Not Just Any Old Port

By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, October 10, 2007; Page F05

Tawny port is autumn in a glass. Its caramel, nut and baking-spice flavors, not to mention its reddish-brown color, reminiscent of turning leaves, make it the quintessential wine of the season.

Port in general has few equals in its ability to raise autumnal foods -- blue cheeses, dark-chocolate desserts, pecan and pumpkin pies -- to thrilling new levels of deliciousness. And year-round, serving a sweet, rich, smooth glass of port concludes a meal with grace and civility.

It's also a deal: Another wine aged as long could cost several times the price. And because the average port pour is about half the size of a glass of regular wine, one bottle can easily serve twice as many people.

Americans finally are getting hip to port. As of the 1990s, the United States has been importing more vintage port than has Britain. So forget the traditional images of leather armchairs, cigars and stuffy gentlemen's clubs that might have kept you away.

A tradition worth upholding, however, is port's pairing with blue cheeses such as Stilton. It is arguably the greatest wine and cheese combination of all time, with port's sweetness taming the cheeses' salty pungency. And a new tradition you'll want to start is pairing port with autumn pies, which can create just as much magic.

After spying the first bright- orange pumpkins of fall, we craved pumpkin pie so intensely that we mail-ordered the only version we've ever loved: the pie from Royers Round Top Cafe in Round Top, Tex. (population 89). We also ordered the cafe's legendary pecan pie and owner Bud Royer's namesake Bud's Chocolate Chip Pie ( Port's diversity is such that we were able to find the perfect partner for each pie.

Port is made by fortifying wine to an alcohol level near 20 percent by adding a neutral brandy called aguardente, which halts fermentation. The unfermented grape sugar creates a sweet wine.

Ruby ports are aged only briefly in wood and then in the bottle, which allows them to retain their red color and sweet berrylike flavors. They pair beautifully as a point of comparison with berry- flavored desserts and as a contrast to chocolate- and nut-flavored desserts and blue cheeses.

Tawny ports are aged longer in wood before bottling, which gives them their reddish-brown color and characteristic caramel, dried-fig, nut and baking-spice flavors. While that flavor profile can overwhelm berry desserts, tawny ports work well with blue cheeses and chocolate sweets, and they pair most exquisitely as a point of comparison with pumpkin and pecan pies.

Aged tawny ports trumpet their maturity on their labels as badges of honor. Tasting them is more enjoyable when someone else is paying: As a guest at the James Beard House, Andrew once tasted a priceless 100-year-old tawny port that was highly refined with very light citrus and nut notes. However, those of us looking for the biggest bang for our bucks would do well to choose 10- and 20-year-old aged tawny ports, such as the fruitier Churchill's Tawny Porto 10 Years Old ($29) and the mellowed Sandeman Tawny Porto 20 Years Old ($49), which perfectly echoed the flavors of our pumpkin pie, elevating the duo to new heights.

The top 2 percent of ports are vintage ports, which are barrel-aged for two years, with vintages generally declared a few times per decade. They can sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars a bottle.

The similar-sounding "late bottled vintage" style refers to ports that have been aged in the barrel for four to six years before bottling and are ready to drink upon release. They often are filtered and do not require decanting -- or such deep pockets. Fonseca Porto Late Bottled Vintage 2000 ($23), for example, is notably less tannic (and less expensive) than vintage port. When Bud's Chocolate Chip Pie hit our table, the richness of this LBV's flavor -- reminiscent of chocolate-covered cherries and raisins -- made for a luscious pairing.

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