Winter starts Sunday, my calendar tells me, but I think it's safe to say that frosty weather is already here to stay. And, I see, Christmas is just six days away—New Year's Day only a week after that.
For lovers of food and wine, this likely means two things: We're planning menus of rich comfort foods and stocking up on the best Champagne we can afford. Fair enough.
But wait. When it's this cold outside, we need more than a satisfying meal. We need a spot beside the fire, and a glass of the quintessential winter wine—port.
Port? Isn't that for stuffy Europeans in bow ties talking about the good old days of Churchill and de Gaulle?
Not anymore. Increasingly, port is recognized as one of the world's most satisfying after-dinner "digestifs." And, with its high dose of alcohol and sweet, caramel flavors, it can warm the soul with just one sip.
Port originated in the Douro Valley of northeast Portugal, on the rugged hillsides above the Douro River. For centuries, the people of the Douro produced large quantities of rich, dry table wines sought after by nobles. In the 17th century, when political strife surfaced between England and France, the English sought to import greater quantities of Douro wines as substitutes for fine French wines.
Eventually, small quantities of brandy were added to the Douro wines to preserve them for shipment. Then, in 1820, when a particularly ripe vintage produced wines that were exceptionally sweet and rich, the English found it irresistible. Soon, producers started fortifying their wines with greater amounts of brandy to emulate the prized 1820 vintage.
Port-style wines are made all over the world, but true port—or Porto, as it is labeled in the United States—must come from Portugal.
The sweetness tasted in true Porto is the result of a unique winemaking process in which a fortifying spirit is added during fermentation of the crushed grapes. The fortification stops the fermentation, leaving in the wine a measure of unfermented sugars and a relatively high percentage of alcohol, generally about 20 percent.
Porto comes in two broad categories: fortified wines brought to maturity through either cask aging or bottle aging.
Vintage Portos, the most expensive style of port, are wines from a single harvest of exceptional quality. They are profoundly rich in color, aroma, flavor and longevity.
The vintage wines spend two to three years in wood casks and are then transferred to bottles for additional aging, for 20, 30 or more years.
The major styles of cask-aged Portos include ruby, tawny, vintage character and late-bottled vintage, as well as aged tawnies. These wines are generally ready to drink upon release.
Ruby Porto, enjoyed for its full flavors and fruity aromas, is created by blending young, cask-aged wines from numerous harvests.
Standard tawny Porto is a blend of lighter wines that typically exhibits a soft color.
Vintage-character Porto, offered by most of the large Porto houses under unique proprietary names such as Graham's "Six Grapes," is a premium ruby-style wine that emphasizes richness and fruit flavors.
Late-bottled vintage Porto is a wine from a single year, typically years that are not good enough to make true "vintage" wines. They are aged in wood for four to six years before bottling.
Aged tawny Portos are made from high-quality wines from different vintages that have spent considerable amounts of time in wooden casks— typically 10, 20, 30 or 40 years. Tawny in color, they offer layers and layers of delicate flavors that hint of caramel and nuts.
Some of the most popular Porto producers are Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, Warre's, Graham's, Dow's and Cockburn's.
Generally, vintage Portos are the most expensive, followed by premium aged tawnies. If Santa leaves an envelope of cash on your tree, you might want to splurge. Otherwise, try starting with a vintage-character Porto.
Excellent ports from Australia and California are also available from local retailers.
But sip slowly. The high alcohol and sugar content in port wines makes them a bad bet for holiday quaffing.
Gregory Foley is the online daily news editor for the Idaho Mountain Express. He has worked as a professional writer, reporter and editor since 1997.