The enduring appeal of port

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It was Samuel Johnson who quipped that Claret was the liquor for boys but Port was the choice for men. Today this politically incorrect remark makes...

It was Samuel Johnson who quipped that Claret was the liquor for boys but Port was the choice for men. Today this politically incorrect remark makes a great introduction for the Port section on a wine list by creating debate in one of the world's finest fortified wines. "Fortified" because it has spirit added part way through its fermentation, raising the overall strength to around 20% by volume. The vineyards come from one of the most beautiful and unspoilt regions for wine production: the steep hillsides of the Douro river and its tributaries in northern Portugal. The rock is so hard that it is frequently dynamited to plant new vines, which have to endure both harsh winters and scorching summers that reach over 105°F. The prime area is the second-oldest delimited wine region in the world. It was designated in 1756, following Hun-garian Tokay in 1700. This authenticity of origin was later adapted by the French for "appellation controlee". Like a painter with a palette, the Port blender uses the best characteristics from more than 30 different grape varieties. One of the reasons why one Port differs from another is the proportion of top grapes within a blend. Touriga Nacional, for instance, yields dark concentrated wine from its blue-black berries. It accounts for just 2% of plantings but 17% at Taylor's vineyards. In winter days, offer lightly-chilled tawny Port. With its nutty, yet elegant off-dry character, it makes a magnificent partner with soft cheeses like Brie. The best are aged in cask for at least 10 years until they reach a mellow tawny hue ­ not made from a blend of ruby and white. Ten years is a good maturation time. Look for both Fonseca and Warre's Otima, both conveniently bottled in half litres and costing under £10. Warre, established in 1670, is the oldest British Port firm. Late Bottled Vintage has become the success story of the last decade. It is wine from a single year that is aged for four to six years in large wooden vats. Currently most shippers offer the 1996, which was a very hot and dry summer, yielding lovely fruity wines that cost £8 to £10. It is delicious with blue cheese. Whilst LBV is almost always filtered pre-bottling today and therefore can be poured to the end without any deposit, a few shippers still make the original style. Usually labelled "traditional", it is vital to decant such wines. Churchill's, a new Port house which was founded in 1981 by Johnny Graham, makes just such a wine. It matures more quickly than vintage Port but still retains a rich blueberry flavour. Crusted Port is great value for money. It is a big wine which throws a deposit or "crust" and needs to be decanted. The date on the label is the year of bottling. Dow Crusted, bottled in 1998, will make a stunning glass. The firm was founded in 1798 and was the first British Port company to take vineyard ownership seriously, acquiring such leading estates as Bomfim, Ribeira and Zimbro, instead of relying on purchasing grapes. Vintage Port is a full-bodied, powerful wine with deep jammy fruit, judged to be the finest blend from a single year. It is up to individual shippers to decide whether to declare such a vintage. Approval has to be sought from the Port Wine Institute two winters after the harvest. Look for the rich 1977, rounded 1980 and goodvalue, slightly-spicy, 1985. Longer term, 1994 will be terrific. Yet vintage Port need not be expensive. Seek single farm ("quinta") Ports like Croft's Roeda 1983 (Majestic £11.99), Dow's Bomfim 1988 (Booth £19.99), Graham's Malvedos 1995 (Oddbins £22.99), Portal 1995 (Great Northern £20.22), Taylor's Terra Feita 1988 (Majestic £15.99), Taylor's Vargellas 1987 (Majestic £19.99, Safeway £21.99) and Warre's Cavadinha 1988 (Booth £19.99, Oddbins £21.99).

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