In winter, wine lovers’ thoughts turn to port. Visions dance in our heads of post-prandial pleasure, of sitting in plush leather chairs with a generous glass, a chunk of well-aged Stilton or Cheddar, a handful of walnuts and a plate of dried fruit.
Call it the solace of age. Or, as some do, call it the “adult candy” of the wine world.
Port is made in Portugal, of course, from grapes little heard of outside the country — Touriga Francesa, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Amerela and Tinta Cao, among others. After picking, they are poured into giant, open vats of concrete or granite called lagares.
Then they are crushed — in many Douro Valley port houses by human foot. First comes the corte or cut, in which teams of workers march shoulder-to-shoulder on the grapes, sometimes to martial music. Then comes the liberdade, or liberty, in which they tread free-style. Some wineries do this mechanically, but where’s the fun in that?
The heat of feet and natural ambient yeast cause fermentation to begin. When it is about half finished, creating an alcohol level of about 6 percent, the juice is poured into another big vat, and grape brandy is added. This stops fermentation, and raises the alcohol level of the finished port to 17 to 20 percent. And since the fermentation was stopped before it used up all the natural grape sugar, the resulting port is quite sweet.
Now we have port. But it’s only the beginning.
Ruby port is aged in large oak vats for two or three years before bottling, so it’s young and lively and very fruity.
Late bottled vintage ports, from better grapes, are aged four to six years, so they’re more complex, but still brightly colored and fruity.
Tawny ports are aged in wood for much longer — 10, 20, 30, even 40 years. They become tawny in color and take on flavors of nuts and caramel. Once they’re bottled, they don’t profit from further aging.
Vintage ports come from the best grapes, and are made only in years when the grapes come up to this standard. They age in vats for a couple of years, then often much longer in bottle. They’re muscular and powerful.