Wine: Head for This Approachable Port
Port brings to mind stuffy old geezers in smoking jackets who "repair to the library" after dinner to puff on cigars, discuss affairs of state (in speech rife with "I say!" and "Hear, hear!"), toast Baron James Forrester and share dim, slightly fictional memories of vintages long past.
Which is to say, port isn't hip.
Well, it should be. Port, the fortified sweet wine from the Douro Valley of northern Portugal, comes in nearly as many styles and variations as Manolo Blahnik shoes, and it is just as versatile in matching outfits -- or in this case, desserts. With Valentine's Day approaching, it's time to move port from the dusty library to the racy boudoir because of its special affinity for that most romantic of foods, chocolate.
Port is a natural with chocolate desserts of all types. Port's lush texture, sweetness and deep, dark-fruit flavors are an equal match for chocolate's acidity and the mouth-coating quality of cocoa butter. Port and chocolate meld with a passionate synergy rarely seen in nature outside romance novels and certain subscription cable channels.
But which type of port? There is a dizzying variety of styles and categories in a wide range of prices. My suggestion this Valentine's Day is to reach for the late-bottled vintage, or LBV.
There are several reasons to favor LBVs. They are eminently affordable, costing $20 to $25 for a bottle that lasts significantly longer than a bottle of dry wine. They exhibit some of the freshness of a young vintage port, which is aged in cask for two years before release, typically costs much more than an LBV and requires extended aging after purchase. Yet because LBVs have been aged for four to six years in large oak casks before bottling, their tannins have softened, and they are ready to drink upon release, though they will continue to improve in the bottle for several more years.
Another reason to look for LBVs: Wines from the fantastic 2003 vintage are now reaching store shelves. The heat wave that scorched Europe that year was welcome in the Douro Valley, where the fruit ripened exceptionally well and produced massive wines with great structure. Vintage ports from 2003, released two years ago, should be wonderful in another decade or two. The 2003 LBVs are wonderful now.
"Late-bottled vintage" may sound old and stuffy, but it is actually a symbol of port's modernization. The style emerged only a few decades ago, in response to consumer demand for vintage-quality port that didn't require long aging or deep pockets. At about the same time, modern dams stilled the raging waters of the Douro River, including the rapids that claimed the life of Baron Forrester, a British port magnate who was the first to map the valley. Forrester drowned in the early 1860s when his boat capsized after a liquid lunch at a friend's estate. He was dragged under by the weight of his gold-laden money belt, while his wife floated to safety in her crinoline dress.
Today, the famous walled-terrace vineyards of the Douro are interlaced with modern-style vine rows that stretch up the hillsides instead of across. Many of these new vineyards produce grapes for dry table wines rather than for sweet port. Economic development has deprived port houses of their most important winemaking tool -- human feet -- as farm workers gravitate to life in the cities or other countries. Many houses have developed mechanical contraptions to mimic foot treading, which winemakers consider more gentle and effective than grape presses used elsewhere.
Think of LBV as the modern port: fresh and racy, with a romantic past but centered in the present. And when chocolate is involved, focused on the moment.