How hot is Portugal? In January temperatures average 10 degrees Celsius, but figuratively, it's on fire. As plenty of discerning publications keep trying to tell people, it's an excellent place to go. Travel to the country was up 22 per cent last year from the U.S. alone.
Accordingly, this is the best time to get familiar with the country's illustrious national beverage, the fortified wine called port. You may think of it as merely the boring, last-ditch grasp for alcohol at the end of a fancy meal (offered by a pushy, up-selling waiter). You may have even tried it and thought, "It's so sickly sweet, no wonder they only serve a thimble-sized portion". But it's officially time to give port another chance.
A national drink
Where Spain's sherry is like a sharpening of wine, Portugal's stuff – named after the city of Porto – tastes like an enlargement of it. Stiffened with brandy (to 20 per cent alcohol by volume, typically) and aged in wood (ideally), it boasts a depth of flavour that inspires nostalgia. That's especially true when you're sitting by the hearth as cold winds blow outside, or when a vintage you adore gets drunk to the dregs and goes missing from the marketplace.
The nostalgic aura around port is enhanced by the fact that its prime consumers are passing on. Softening sales worldwide suggest that there is truth to the stereotype that port's signature demographic is maiden aunts, members of musty men's clubs, and characters in Thackeray novels. But the travel boom portends a turnaround. A new generation of port fans is skipping toward Lisbon, waiting to be born.
A trio of taste
The three styles of port you are most likely to encounter are ruby, tawny, and late-bottled vintage. Ruby, cheapest and brightest, is best for building punches and mixing drinks. Tawny, aged into a mellow nuttiness, is best sipped as a dessert wine. (So tradition says; in truth, a Graham's 20-Year Tawny is a very fine happy hour drink, especially when paired with the snack mix served at the Four Seasons Hotel.) Meanwhile, late bottled vintage – made from grapes harvested in a specific year and then aged for four to six years – is distinguished by its chewy nuance. Try a 2003 Taylor Fladgate LBV to round off a steakhouse dinner.
Late-bottled vintage is not to be confused with vintage, and vintage is not to be mistaken for anything else. Vintage port is made from the best grapes of a single year, but not every vineyard's product is declared vintage-worthy every year. To eliminate all confusion, just check the price list: This is the fanciest style, with choice cases fetching A$2050 and more at auction and bottles priced upward of $340 in restaurants. True vintage-port aficionados remember the years of excellent vintages better than their phone numbers; they regard bottles from 1927 as comparable in quality to that year's New York Yankees.
Served with a side of tradition
They also know how to serve the rich elixir in a way that eliminates the possibility of sediment in their smiles. Some sommeliers perform tricks with cheesecloth when decanting. Etiquette mavens demand that you then pass the decanter to the left at the dining table. And anyone can see that the coolest category of decanter is the ship's decanter, with a wide base built to rock on rolling seas. And while it would be traditional to drink from a proper port glass, don't turn your nose up at a glass with a wider mouth; rather, turn your nose down into it and get all up in the aromatics of, say, a Dow's 20-Year Tawny.
There are rewarding ways to drink port that are more casual, if not necessarily less ritualistic. The Porto Tonico, popular in France and Belgium, involves mixing yet another style-white port, fermented from white grapes-with tonic water for an easygoing highball before dinner.
Secret ingredient of craft cocktails
In the U.S., the craft-cocktail community has been working overtime to keep port alive, incorporating it into brand-new concoctions and riffs on old-school potations.
I recently stepped into the acclaimed Brooklyn bar, Clover Club, to order a Port of Call. The calendar said it was early January, but it was still Christmas inside that glass, with the jam and spice of the port combining with the botanicals of gin, the zing of cinnamon syrup, and the sauce of a dollop of cranberry preserves to festive effect.
Then I had the barman mix a Suburban, a 19th century port cocktail named for a Thoroughbred horse race. While this drink rewards tinkering-the bartender adding a honeyed bit of Bénédictine to the basic recipe below-it is not to be trifled with. Dark and heavy like polished solid mahogany, it evokes a men's club in the best way. I recommended it as a nightcap, partly because it is halfway to being an anesthetic, putting you to sleep-perchance to dream that a port renaissance is underway.
Suburban Cocktail Recipe
45 ml rye whiskey (Old Overholt, perhaps?)
22 ml dark rum (something Jamaican, maybe?)
22 ml port (Sandeman ruby, for sure)
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters
Stir well with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with twist and serve.