(Entertaining)

Port Wine Misconceptions, & Why It’s the Perfect Fall Drink

It’s time to unlearn what you think you know about this fortified beverage.

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port wine

Wine and Portugal are inextricably linked — its early inhabitants were enjoying the fermented drink two thousand years ago. However, port wine as we know it today only came to prominence in the last few centuries and the distinct fortified style is part of what makes this country so unique. Port’s vineyards are situated in the Duoro Valley, the oldest demarcated wine region in the world. Here, the valley’s namesake river flows along steep hillsides and out into the sea. It’s listed as a World Heritage Site and the walled terraced vineyards leave visitors awestruck at the craftsmanship that took place here hundreds of years ago.

Out of concern for the long exportation sea voyage ahead, the tradition of fortifying this wine was born of necessity (the higher alcohol content prevented it from spoiling en route). Though techniques have evolved since those early days, port wine remains strong in its position as an internationally beloved fortified wine. But who’s drinking it? You might be inclined to point toward an older population but as you’ll soon find out, that’s just not the case anymore. This historic wine (and the fortified category in general) has undergone a transformation in recent years and a new generation of drinkers are learning the nuances of how to enjoy it. Ahead, hear from experts in the industry on the leading misconceptions surrounding port and why it should be your go-to sip for fall.

To Begin: A Primer On The Port Classifications

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If you ask Adrian Bridge (CEO of The Fladgate Partnership, which brings together four notable port houses in the region: Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, Croft, and Krohn) the best way to think about port is to keep it simple. “Port is often seen as an overly complicated category of fine wine, whereas it is not,” he says. It begins fermentation like any still red wine but the fermentation is stopped early by adding a neutral grape brandy. When this happens, only part of the grapes’ sugar has been converted into alcohol, meaning that there’s higher alcohol and higher sugar, which results in a sweeter wine at around 20% ABV. The classifications for this fortified wine are also where newcomers can get tripped up, so, a brief overview of a few terms to know about.

Ruby

Full bodied and fruity, ruby ports are great for newcomers, Bowery Group Wine Director Natascha Patterer explains. “Port beginners might appreciate the juicy, red-fruited and aptly-named ruby port, which is best served a bit cooler, between 55 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit,” she says. Bridge adds that these wines age for a relatively short time in large oak vats, allowing the fruit flavors to take center stage.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)

This style of port is a ruby with a vintage year. “These usually remain in vat for four to six years,” Bridge notes. “Although offering different degrees of complexity and sophistication, these [ruby] wines share a deep red youthful color and intense fruity flavors reminiscent of cherry, blackberry, and blackcurrant.”

Tawny

This style of port ages for longer, varying periods in oak casts and the flavor profiles tend to be rich and mellow and the color has tones of brown and amber. “These include the sumptuous 10, 20-, 30-, 40- and 50-year-old tawny ports whose delicious nuttiness and aromas of butterscotch and fine oak wood intensify the longer they spend in wood,” Bridge says.

Vintage

A vintage port is made from the best grapes in an exceptional year that’s been ‘declared' a vintage two years after aging in oak. “For the novice, vintage ports might seem a little daunting not just because of their price point, but probably because of all the things that you have heard about, having to decant them and you need to age them for many decades before you can enjoy them,” Bridge says. And yes, if you’re lucky enough to enjoy a port that's aged in bottle for 20 years you'll need to decant it, but Bridge says that’s not necessary. “Enjoy them young when they don’t need decanting,” he adds.

Don’t Worry, ‘Getting Into’ Port Won’t Be Hard

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If you’re left uncertain of which style of port is best suited to your tastes, think of it this way: “If you prefer a richer, more fruit-forward style of still table wine, try a ruby style port as there will be a lot of similar characteristics with the added sweetness that a fortified wine delivers,” Bridge says. “For someone who enjoys nuttier, dried fruit flavor profiles try the range of aged tawny ports.” And if the idea of a vintage piques your interest, Patterer says go for it. “It's worth it to splurge and try more full-bodied tawny and vintage styles; a great way to end a holiday meal,” she says. “Generally speaking, as you try more and more ports, you'll notice that the older it gets, the more complex it is.”

Port Isn’t Just For Your Grandpa

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One more time for those in the back! “The biggest misconception surrounding port is that it’s enjoyed by older people,” Hotel Chelsea and El Quijote Wine Director Claire Paparazzo tells TZR. “It is a similar misconception that I found while talking to my staff about sherry.” Tacking onto this sentiment, Patterer observes that despite this misconception, she’s witnessing more curiosity about the fortified category. “More and more we're seeing consumers who are interested in port flights and tastings to learn more about the wine.” And while interest is growing, Bridge attests it’s also a responsibility among the winemakers and their brands to keep the category relevant. “It is up to us the port companies to move the dial and start speaking the same language as our new and future customers,” he says. “For too long, the stuffy image of port has been a barrier. Now with new product launches, a diversity of food pairings, mixology and a desire and thirst to learn coming from the next generation of port drinkers, the future is looking very positive.”

Chocolate Is Not Always the Best Pairing

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When you hear ‘sweet wine’ your pairing gears begin to turn and likely pivot toward chocolate — but it’s time to rethink this mindset. “I hear a lot that port is best with chocolate, and although the two pair beautifully, I've been flirting with port and cheese a bit more these days, especially as the weather gets cooler,” Patterer says. “You can also try it with sticky toffee pudding, figs, dates, and other dried fruits alongside roasted mixed nuts.” Also, with holiday feasts coming up, why not coordinate with the main dish? “A young single Quinta or declared vintage port pairs beautifully with a piece of grilled steak or game,” Bridge shares. “The rich, vibrant, young fruit balances the charred, smoky flavors of the meat and creates the perfect marriage. Try it, you won’t be disappointed.”

It’s Doesn’t Necessarily Have to Be Served After Dinner

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As mentioned, port is a fine pairing with the main course and doesn’t have to be relegated to post-meal drink only territory. In fact, it makes for a great welcome party drink, especially during the holidays when you need something festive that requires minimal effort. “I personally love a white port and tonic and was served this in Portugal recently as an aperitif,” Paparazzo says. Taylor Fladgate saw an opportunity with the latter and in 2021 eschewed centuries-worth of tradition and released a Taylor Fladgate Chip Dry and Tonic in a can (as well as Croft Pink), which has proved to be a massive success. “Both of our products are 5.5-percent alcohol and the tonic water that is used to blend with the white and rosé port has been created internally to match the flavor profiles of the ports.”

You Can Even Have It In a Cocktail

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Mixology with fortified wines has surged in popularity in recent years, especially with categories like vermouth, sherry, and port serving as modifiers. “In the 18th and 19th centuries, port was a popular base spirit for cocktails like port sangaree (a distant relative of sangria) and port cobbler. Today, port usually acts as a secondary ingredient to gin or whiskey bases,” Bridge explains. So, if a recipe calls for sweet vermouth, take that as an opportunity to experiment. "You’ll trade in some of the bitter, herbal sharpness of the vermouth for some of port’s smooth, rich, jammy qualities.”

Also, There Are More Styles Beyond Red

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When you think of a fortified style like sherry you may already know that the category crosses between dry and sweet. But port has traditionally been considered a red, sweet style only. However, you’ll be pleased to know that there are white and rosé options that are exquisitely delicious and worth a sip. “White ports are normally available in sweeter and drier styles. They are perfect served chilled as an aperitif, or as a long drink with ice, tonic water, and a sprig of fresh mint or even a twist of orange peel,” Bridge says. “If rosé is more your thing, try Croft Pink, the first rosé port to be created back in 2008.” You can serve it chilled over ice or with a splash of soda water.

All Port Bottles Last Around the Same Amount of Time? No.

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It’s true that fortified wines can last longer after being opened than a regular still wine — but that still comes with limitations. “Different styles of port have optimum drinking windows,” Bridge explains. He offers a few guidelines to maintain maximum freshness and enjoyment from a certain bottle of port. "White Port — consume within two to three weeks of opening. Ruby Ports — three to four weeks, Aged Tawny Ports — two to three months. A young vintage port, two to three days. Whereas a mature vintage port should really be enjoyed that evening.”

Also FYI, It Makes a Great Gift

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If you’ve ever been stuck on what to gift someone who has seemingly everything, consider a vintage port from their birth year. “It is a great reminder of your memories from a particular vintage and is also a great gift idea,” Paparazzo says.