Port Is More Than Just Dessert Wine

This fortified Portguese wine is full of potential when it comes to pairing with food.

A Guide to Port Wine

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You might think port can only be served with dessert, but this fortified wine from Portugal is about more than its sweet, save-for-after-dinner reputation.  

"Port is a drink that not everybody immediately learns about because it tends to be more about red and white wine. Port is a niche of the wine industry and requires a bit more knowledge not only because there's a lot of traditions, but there's also a very wide variety of styles," says Adrian Bridge, CEO of Taylor Fladgate, one of the oldest port houses in the world. 

What is Port wine?

Port is classified as a fortified wine, meaning that a clear grape spirit (usually aguardente, a type of brandy) is added during fermentation. This stops the fermentation process and preserves most of the grapes' natural sugars, giving Port its signature sweet flavor profile. Then, the Port is put into large oak casks for approximately 18 months, after which it is assessed as to a specific style of Port wine.

Styles of Port wine

Ruby Port

This style of Port is a deep ruby red and exhibits a fruit-forward – such as ripe dark cherry – flavor profile. Ruby Ports are aged in large oak barrels, which allows this style to keep its vivid youthful color and fruity flavors since it has minimal contact with the oak and oxygen. It’s usually bottle-aged for a few years, then cellared before opening. Ruby Ports average at and close to 20% ABV. 

Tawny Port

True to its name, Tawny Port has a tawny brown hue. This expression tends to yield a nutty and caramel palate. Tawny’s distinct advantage is having lived with oxygen its whole life in a barrel, it remains very tolerant to being open and is long-lived open in the refrigerator – which helps restaurants with durable by-the-glass options and for home drinkers that don't want to slam a whole bottle of 20% ABV port,” says General Manager/Beverage Director of Goodnight Hospitality, Mark Sayre.

Rosé Port

This is one of the most recent styles in Duoro and was introduced by Croft in 2008. Rosé port is known for its signature soft pink color akin to rosé wine, featuring bright cherry and strawberry flavors. Unlike other more traditional Ports, Rosé Port is unaged. 

White Port

This port style is made with white grapes and fermented in wood tanks. Apple and stone fruit engage the palate, followed by a nutty (think almond) finish. White Port is often used as a cocktail ingredient in a G&T or as an aperitif. 

How to drink Port wine

Portugal's Douro Valley – about an hour outside Porto – yields an array of styles ranging from ruby and tawny to white and rosé port - with these latter two expressions serving as versatile sippers that can even be enjoyed in cocktails. "White Port and tonic with a citrus peel (or even on the rocks) is the perfect cocktail for a spring or summer day. When it comes to food pairings, I would absolutely recommend lighter fare – fresh salads with vinaigrette, ceviche, sushi, or any seafood dishes that will help uplift the acidity and citrus notes," says Chasity Cooper, writer, and wine culture expert. 

Ruby and tawny Ports are quintessential dessert wines,  especially when combined with chocolate. So, start your chocolate and Port journey with a bright, fruit-forward Port such as Fonseca BIN 27, which has bright, juicy notes of blackcurrant and blackberries. The sweetness of the Port offsets some of the dryness imparted by desserts with high cacao content, therefore bringing the tasting experience in harmony.

Daniela DaSuta, the lead wine instructor at the Texas Wine School, says that the 1991 Kopke Vintage Port pairs perfectly with a great piece of aged cheese or a decadent chocolate torte. If you’re indulging in a sweeter dessert such as pecan pie or crème brulée, opt for a 20-year tawny port, which, due to its high acidity, will result in a more balanced drinking experience. If you're not big on desserts, Port is the ideal replacement. Freelance writer and wine expert Janice Williams tends to swap dessert with Sandeman Porto Tawny 10 Years Old. Regarding the tawny, Williams particularly appreciates its complexity, grippy tannins, fresh acidity, and rich, jammy red berries and spicy aromas. 

Executive wine director and master sommelier of Pappas Bros. Steakhouses, Steven McDonald, says his favorite style of Port is a vintage tawny style called Colheita. “I have had several bottles with about 100 years of age that taste of dried apricot, date, coffee grounds, dried baking spice, and cocoa,” says McDonald. “As for cocktail applications, I am sure someone could add a touch of cheaper, less aged Colheita tawny to the ever-popular Espresso Martini. It would add an insane dimension to the flavor profile.” 

Port wine’s versatility makes for a delightful drinking experience, whether you prefer it on its own or in a flavorful cocktail. We’ve included port recommendations from three industry pros below. 

3 Bottles of Port Wine to Try

 Fonseca Siroco White Port

"During my trip to Porto last year, I fell in love with white Port – specifically Fonseca Siroco White Port,” says Cooper.  “I like it because it is sophisticated, crisp, and refreshing, yet has a delicate, sweet nuttiness that is approachable and fun. More than anything, I was captivated by its ability to pair with a variety of dishes." Cooper says this port has crisp acidity, with notes of white peach, dehydrated Meyer lemon, grapefruit brulée, chopped almond, and hazelnut.

1991 Kopke Vintage Port

"1991 is my birth vintage, and it happened to have been a stellar vintage in the Douro Valley, so its intensity makes it seem almost immortal,” says DaSuta. “This wine is bursting with unctuous, Black Forest fruits which play harmoniously with evolved notes of leather and caramel."

Ramos Pinto 20 Year Tawny Quinta do Bom Retiro

“Ramos Pinto has been around since the 19th century—a storied estate that owns four prime vineyard sites, or Quintas, in the Douro Valley of Portugal.  One of its oldest and most historic sites, Quinta do Bom Retiro, is where they designate their 20-year tawny Port to hail from,” says Sayre. “The fruit being of such high quality, the carefully managed maturation in barrel yields a wine of effusive description; from rich citrus to over-ripe peaches and apricots to more savory-spicy tones of roasted nuts, cocoa powder, coffee, dates, and cinnamon – the list could go on.” 

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