What: Too many wine lovers think of port as a stuffy, old-fashioned drink enjoyed on cold evenings by old men puffing on cigars and swapping lies.
It is anything but that, and when younger drinkers give it a try they usually are pleasantly surprised. Port is still a wonderful finish to a great meal, and it is extra good while sitting around a crackling fire in the fireplace.
But modern port can be enjoyed any time of year, and not always with dessert. Some people even enjoy it mixed with soda or fruit juice in a cocktail.
Nothing exemplifies the changes in the port industry more than Cockburn’s Special Reserve. It was created in 1969 to fill the gap between ruby port and vintage port.
Ruby ports have an upfront appeal, while vintage ports have the rich, dark, complex flavors for which port is famous. The problem is vintage ports typically are cellared 10-20 years before they reach their peak.
Vintage ports also are much more expensive than other ports. A vintage port is declared only in exceptional years, and it is made from the best grapes.
Reserve ports are aged 4-5 years in large barriques, and when they are released, they are ready to drink. Cockburn’s invented the reserve port category, and it is now one of the most popular ports. (Despite the spelling, Cockburn’s is pronounced “Co-burns.”)
Wines are blended from the best vineyards of the Upper Douro, chosen for their richness and concentration. The result is a wine that tastes similar to vintage port, but it is a bit lighter and more approachable.
This Cockburn’s Special Reserve is wonderful, a beautiful bright red in the glass, with inviting aromas of red fruits, cherry, plum and strawberry. It is sweet on the palate, but not overly sweet. Berry flavors come through, fresh and bright, with a touch of spiciness leading to a rounded, medium finish.
Even though the wine is 20 percent alcohol, you don’t get a heavy, overbearing alcohol taste. It’s all fresh, lively fruit. Unlike vintage port, you don’t have to decant it, and after the bottle is opened the wine will stay drinkable for up to six weeks.
The grapes for this port come from Cockburn’s vineyards at Quinta dos Canais, primarily touriga nacional and touriga franca. The grapes are picked by hand, fermented and aged in seasoned oak barrels made by the company’s own coopers.
Port should be served in tulip-shaped port glasses, but white wine glasses will do just fine. Some people like to serve it in red wine glasses to allow the powerful aroma to funnel up from the glass. Whatever glass you use, it should be large enough to swirl the wine and release the aroma.
Winery: Founded in 1815 by Scotsman Robert Cockburn, Cockburn’s is one of the oldest port houses. Today it is owned by Symington Family Estates, which owns several port houses, including 2,400 acres of vineyards on 26 estates in the Douro region. The Cockburn’s property is 670 acres, with 240 acres of vineyard.
Robert Cockburn returned to Portugal to found his port house after fighting there under Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars. He and his brother John were already successful wine merchants in Scotland and opened a branch of their firm in Porto.
It was a highly successful venture, becoming one of the major brands of port. In the early 20th century, Cockburn’s &Co. port often commanded the highest prices of any of the port houses. The family often partnered with other families before selling the business to the Symingtons in 2010.
The Symington family has been in the port business for five generations and through their great grandmother they can trace back 14 generations to the birth of the port trade.
The business began with Andrew James Symington, an English citizen who arrived in Portugal in 1882. He married a Portuguese woman whose family was in the port business dating back to the 17th century.
Symington was an independent port shipper and earned the respect of farmers in the Douro Valley and port producers.
In 1905, he became a partner in Warre &Co., the oldest British port house in Portugal, founded in 1670. He became sole owner in 1908 and later acquired shares in another port producer that operated under the Dow’s name.
Three of his sons followed him into the company and then his grandsons. To insure a supply of grapes, family members bought vineyards. Eventually they became the owners of Warre, Dow’s and Graham’s.
Cockburn’s family of ports includes Special Reserve, Vintage Port, Anno (Late Bottled Vintage) and Quinta dos Canais (Single Quinta Vintage), Fine Ruby, Fine Tawny, and 10- and 20-year-old Tawnies.
Goes With: We drank this with dessert after our family Easter dinner. I thought it was spectacular paired with a deep dish apple pie that also had caramel and walnuts. Some people opted for citrus pound cake. With both options we added ice cream and some people went all the way and topped dessert with chocolate sauce.
This port was perfect with either dessert. It’s not too sweet to overwhelm the dessert, but it has just enough fruitiness to fit right in.
The taste is delicious. Long after my pie and ice cream was gone, and I was finished with my Cuban coffee, I was still sipping on the port. My wife, Teri, and my son, Michael, also loved it.
Teri’s daughters and their families were there, too, but I’m not sure they tried the port. At 20 percent alcohol, you have to watch how much you drink, especially if you have to drive.
So pop the cork when you are home for the night, lean back and start sipping. Cockburn’s Reserve Port will improve your mood, no matter what your day was like.
This port also will pair well with nutty desserts, chocolate, fruit and strong cheeses.