Give Port, get Port

By Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 3:49 PM

First of two parts

Choosing holiday gifts for wine lovers can be a challenge, as you navigate the useless (reindeer bottle stoppers), the tacky ("Wino X-ing" signs) and the endless permutations of corkscrews (who needs another one?). Wine - the obvious choice - is fraught with peril, if only because of the sheer variety out there. Champagne is an easy answer, welcome in any wine-loving household. But a less obvious and equally impressive way to go, bottlewise, is port.

It is a fortified, sweet wine produced in the Douro Valley of northern Portugal, one of the most stunningly beautiful wine regions in the world. It takes its name from the city of Oporto, at the Douro's mouth, from where the wine traditionally sets sail to market, most notably to Britain. Port is made from traditional Portuguese grape varieties, with neutral distilled spirits added to the fermenting juice. The alcohol (about 20 percent in the final wine) halts the fermentation and preserves the wine's sweetness.

Port's stylistic variety gives us plenty of gift-giving options for loved ones and those we must impress, and for when we want to treat ourselves to something special.

Vintage port is top of the line in power, prestige and price. Port houses declare a vintage only in the best years, and their best grapes go into those blends. Aged in the cask for two years and then bottled, these ports are meant to age in your cellar for years, even decades. The 2007 is the current release, though some houses release older vintages from time to time. Vintage port is a nice gift to give the wine collector on your list. You might want to attach a note with your name so he'll remember who gave it to him as he savors it years from now.

(Another premium category is aged tawny port, which I'll discuss next week.)

Further down the price scale are ruby ports. These are fruitier and more supple than vintage and meant for immediate enjoyment. They typically are blends of wines from several vintages, meant to promote a house style immune to vintage variation. (An exception to that rule is "late-bottled vintage," or LBV, ports. An LBV is essentially a single-vintage ruby, meant to capture some of the character of a vintage port at a fraction of the price.)

Ruby port typically is not labeled as such; that would be too easy. But it often carries a proprietary name or "reserve" designation. Ruby is also the category in which port houses can innovate and introduce new wines aimed at capturing the attention of younger wine drinkers.

Some innovations, such as pink port, are questionable, but others are exciting. Three years ago Fonseca released the first organic port, made from organically grown grapes and certified organic grape spirit. Called Terra Bella, the wine seems to pulse with energy drawn directly from the schist of the Douro's terraced vineyards. This year's entry is Noval Black, from the prestigious Quinta do Noval, a lively ruby that is almost as edgy as its sleek label. If vintage port conjures images of Britain's upper-crust society at the height of the empire, these rough-and-tumble rubies remind us of the swashbuckling adventurers who built that empire.

So for holiday gifts for the wine lover, consider port: a bit of history, a bit of modernity and always a special occasion in a bottle.

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