Beginners Guide to French Wine

“All wine would be port . . . if it could.” According to Godfrey Spence, author of “The Port Companion: A Connoisseur’s Guide,” this expression was used in the port trade. Port is a fortified wine made from grapes and most frequently consumed when the climate turns cool. With our cooler temperatures and glowing fireplaces, now is the perfect time to enjoy some port.

Port takes its name from the city of Oporto, also known as Port, located where the river Douro flows into the Atlantic. It is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, dating from 1786. With the exception of New World ports in Australia and the United States, port wine is shipped from Oporto. However, the grapes used to produce the wines and their actual production site are located up the river, in the Cima Corgo area, near the town of Pinhão. Steep hillside vineyards above the Douro provide the stress for the vines and the exposure to sun that provide the concentrated flavors found in port. Some of the port houses produce their wines in or near to Pinhão, and then bring the bottles by boat to a shipping location in Oporto.

Port became a favorite in Britain as a result of wars with France around 1667. The British could not get the French wines and turned to wines from Portugal. They still love their ports; approachable blended ports include the Tawny Port—the favorite of many—and the Ruby Port. But it’s vintage ports that are the most prized. These bottles found their way to Australia where they are referred to as “stickies.”

Vintage ports are not produced in every year—only when a port house declares the vintage. Not all of the major producers declare in the same vintage and not all produce vintage ports in a single vintage. The most recent vintages declared by most of the prominent producers include 1977, 1985, 1991, 1992, 1994, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2007 and 2011. Ports from 2011 have recently gotten to the marketplace, and many view it as the best vintage in 20 years. The vintages from 1985 are still considered by many as too young to drink. Yes, vintage port takes a while to get to its drinking window, usually at least 15 years.

A less expensive alternative and drinkable upon release is Late Bottled Vintage—also known as LBV. If you want to try port and vintage dated port is beyond your budget, seek out an LBV—preferably from a vintage year—from Dow, Fonseca, Quinta da Noval or Taylor. Other producers to look for include Cockburn, Ferreira, Gould-Campbell, Graham’s Nieeport, Smith Woodhouse and Warre.

Pairing a good vintage port with Stilton cheese or fresh, crisp pear slices can be a magical experience. Of all the wines to pair with cheese with a blue vein, think of port. Ports can also be paired with desserts and, depending on the type of port, with almost any course of food other than one of delicacy. Also, cigar aficionados like to drink port and enjoy a cigar without any food.

If you are traveling to Napa, go by the Prager Winery and Port Works and check out their ports. They are probably the best domestic producer. Justin and other wineries also produce ports in the United States.

Take advantage of the cool evenings—light a fire in the fireplace and open a nice bottle of port.  

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