WHAT: Many people are intimidated by Port and are afraid to try it. That is not surprising because it is not as readily available as most table wines.
Port has a mystique and a tradition that can discourage newcomers. It has a higher alcohol content than table wine, and it is seldom poured at wine tastings. Once you drink port, which is on the sweet side, you cannot go back and sip a dry wine at a tasting.
So, many people won’t buy a bottle just to taste it, and dinner party hosts aren’t sure their guests will like it. But once you try it, Port is something you keep coming back to. It is an easy sipping wine, smooth and satisfying. Many people have had Port without knowing it because churches often use mass-produced, inexpensive Port for communion wine.
If you want to try a really good Port, you could start with Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port. It has all the characteristics of a fine vintage Port at a fraction of the price. It is a favorite on restaurant wine lists.
In the glass it is a gorgeous deep red, with inviting dark berry aromas. It is full-bodied and rich, but perfectly balanced with raspberry and plum flavors. The finish is long, smooth and dry with hints of spice.
What makes this Port especially good is Wine Spectator magazine gave last year’s wine of the year award to Dow’s 2011 Vintage Port. A local wine shop was supposed to get some of the 2011 Vintage Port in, but it never arrived, which means it’s probably sitting in some cellar in Atlanta.
You can get a glimpse of what the wine of the year must taste like with this LBV because the grapes from both Ports come from the same two Quintas: Quinta do Bomfim and Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira. Ten percent of the fruit from those estates goes to Vintage Port while 40 percent goes to the LBV. The rest goes into other reserve-style Ports.
The Vintage and LBV wines are made in the same style at Dow’s. While the Vintage Port spends only a short time in barrels and finishes aging in the bottle, LBV wine spends four to six years in oak casks and is ready to drink upon release. Vintage Ports usually require some aging in the bottle before they are ready to drink.
I love Vintage Port, but it is difficult to beat LBV because of the price and availability. Port is great at dessert, but you can sip it anytime. You don’t even need to decant it. Once you open a bottle of LBV Port, just put the cork back in and it will last two weeks on your kitchen counter, or up to six weeks in a cool place.
All Port comes from the Douro region of Portugal. Growers may use any of 89 different grapes, but five are considered the best: Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Touriga Francesa and Touriga Nacional.
After the grapes are harvested they are gently crushed and fermented. The fermentation is stopped early by pouring the wine into vats of distilled grape spirits, called aquardente, that is similar to brandy. This fortifies the wine and halts fermentation before all the sugar is converted to alcohol. It leaves the wine with about 10 percent residual sugar and about 19-23 percent alcohol.
The Portugese have been making Port for more than 300 years, so there are a lot of traditions. A recent slump in sales has forced Port producers to improve quality and try some new techniques.
Each Port producer decides which years to declare a vintage year, when conditions are right for a spectacular wine. Usually there are no more than three of those a decade, but an LBV Port may be produced every year.
Vintage Port represents between one and two percent of all Port, while LBV is about 3.5 percent. The British are the biggest Port consumers, far ahead of Americans.
WINERY: Dow’s is one of many top-notch Port houses owned by the Symington family, which controls 2,400 acres of vineyards on 26 estates in the Duoro region. Andrew James Symington, a Scotsman, got into the Port business in 1882, but Dow’s began nearly a century before that.
Most Port houses were founded by English entrepreneurs, but Dow’s began in 1798 when Bruno da Silva, a Portuguese merchant from Oporto, opened a shop in London from where he imported wine from his native country. He married an Englishwoman and became a leader in the business community.
When the Napoleonic wars threatened his business he applied for permission to equip his merchant ships with guns to allow them to travel safely from Oporto to England. As other companies’ sales dropped, Dow’s soared.
Other family members kept the company going through the years, and Bruno’s grandson Edward da Silva became a leading figure in the London wine trade. He was one of the founders of a charity that continues today as the main British wine trade organization.
George Acheson Warre, whose family had been involved in the Port trade since its earliest years, joined the company as a partner in 1868.
In 1877, Silva & Cosens merged with Dow & Co., whose senior partner was James Ramsay Dow.
Although smaller than Silva & Cosens, Dow & Co. had become a very highly regarded Port producer with a particularly fine reputation for its Vintage Ports and when the two companies merged, it was decided to adopt Dow’s as the brand name.
In 1912, Andrew James Symington became a partner, and today six members of the family own and work in the company; Peter, Paul, Johnny, Dominic, Rupert and Charles. The family personally manages all aspects of winemaking from vineyard to the final bottling of the wine.
The Symington family became the sole owner of Dow’s in 1961.
In 2002, Dow’s introduced a radical new Port ‘Midnight’, a special blend of fresh, full bodied and fruit driven wines. Midnight’s new and radical label was designed to appeal to the new generation of wine drinkers and to change people’s perceptions of Port.
In addition to Dow’s, the company produces Port under these labels: Graham’s, Warre’s, Cockburn’s Smith Woodhouse, Quinta do Vesuvio, Gould Campbell, Quarles Harris and Martinez.
GOES WITH: I like to serve Port at the end of a meal with friends, so I pulled out the Dow’s LBV 2009 at the end of a meal at Edisto Beach with a group of three other couples who meet at the beach every year and with whom we occasionally travel. We immodestly call ourselves the Magnificent Eight. (We started at seven, and when I married Teri, she made it eight.)
We love to spend the evening in a rental house on the beach, cooking shrimp and fish that we get at Edisto Seafood. The seafood is always so fresh and tasty that we feel compelled to drink good wine with it.
After a main course of gumbo we devoured delicious cream pies made by John B and John D. The Dow’s LBV 2009 was the perfect match for dessert.
We had other Ports on other nights, but this one really stood out. The taste was bright and fresh, and didn’t overpower the wonderful pies. There was enough wine left to enjoy while we talked and played card games. Everyone enjoyed it. There was no dissent.
This Port would be delicious with cheese, nuts or dark chocolate. If you are really daring you could serve it with a thick grilled steak. That wouldn’t be a traditional pairing, but I think the two would work well together.