A bluffer’s guide to Port

By James Beeson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Classy: Port must always be passed to the left at dinner parties
Classy: Port must always be passed to the left at dinner parties

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When it comes to a classic after-dinner drink, Port is a popular choice with connoisseurs.

Known as one of the best fortified European wines, Port is made by adding grape spirit or brandy during production. There are two distinctions – bottle-aged and barrel-aged. Many aficionados class Port alongside globally loved wines such as Bordeaux and Burgundy, such is its depth of taste.

However that’s just the beginning – there’s so much more to know about Port. These are all the facts you need to know to blag your way around this popular beverage. 

1) It’s great for food pairing

Port is traditionally served with cheese or as a dessert wine, though it can be added to many recipes to add a rich and sweet flavour. It is extremely versatile, with everything from stews to meatballs, pies to pâtés and salads, trifles and Eton mess benefiting from the addition of a Port wine sauce. It can also be used to de-glaze pans during cooking. Many Port fans also like to enjoy a glass with chocolate, a cigar or almonds.

2) It has a long and varied heritage

Produced in northern Portugal, Port wine has a history stretching back to the 17th century. Despite being made on the rocky hillsides of the upper Douro Valley, the name 'Port' is derived from Oporto, the coastal city from where Port was traditionally shipped overseas. Owing to the unique terroir of the Douro Valley, its full-bodied wines cannot be replicated anywhere else. Indeed, much like Champagne, Port sold in Europe may only be labelled as such if it was made in Portugal.

3) It comes in other colours too

There are three main varieties of Port – white, tawny and ruby – within which there are many styles. Just like with other wines, Port can also be made with white grapes. White Port is popular as an aperitif due to its zesty citrus flavour and can be enjoyed with tonic water for an unexpectedly delicate cocktail.

4) It isn’t just for Christmas

Though many believe Port to be a seasonal drink, its versatility and array of styles mean it can be enjoyed throughout the seasons. White Port’s light freshness is perfect for summer, and provides an excellent accompaniment for seafood. Some Ports, such as aged tawny varieties, are also recommended served chilled, which is perfect for warmer weather.

5) Perfecting the Port pour is important

If opting for a vintage Port, the deposit of natural sediment will occur as it matures in the bottle. This means you should decant the wine, allowing its aged aromas to be expressed. Simply use a clean decanter, wine bottle or jug to carefully pour the Port into, using a strainer funnel if need be and filtering any heavy deposit through muslin. Some Port varieties, such as Late Bottled Vintage and Aged Tawny Ports, don’t need decanting as the sediment settles inside the oak vat or cask before being bottled.

6) More than 70 grape varieties can be used in Port

These include Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Cao; and for White Port: Arinto, Malvasia Fina, Codega, Gouveio and Viosinho. The grapes are crushed and allowed to ferment until half of the natural grape sugars have been converted into alcohol, a process that takes two to three days. At this point, the grape skins are allowed to float to the top, before the fermenting must is run out and mixed with a neutral grape spirit to stop the fermentation and raise the alcohol level to approximately 20% alc/vol. The wines are then put in oak barrels for ageing.

7) Always pass to the left

If you’re a stickler for tradition, then Port purists maintain that it must be passed to the left when sharing the beverage at a dinner party. The decanter should never be held onto for too long – if anyone does so, you may ask them: “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” as a polite reminder that others at the table would like a drink too. If that doesn’t work, you may then go on to ask: “Is your passport in order?”

The bishop reference is believed to come from Henry Bathurst, who held the post from 1805 to 1837. He often forgot to pass the Port when his eyesight began to falter in his old age (he lived until 93), as well as having developed a tendency to fall asleep during meals. It is said by some that he used these afflictions to his advantage to hold onto the Port for longer!

8) Don’t underestimate your drinking glass

Port is best enjoyed from a generously sized Port glass or white wine glass in order to enjoy the delicate aromas. 

Related topics: Wine

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