Ask Dr. Food

Port Tasting

Gene Jaspers of Gig Harbor asks: I got taken to a port tasting in Seattle last spring and enjoyed most of what I tasted, but the more I read about port, the more confused I get about aging and vintages and tawny and ruby and all that. Is there any simple way to break down the subject? Dr. Food responds: No, unfortunately. Dedicated port lovers are as fond of the arcana surrounding port as they are of the beverage itself; they don't want you to understand what they're talking about. But a few basic facts about port are all you need to buy a good bottle or two for your own use. Fact one: Only wine made by a specific process in a specific region of Portugal is entitled to call itself port. "Port" from anywhere else can be anything whatever. Read your label carefully. Fact two: All port starts out as partially fermented grape juice. The winemaker stops fermentation in order to leave a certain amount of natural sugar in the juice; this is done by adding brandy, which kills the yeasts responsible for fermentation. Fact three: Once the wine has settled and stabilized, it follows one of two paths: If the winemaker judges that the wine will age well enough to stand on its own, it is stored in wooden barrels for anywhere from two to seven (or more) years, then bottled and (often) allowed to age some more. This is "vintage port," sold labeled with the year of its making. Other ports of a particular year are ultimately mixed with other vintages to produce blended port. Here is where things get complicated, because, depending on the maker, these wines can end up bottled as "ruby port" (emphasizing fresh fruity flavors), "tawny port" (which capitalizes on the woody, dried-fruit flavors that can come with aging), or blends dated at 10 years, 20 years, and on up (with the oldest wine in the blend defining the date). The most important thing to keep in mind when buying port is that neither vintage nor blended port is "better," nor is an old port necessarily better than a young one. The only formula to follow is: Taste port whenever you get a chance. When you find one that suits your taste at a price you can afford, buy it, whether vintage, non-vintage, ruby, tawny, or whatever, and continue to buy it while tasting as many others as possible, until you find one you like as well or even better. Repeat ad lib.

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