When I think about port, I think of my earliest, clumsy attempts at seeming — with requisite air quotes — “sophisticated,” or at least “fancy.” Back then, in my 20s, port seemed like the fast track to connoisseurship. “I’ll take a glass of the ’85 Fonseca,” I’d say to a waiter as everyone else was simply ordering dessert.
I admit I was kind of insufferable. But I did grow fond of port, and it did end up being the first wine I truly came to know, from drinking a lot of it as well as making several visits to the famed port lodges in Porto, the Portuguese city from which the wine takes its name. Yet over time, my love for port waned. Like everyone else’s, it seemed.
There are a lot of theories on why port fell out of favor. Sure, it’s seen as the kind of drink that an elderly British gentleman, dressed in tweed, might sip while smoking a pipe; not exactly a contemporary image.
But even that can’t totally explain why fewer and fewer people drink port. This is a time, after all, when other, old-timey fortified wines such as sherry, Madeira or even Tokaji are gaining a new following, promoted by young, hipster sommeliers with tattoos.
“Port sales are flat,” Aymeric de Gironde, sales director for the venerable Quinta do Noval port house, told me when I visited the Douro Valley this past fall.
By now it’s clear that the valley’s future is in making non-fortified, dry table wines with the same grapes that used to be solely for port. “You can see the dynamism of the region. Lots of people are investing here. This could be one of the greatest wine regions in the world,” de Gironde said.
But these developments probably mean that interest in port will continue to lag. Port — in particular the expensive, aged stuff — is not where the dynamism is right now.
The only category of port that seems to be showing any vibrancy is the low end. When it comes to attracting new, young port aficionados, several major port houses have tried to follow the same marketing playbook that sherry recently has. That would be cocktails, cocktails, cocktails.
No longer is port pitched solely as an after-dinner drink. Bottles such as Graham’s Six Grapes, Croft Pink, Warre’s Otima 10-year-old and Noval Black, at around $20 or under, are all about aperitifs and mixology.
My two favorites are Noval Black, which spends about three years in a barrel, and Otima, a 10-year-old tawny. They are mere youngsters when compared with the kind of ports people spend hundreds of dollars on. But I enjoy the freshness and lively fruit that you find here.
“We plan to be even more aggressive in the future with Noval Black in cocktails,” de Gironde said. One thing Noval has done is hire high-profile bartenders, such as Jim Meehan of the famed speakeasy PDT in Manhattan’s East Village, who created the Black Cup that ran with my column on Pimm’s Cup last summer.
Just like many other now-neglected spirits and wines, port played a big role in cocktails before Prohibition. The Port Sangaree, with port, soda water, sugar and grated nutmeg, is a cocktail as old as they come.
Port also was used interchangeably with other fortified wines in the old days. Substitute port for vermouth in a martini, for instance, and you’d have the Coronet cocktail. If you added a dash of orange bitters to that, you’d have the Princeton cocktail. And if you used Old Tom gin instead of dry gin, you’d have a Union League.
As a cocktail ingredient, port mixes best with all kinds of brandies, generally either a cognac or an apple brandy like Calvados (which you find here in the Philadelphia Scotchman). I find port also works well with spices and herbs, ginger beer and pears (which you find here in the Perfect Pear).
I’ve been excited to rediscover port as part of my regular cocktail bar. Sure, I might not order port after dinner anymore. But as readers (not to mention acquaintances and family members) know, I can still be a little insufferable at times. Maybe just in a different way.
One cocktail I’ve recently enjoyed calls for 2 ounces of white rhum agricole and 1 ounce of 40-year-old tawny port, along with a dash of bitters. Its name: The MidLife Crisis. Garnish with a red convertible sports car, optional.
Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed Press, 2011). Follow him on Twitter @boozecolumnist.