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Port: The Wine Sommeliers Are Sipping on this Winter

Highly collectible, deliciously drinkable, and amazing in cocktails or as an accompaniment to cheese, port is the experts’ choice of cold-weather wine

Whether it’s rosé, white, or ruby, enjoyed for its warming after-dinner qualities or as a cocktail, port wine is having something of a resurgence. The Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (Port and Douro Wines Institute) reported a rise in sales of nearly 11.5 percent in volume in 2020 and, according to Forbes, it’s making “steady inroads with millennial consumers,” who are discovering it in all its forms.

“Like gin, port went through a phase when it was considered unfashionable,” says Adrian Bridge, CEO of World of Wine in Porto, Portugal. “That perception has changed. Now there’s interest not only in new ways of serving it—such as in cocktails—but also in vintage port. I’m delighted to see it being appreciated once again. It’s one of the great iconic wines of the world, and one that ranks alongside the finest Bordeaux or Burgundy.”

An aerial view of world of wine in Porto, Portugal
Spanning over 420,000 square feet (39,000 sq m) of converted and restored wine cellars, World of Wine is an award-winning cultural and gastronomic district, which celebrates Portuguese heritage and tells the story of Porto's port wine industry.

A Fortified History

A good port, says Gonzalo Rodriguez Diaz, food and beverage manager of London’s St. James’s Hotel & Club, gives a taste of history. Every sip is a reminder of a relationship forged between viticulturists and nature; between the grapes and the winemakers; between the port and the wine-lover; and even between one country and another.

Had England not formed an alliance with Portugal in 1386 and then gone to war with France, embargoing its alcohol and other goods in the 17th century, it may never have turned to Portugal to quench its thirst for red wine—and there might never have been port. It was created out of necessity because the journey across the Atlantic rendered much of the wine undrinkable. To counter this, makers added grape brandy. Port was born and was an immediate, and enduring, hit with consumers.

As ever, demand drives the desire to supply. In the late 1700s, British companies descended on the Douro Valley in northern Portugal, one of the world’s oldest and most beautiful vineyard areas, and established many of the prestige brands that define the industry—among them, Cockburn’s, Croft, Graham’s, Taylor’s, and Sandeman.

Given the connection with England, it is fitting, says Rodriguez Diaz, that the St. James’s Hotel & Club is marking a revival in the drink’s popularity by opening 1857, a new bar specializing in rare, limited, or unusual ports. “We’ll have the widest variety in London, as well as the oldest available by the glass,” he says. For example, here you’ll find an “exceptionally rare Graham’s 1882 Ne Oublie. Only 500 bottles were released, and we have number 17,” he explains. “As a sommelier, I have a list of drinks that I dream of trying, and this was among them. It’s remarkable. My senses were singing as I drank it.”

A red port cocktail
The 1857 bar at St. James’s Hotel & Club not only offers some of the most legendary ports by the glass, but also a range of port cocktails, including the Port Sour and Queen of the Night.

Which Port to Pick?

Bridge, who is also CEO of the Fladgate Partnership, which owns brands such as Taylor’s, Croft, and Fonesca, doesn’t want to be too prescriptive when it comes to which type of port to choose. As with so much else, he believes it’s down to personal preference.

“The school at World of Wine advises people on how they should taste port, and which distinctive characteristics to notice in its different styles. The great variety is what makes port so fascinating. A reserve or late-bottled vintage will release intense berries, while an aged tawny will treat you to rich mellowness, and a vintage to sublime complexity. Port can be elegant, intriguing, rich, smooth, fruit-forward, or nutty. In other words, it can have all of the qualities you would look for in any other fine wine.”

Complete novices should perhaps start by getting to know the basics, suggests Rodriguez Diaz. “I think it is important for people to have some understanding of the different types of port, if only to match their taste, and whether they want to drink it in a cocktail, or neat.”

Caitlin Miller, Specialist, Wines & Spirits at Christie’s New York, agrees. “To get the most from port, try to think both of the taste and the purpose. Ruby port is a simple style with fresh red fruit flavors and is meant to be consumed young. Tawny is made in an oxidative style and shows notes of dried fruit, toffee, and roasted nuts. Vintage port, the highest-quality category, is only made in the best years and needs long-term aging. I love port as an after-dinner drink served with great cheese. The sweetness of the drink is balanced by the saltiness of the cheese.”

A bottle of Taylor’s Scion 1855, with its original presentation case and decanter, sold at Christie’s auction for £2,880 ($3,790) in 2018.

A Collectible Class

The greatest vintage ports—and those that are the most valuable additions to a collection—are made from the finest grapes from the Cima Corgo area in the Douro, which has the best climatic conditions. The ports that are laid down as investments invariably come from this region, says Miller. “Recent notable vintages, included 2017, 2016, 2015, 2011, 2007, 2003, and 2000, with Taylor’s, Dow’s, Fonseca, Quinta do Noval, Croft, Graham’s, and Warre’s being among the top producers.”

And what’s the most remarkable port sold by Christie’s? “One of our star lots was a bottle of Taylor’s Scion Port from 1855, which was rediscovered in 2009 when the owner, from a notable family from the Douro, passed away and the two existing barrels were sold to Taylor Fladgate. The port was in such superb condition that Taylor’s decided to bottle and sell the wine unaltered. It’s one of the oldest and rarest ports ever sold.”

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