Winter Wine

Cold Snaps and Port Wine

It’s been damn cold lately. The other night, it got down to 14 degrees here in Santa Ynez. It’s the kind of cold that chills one’s blood and bones. Whenever there’s a real cold snap, I reach for a good vintage port. Now, I’m not suggesting this will keep you warm and safe throughout winter. Blankets, healthful food, and heat are the best remedy for that. But, on those wintry nights when a hot chocolate just won’t cut it, try a vintage — or even ruby — port, and it should add some warmth to your heart.

Ruby ports are cheaper than vintage ports and pretty readily available. Simply put, a ruby port does not need to be from a declared vintage. It’s an ordinary port aged for two to five years in oak vats and it’s somewhat monolithic. There isn’t a lot of mystery to a ruby port, but it pairs very well with most cheeses and is great as a sipping wine. I tend to choose a ruby port when I’m enjoying the latest episode of The Apprentice, after I’ve finished dinner, and when all I want is a small glass of something slightly sweet with which to close my evening. Warres and Cockburns make a nice ruby port. It’s hard to go wrong with a ruby port from Portugal, and you should be able to find one at most fine grocers or wine shops in Santa Barbara.

For a truly memorable and heart-warming (literally) experience, though, I recommend a good vintage port. Vintage ports are from declared vintages. They are the great wines of the Douro region of Portugal, and are only made in certain years. My favorite port houses are Fonseca and Warres; both make vintage ports. Recent vintages that are critical successes are the 1997 and 2000. Vintage ports are more expensive and tend to start at around $46 for current releases, but they are well worth the cost. They age exceedingly well and demonstrate great complexity as they grow older. But, even in their youth, vintage ports are deeply layered, flavorful, and mysterious.

Tawny ports are also popular, though they are my least favorite. They are slightly oxidized, on purpose, and, as a result, possess a generally nutty flavor and are golden brown in color.

Once you’ve decided upon a port, you don’t need to worry about consuming the bottle within a few days of opening it, as you would with unfortified wine. Port is fortified with brandy, and, as such, can last for a long while in a bottle even after it’s been opened. Make certain that you use a good, solid stopper to enclose it. You’ll find that even after several months, the port you opened is still flavorful and sound. The longest I’ve had an opened bottle of port was six months, and it lasted the entire time, retaining its structural integrity.

Port is generally too sweet to pair with an entrée so it’s best served after dinner. I often serve it in lieu of dessert, especially after a big meal when guests tend not to have room left for rich dessert. It’s best served at cellar temperature (around 55-60 degrees) and is best poured in smaller glasses. Try not to use glasses that are too small, as you and your guests might find it hard to enjoy the wine’s bouquet that way. But a mid-sized glass is perfect, with only a small bit poured for each guest.

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