|As the weather grows chillier and the days become shorter, my 5:00 pm thoughts inevitably turn to shutting down the computer, hurrying home and curling up in my favorite chair with the newspaper and a glass of something delicious. At the risk of sounding even more prosaic, I must admit that my beverage of choice in times like these is most definitely ruby Port. I keep a mismatched set of thrift-store wine glasses handy in case guests stop by. On winter weekends the bottle beckons to be uncorked, its contents poured out in a deep garnet cacophony of aromatic fruit and subtle spice. Come Sunday night, it’s time to do Saturday night’s dinner party dishes, pour the last glug or two of Port into whatever happens to be handy and meditate upon the prospects — and possibilities — of yet another winter week.
Port is a fortified wine, with a history as long and as complex as its finish. It’s been enjoyed on its own and as a dessert wine since the 17th century. When the British were casting their ever-widening net of influence during the high Renaissance, their sights lit on Portugal, a small, coastal country that served as a provisioning point for the long sea voyage to the Caribbean and points further south. In an attempt to erode Spain’s influence in this country, the British began insinuating their own goods (mostly cloth and other household items) into Portugal’s marketplaces. When Portugal finally won independence from Spain (with a little push from the British), her trading loyalties with England were conveniently established.
Apparently they didn’t find it. The first wines to come out of Portugal’s winemaking regions were thin, tannic and astringent — not the silver-spooned Englishman’s idea of fine wine — and didn’t survive the long sea voyage to England. But the English were desperate. So, they started adding Brandy to the so it survive the trek. Thus, Port was born.
The English quickly grew appreciative of this strong, sweeter beverage known as “Oporto” wine, whose name came from the city of that name at the mouth of the Douro river. By the middle of the Eighteenth Century, even with the reinstatement of the Franco-British trade lines, “Oporto”, or Port, was a firmly established component of the British wine trade… and of every Englishman’s wine cellar.
Today Port is made in just about every major winemaking region of the world and is experiencing a surge in popularity. What once seemed relegated to either snooty gentlemen in evening attire (in the case of vintage Ports) or brown-bagging winos (in the case of mass-produced “white Port”) is now finding wider acceptance among barflies and restaurant-goers alike.
Many winemakers still use traditional Portuguese red varietals (touriga nacional, tinta roriz or tinta cao) in their Port programs, but other red and white grapes have been integrated according to regional preferences and agricultural conditions.
Port starts out as a warm, quickly fermenting mass of grapes that is vigorously and continuously agitated by either hand or machine. When the wine reaches about six or seven percent alcohol, 154 proof (77 percent alcohol) neutral grape spirits is added. The sudden shock of high alcohol concentration essentially kills-off the yeast and completely arrests fermentation. What’s left is a sweet or off-dry fortified wine that weighs in at about 18 to 20 percent alcohol by volume. The syrupy liquid is then put into oak casks to age before being blended, bottled and shipped to consumers.
Though in Portugal itself there are many different types and styles of Port produced, we only see about three kinds in this country: ruby, tawny and vintage Port. Ruby Port is what most people think of when they hear the word “Port.” Sweet, deep red and almost chewy in texture, ruby Port is made from heavily macerated red grapes and exhibits jammy red-fruit flavors and aromas. Tawny Port is made in a lighter-bodied style. It goes through a gentler maceration program and often is made in a drier style. The wine is then fortified and subsequently aged in both cask and bottle for at least six years. With time, much of the color and tannic structure of the wine precipitate out, leaving a nutty, golden-colored product that’s substantially less fruity and lighter than ruby Port.
Most Port, like Champagne, is not vintage-dated. Port makers like to maintain consistency year after year and retain a certain amount of each harvest for blending with future batches. Once in a while, however, a single year’s harvest is so stellar that it’s vintage-dated and aged for a decade or two (or three or four) before hitting the market.
Port is best served in one- or two-ounce portions. Make sure your glassware of choice has enough nose room so you can get a good whiff before tipping a bit of the liquid into your soon-to-be-appreciative mouth. No grand swirling gestures, please. You’ll just end up snuffling up a cloud of 40-proof ethanol while sloshing it into your carpet. So relax. Hold it up to the firelight and admire the color. Forget about your email in-box and stop to smell the roses. While you’re there, check out the wild blackberries and strawberry jam layered in between a lush blanket of cassis and anise. And the tea and tobacco that resonate together throughout the long finish. And…
|If you follow these simple steps when ordering wine in a restaurant, you’ll be certified and branded a wine geek. This will make you extremely popular with readers of “other” wine magazines, and gain you instant membership into the country club of your choice. Remember, keep a rude and obnoxious air about you. And never, ever, let them see you smile.
If your waitperson doesn’t present you with the winelist immediately upon being seated, seem baffled. It’s obvious, isn’t it, that you’re interested in ordering a bottle of wine? Moron. If the waitperson presents you with the winelist immediately, simply ignore it. You obviously can’t be bothered with so much so soon.
When considering the winelist, note its size and weight. If it seems thin, smirk and direct a few condescending chuckles toward its limited contents. If the winelist seems too thick and heavy, do the same. After all, how can you effectively choose from so many selections.
Even if you know what wine you want, make your waitperson come back at least three to four times to ask if you’re ready. It shows you don’t make rash decisions when it comes to important matters such as wine.
Never ask how to pronounce a winery name, type of wine or grape varietal. If it’s unpronounceable, simply point to it and exclaim, “I believe we’ll be having this, thank you” and quickly close the list. This way the waitperson will have reopen the winelist and ask you about your selection. Never, never let them show you the list and simply point to your selection to confirm it. Busy yourself. Make them read the unpronounceable name(s). If they can’t, laugh at them. If they can, look at them as if they’re a moron. Of course that’s what you ordered!
After choosing your wine, firmly clap the wine list shut in the waitperson’s face. This reminds them that they’re working a minimum wage job.
When the wine arrives, be sure to take your time making sure it’s the bottle you ordered. Chances are your waitperson’s got five tables worth of food currently getting cold in the kitchen. This’ll teach them who’s in control.
If it’s the wine you ordered, nod ever so slightly. This’ll confuse your waitperson. Did you approve it or not? If they take the wine away, grab it firmly and immediately, pulling it closer for more inspection. If they continue to hold the wine in front of you, glare up at them with a “today already” look.
When the sample is poured for your approval, do every conceivable evaluation test you can think of. Hold it up to the room lights for a thorough inspection. Hold it up to the emergency exit light for a different view. Tilt it against the white tablecloth to scrutinize its clarity. (Your waitperson now has six tables waiting for their dinner.) Smell it. Smell it again. Furrow your eyebrows and smell it again. Is it a bad bottle? (Of course not, but make them think you can smell a rose from a mile away.) Now swirl. Smell. Swirl again. Smell again. Check the color one more time. Smell one more time. Seem pensive. A bit confused. Pause for at least a minute, staring into your glass like you see the Virgin Mary swimming inside. Now, sip slowly. Pause. Now start chewing on the wine. Swish it around. Make more noise and commotion than a Hoover WetVac. Now, swallow. Contemplate for at least another minute. Make sure your waitperson sweats, trying to guess which way you’ll go. Then, throw up your hands and mumble “I guess.”
Never let the wine be the right temperature. If it feels a bit warm, ask for an ice bucket, loudly ridiculing the restaurant’s storage system. If it feels a bit cool, cuddle your wineglass in your hands as if trying to unfreeze it. Shake your head and act annoyed. This sucks.
During your dinner, make your waitperson fill your glass when low or empty. Never, ever do it yourself. This, again, reminds them of who’s waiting on who.
When the bottle is empty, ask your waitperson if you can take the label from the bottle home. This’ll require at least 10 minutes of their time to steam it off, and give your ample room to figure out their seven percent tip.