The Best Port Wine for Beginners

June 3, 2013

I'll admit to some trepidation when it comes to deciding on the best port wine for beginners. Though I'm all for getting people to explore this legendary fortified wine, even I can use some guidance. Luckily, I am able to turn to Roy Hersh, founder of the comprehensive For The Love of Port website. You need travel tips, FAQs, reviews, tasting notes, a forum for all your Port needs? Consider For The Love of Port a one-stop shopping resource. I had the chance to ask Roy a few questions about Port to help get anyone curious started, and, during the course of my queries, was surprised by many fascinating, daring food pairings beyond a square of chocolate or a wedge of blue cheese. (Note: You can also use Port when canning or preserving; check out this White Port and Pear Conserve. Second note: Nothing against chocolate or blue cheese. Third note: The photo depicts the picturesque city of Porto, a must-visit for anyone thirsty for Port.)

For someone who wants to start exploring Port, there are so many styles and names that can be confusing: Ruby, Tawny, Vintage, LBV, Crusted, 10/20/30 Year, Colheita, etc. Can you give three styles to get people started and why you would pick each one? Can you give a specific recommendation as well?

The answer depends on the budgetary constraints. If one would like to start with an inexpensive category, then Reserve Ruby might offer the best starting place. However, for a few dollars more, one can achieve buying a significant upgrade at a very meager price differential, so let's begin with one such upgrade:

LBV - With 4-6 years of wood aging and often times a bit of additional bottle aging, these provide plenty of drinking pleasure and in best cases, can come close to the quality of a Vintage Port; especially Unfiltered versions. Brands to seek out: Quinta do Noval, Smith Woodhouse, Quinta do Crasto ... all 3 are exceptionally good at producing Unfiltered LBV's that are consistent across vintages and very tasty. Another significant benefit of LBV Port is its expanded shelf life. Once opened, a bottle that is recorked and kept in the refrigerator can last for nearly a month. That is great for both the consumer and even a restaurant that chooses to serve LBV.

10 YEAR OLD TAWNY PORT - The price is right with 10 year old Tawny Ports and a consumer will quickly know if they like the wood-aged flavors of a Port blend that averages ten years in cask, vs the fruitiness of a LBV or Vintage Port. Like LBV if recorked and stored in refrigeration; a Tawny port can remain in good shape for weeks. Seek out Niepoort, Ramos Pinto, Ferreira.

VINTAGE - The question is which will appeal to the new consumer, old or young versions? VP is bottled after two years of aging in wood and matures in bottle and throws a sediment that will require decanting. But in reality, someone who is going to buy one bottle and then determine if this category is right for them, should start somewhere in the middle, which from my viewpoint would be 1980/1983/1985 vintages. Vintage Port is the "King" of Port and from those years, I'd suggest: Gould Campbell, Dow's or Graham's Vintage Ports.

Are Reserve Ruby Ports a good introduction to a Port house? Are they made in a “house style” that stays consistent? (A la Non-Vintage Champagne.) Are they made to be more approachable?

Yes. The Reserve Ruby category is an inexpensive and good place to start as well. This category used to be called, "Vintage Character" until about eight years ago, when the name was changed because having the word "vintage" was so confusing to consumers as vintage was also in the names Late Bottled Vintage and Vintage Ports. The "house style" is something that almost every Port shipper strives for in nearly every category of Port they produce. Consistency in brands like, Graham's Six Grapes, Sandeman's Founder's  Reserve, Taylor's first Estate, or Fonseca Bin 27 are names you can trust to be exemplary in this category and all are very approachable from the moment the bottle is opened.

When it comes to talking about food with Port I don’t hear a lot of suggestions outside of blue cheese and chocolate. What are some of the more distinct food and Port pairings you have enjoyed? Are there savory dishes that pair well with Port?

Personally, I am not a big fan of Port and chocolate, but that's just me and I know tons of people who find that they complement one another beautifully. I prefer to drink Port on its own, but I am a purist. To be more direct though, I see nothing wrong and do enjoy the occasional pairing of Port with a pepper encrusted steak. I have good friends who swear that LBV goes nicely with pizza. I've had aged Tawny Ports with game meats (from elk to zebra) and game birds (grouse, quail and pheasant) that have been fantastic together. A bit obscure, I've even consumed Port with sushi and found it to work, although I realize that most people would likely find that too bizarre to experiment with. I have even loved some Colheitas with tapas at a friend's home last fall. Of course dessert dishes from creme brulee to pie and ice cream can be paired with Port, but dried and sliced fruit also works beautifully and a range of nut varieties too. People are not aware of how well WHITE Ports pair with food. Try a Churchill's or Dow's Dry White Port with a roasted chicken for a really nice surprise!

Thanks to Roy for the education. Did you also know that Port is the unwinding drink? Unwind with me and enjoy some Wine Without Worry at jamesonfink.com.

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