it’s time to dust off the port and re-introduce it to our drinking life. In Europe, port has long been enjoyed by hip, young foodies who appreciate its sophisticated range of flavours and styles which match with a surprising range of foods.
And since we, as Kiwis, dislike being outdone by anybody on anything, let’s debunk some port myths.
“All port is super-sweet and tastes the same”
While port does contain some of the natural sweetness of the grape it is always balanced by the wine’s tannins or acidity, so the result is more complex; a smooth, silky richness rather than the cloying sweetness of, say, a dessert wine.
Port or not
Not all ports are created equal. Within the variety, which can only be called port if it is made in the upper reaches of the Douro River Valley in northern Portugal, there are several different styles; ruby, tawny and even white port. There’s even an emerging trend in Europe for rosé-style pink port, though the jury seems to be still out on whether it’s any good.
These have the deep purple-red colour of a young wine and tend to be fresh and fruity in style, with red berry and woodland fruit flavours. Ruby ports are usually bottled after two or three years and are matured in oak vats where contact between wood and wine is relatively limited.
These on the other hand, have a seductive russet colour which becomes paler and more amber as the wine ages. It’s most noticeable in aged tawny ports such as Taylor’s 10yo or 20yo Tawny. Tawny ports are matured in oak casks which encourage contact between the wine and the wood. Tawnies also tend to be smoother and mellower with a spicy, nutty character.
It’s also worth making a note of vintage port, which has a specific meaning in this context. As with wine “vintage” refers to the year in which it was made, but producers of port generally restrict year-labelled bottles to only the best years. If they decide the wine is worthy it is officially declared a vintage year and a vintage port.
Made from white grapes, white port is usually aged for two or three years in large vats and is available in sweet or dry styles. Try it as an aperitif topped with tonic water and a slice of orange, or try substituting the orange for a squeeze of lemon or a few bruised mint leaves; delicious with salty almonds or olives.
“It doesn’t mix well with others”
Though the full flavours of port do make it a great digestif for after dinner or a night cap, it does also match well with foods, so could be served with desserts, or a cheese course. And among the hipsters of Europe and the US there’s an increasing revival of the port cocktail.
Ruby port is generally your best bet for cocktails, as the lighter, fruitier flavours make it better for mixing.
For a rich red spin on a martini try 2 parts ruby port, with 1 part vodka and a ½ cranberry juice. Combine in an ice-filled shaker, shake and strain into a chilled martini glass, garnished with olives.
Or try equal parts brandy (or cognac) and ruby port with one small egg and a teaspoon of simple syrup, all shaken well in an ice-filled shaker then strained into a glass, garnished with grated nutmeg. It’s called a Classic Coffee despite the total absence of caffeine, though its weak latte-like appearance makes it a great post-dinner drink – or even at a special occasion brunch, provided you don’t have much to do the rest of the day!
And it’s not just for after-dinner
And it’s not just for after-dinner How about hosting a port and cheese, or port and chocolate tasting for your mates? Get everyone to bring a different bottle and a different cheese and take it from there. It’s a great way to find ports you love.
For nights in with movies or games and a pile of friends, try substituting port into a mulled wine recipe.
Gently heat a bottle of good ruby port with ¼-cup of sugar, two oranges sliced, a cinnamon stick or two, and a teaspoon or so each of allspice, mace, nutmeg and about a dozen whole cloves. Leave it to simmer for at least 15 minutes, although longer is better; just don’t let it boil. Pour into heat-proof glasses.
How about a new spin on the ubiquitous and traditionally mildly dull high tea by matching your ports with rich pastries, or cakes with a ginger or nutty base and few dark chocolate truffles?
Food for thought
When it comes to food matching in general terms ruby ports tend to go well with chocolate and berries, or cheddars and some blue cheeses. They also make excellent reductions to pour over venison, beef or poached pears for dessert.
Aged tawny ports, such as the Taylor’s 10yo, go well with hard, nutty cheeses such as parmesan or manchego, or, try it with classic desserts such as tarte tartin, apple pie or crème brulee. The aged tawnies can also be served with savoury meat dishes such as a terrine or a game paté.
It should only be drunk from tiny glasses
This is probably one of the biggest misconceptions. Port should never be drunk from the dainty, thimble-sized liqueur glasses that have long been traditional as they don’t allow the wine to breathe. The best guide is if you can’t swirl the port, as you would a wine, without spillage, the glass is too small. A good quality white wine glass works well, or for a fine vintage port, a red wine glass is even better.
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