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Port is a fortified wine from Portugal’s Douro valley, where the vineyards rise up craggy mountainsides in steep terraces, like a giant stairway climbing to the skies. Given the region’s rough terrain, the grapes are usually harvested by hand because machines can’t make it up into the vineyards.

To make port, grape brandy is added during the fermentation process to bring it to a halt, resulting in wine with a high proportion of sugar. The wine is then aged in oak casks for at least three years before it’s bottled and sold. Real port wines bear labels with the Instituto do Vinho do Porto garantia.

There are many types of port, each with its enthusiasts. White ports are well-suited to long summer evenings. Vintage port—the ultimate port—is made from a single harvest of exceptional quality and aged for years to perfection.

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Telling the Various Types of Port Apart

White port is made from white grapes and ranges from very sweet to very dry. Young, it is light and dry and served as an aperitif or long drink with tonic. Once opened, white port can be refrigerated and will keep its flavour for three to four months. But once you'vetasted it, it won't last that long.

Ruby port, like all the following types of port, is made from black grapes. This most basic and youngest port is recommended for sauces.

Tawny port, so named for its colour, is a mixture of wines from various harvests, aged in oak casks for several years. Aged tawny port, available in 10, 20, 30 and 40 years versions, is blended from high quality wines. Slight oxidation develops after a few months. Depending on its age, tawny port can be served lightly chilled as an aperitif with dried fruits and nuts, at room temperature with a first course like foie gras, at the end of the meal with blue cheese (Roquefort and Stilton), or with rich cake for dessert.

Colheita port (Portuguese for harvest) is a tawny from a single vintage, aged a minimum of 7 years in wood, then bottled and shipped. At this point it has reached perfection and longer bottle ageing will not improve it. The label indicates the vintage and the year of bottling. It has a nutty flavour with a hint of dried fruit.

LBV port (Late Bottled Vintage) is made from a single vintage aged in wood for 4 to 6 years and filtered before bottling. LBV is ready to drink and does not need to be decanted. Opened bottles should be stored upright in the refrigerator and will keep about fifteen days. LBV port is good with chocolate desserts, creamy cheese like Camembert, and pies made with full-flavoured fruit. Some adventurous souls also serve it with juicy red meats or fish with sauce.

Vintage Port is redolent of blackberry, pepper and spices. It comes from a single harvest of exceptional quality, is bottled after two years of cask ageing without further processing, and then spends at least ten years maturing in the bottle. This is one case where patience is well rewarded. When you buy vintage port, it isn't yet ready no matter the price. Store it for ten or twenty years. A tasteful suggestion: Buy a vintage port when your child is born to be opened in celebration of his or her 21st birthday. Vintages to savour include 1945, ‘55, ‘63, ‘70, ‘75, ‘85 and ‘90; vintages to store include 1991, ‘94 and 2000. Sediment forms during the years of maturation so vintage port must be carefully decanted and allowed to breathe. It can be sipped alone or enjoyed with cheese, nuts and dried fruit. An opened bottle will not keep more than 24 hours and sometimes less.

Serving Port

Chilled, on ice, neat or with tonic, white port is excellent as an aperitif served with olives, toasted almonds and sausage. Ruby port is best enjoyed at about 60°F (14-15°C) in a fine short-stemmed tulip glass. LBV, colheita, tawny or vintage ports are powerful wines traditionally served at the end of a meal and sipped during long postprandial conversations.

While ruby and young tawnies are used in sauces and dressings for chicken, duck and goose liver salads, sweet LBV and 10-year or older aged tawnies with their fruity complexity make an excellent counterpoint to salty foods. These ports are sumptuous with hot or cold foie gras, go well with mild vegetables, carrots and onions, and are excellent with roast duck prepared with peaches, figs or oranges, as well as pepper steak.

Strong or nutty cheeses like Cheddar, Gruyère, or Cantal, blue cheeses such as Roquefort, Bleu d'Auvergne or Bleu de Charlevoix, accompany a tawny particularly well. The British, who discovered port back in the late 17th century, sometimes have their port in their cheese! Port is poured into pierced Stilton which is allowed to sit for a few days, even a few weeks, until the wine's flavour permeates the cheese.

Port is a natural with chocolate desserts. It is also pairs nicely with light desserts that aren't overly sweet: Melon salad, broiled mango, sabayon, mousse, puff pastry and pies made with berries, cherries or currants. The velvety richness of a fine vintage or aged tawny port enjoyed with a cigar after the meal is pure heaven.

Storing Port

Vintage ports are sold in bottles with cork stoppers and should be stored on their sides to keep the cork from drying out. Like all fine wines, they must be polished off once opened or they will spoil. Non-vintage ports come in bottles with ground stoppers and should be stored upright in a cool dark place, kept at a constant temperature between 10 and 20°C. Opened tawnies and LBV will keep a few weeks, sometimes longer, but less if there’s just a bit left.

There are dozens of kinds of port on sale in any liquor store in Quebec and Ontario, and a wide variety of brands come in 375 mL bottles, enabling the curious to explore and find the one they like best. Wasting portis a sin! Buy small bottles if you enjoy port only occasionally.