* A version of the following article originally appeared in the Sunday edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.
When it comes to the pride of Portuguese red wine, nothing stands as prominent and posh as the tawny or amber colored elixir of a delectably sweet port. Customarily made from native grapes such as Touriga Nacional, port hails from the historical vineyards of northern Portugal. Here, many producers often have a British background, linked to days of old, when port was a preferred libation of the island nation.
The old world practice that separates the production of wines like Port, Madeira and Marsala (from most other wines) involves the addition of neutral grape spirits to the fermenting grape juice. Essentially, this method has a dual effect. First it stops the fermentation, allowing some of the sweetness to stay in the wine, as not all the sugar is turned into alcohol. And secondly, the addition of the grape spirits increases the alcohol content of the wine, thus fortifying it.
The fortification makes for a longer lasting, well-preserved wine that travels better in old world Europe, or more specifically for those trips to the Isles just north of the Iberian Peninsula and numerous other outposts of the once British Empire.
Across the world, the names of key port producers have become universally renowned and include the likes of Fonseca, Dows, Taylor, Croft and Grahams. These vintners have been making port for centuries and they’re still getting it right today. From the young cherry notes and light-hearted appeal of Dow’s Crusted Port to the aperitif like quality of its White Port, Dow’s is a prime example of how the best port houses make successful fortified wines that range from the aforementioned entry-level ports to a pricier and more rare vintage port.
Over the years Fonseca has become a personal favorite of the big port houses. Its Ten Year Tawny Port is dessert in a bottle. With a cornucopia of flavors like butterscotch, plum and toffee, the Fonseca Ten Year is a hard-to-beat introduction to what the wonderful world of port is all about.
Additionally, there are less recognized port houses that deserve some props. The William Harrison import of Quinta de la Rosa also makes a fantastically focused Ten Year Tawny Port. Since most ports come in a traditional darker glass bottling, it’s refreshing to see the clean, clear glass of the Quinta de la Rosa displaying the wonderful and rustic burgundy-like hues of the port wine. A sturdy 20% alcohol by volume, the Quinta de la Rosa has a wonderful honeyed aroma whose magnetism is only surpassed by its decadent and indulgent essence of raisons and dates.
During the wintertime, the sweet and warming charm of a good port may make for a cozy fireside companion, but throughout the year port is the quintessential embellishment after a magnificent meal.