There are some wines that are definitely made for certain occasions. Port is one of them. And the occasion is called “winter.” When the weather gets cold, these rich and luscious wines can warm you right down to your soul.
Port is a fortified wine. This means that is has been fortified with extra alcohol. As the grape juice is fermenting, a neutral grape brandy is added halfway through fermenting so that the yeasts are stopped, leaving quite a bit of sweetness still in the wine. The added spirits will also lift the alcohol level beyond that of regular table wine. Whereas table wines fall somewhere between 8 percent and 14 percent, you will find port wines weighing in at anywhere between 18 percent and 22 percent.
Sweet and high in alcohol. Some might call that a total win-win!
The original and true port wines were developed in Portugal, where they are called Porto (note the obligatory “o” on the end). By law, Porto can only be made in Portugal from the indigenous grapes. These are touriga nacional, touriga franca, tinto roriz, tinta cão, and tinta barroca. Not your everyday conversational grapes, but they are responsible for some of the most worshipped dessert wines in the world. Names like Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, Sandeman, Croft, and Dow may ring a bell.
You can find port wines elsewhere (note the spelling must drop the “o” if not made in Portugal). And elsewhere includes that wonderful cool climate region of the Finger Lakes of New York State. Granted, we cannot grow the traditional Portuguese grapes in our climate, but we can make port-style wines in the exact same method, using our own local grapes to make fortified wines that carry the flavor of the New World.
Since the port process is a unique one, you won’t find every winery taking the time or energy to produce these wines. And they are not produced in every year. Because a little port goes a long way, you’ll find they are often sold in half-bottles, similar to ice wine. There are a few Finger Lakes vineyards that have become passionate about this style of wine, and they are well worth trying.
Lakewood Vineyards Port ($14.99 for 750ml). A stunning value from the western coast of Seneca Lake. Made from baco noir grapes (a French-American hybrid variety), this wine can easily pass for its cousin across the pond. Lots of dried fruit flavors, ripe berries, and a flash of spice make it a perfect choice to accompany your favorite dark chocolate desserts.
Red Newt Cellars Hellbender ($20 for 750ml). The name alone warms me up! Another treat from Seneca Lake, this is a port-style blend of cabernet franc, merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, and pinot noir. One sip of this, and I actually crave a cigar. Who knew?
Hunt Country Vineyards Ruby Port ($16 for 500ml). This Keuka Lake winery produces a winner made from a blend of three French-American grapes: dechaunac, corot noir, and chambourcin. With a nose of dried cherry and plum, this wine pairs beautifully with fruit baked desserts like pear clafouti, raspberry crumbles, and apple cakes drizzled with warm caramel sauce.
Fox Run Vineyards Port ($19.99 for 375ml). This ruby port from Seneca Lake is a beauty, with classic aromas of dark berries, toffee, and spice. Made from a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and lemberger, it is a shoe-in next to a plate of artisanal cheeses, including aged cheddars and creamy blues. Fox Run also produces a Fine Old Tawny Port ($39.99 for 375ml), and Hedonia ($9.99 for 375ml). A light and aromatic twist on the standard port, Hedonia is made from the American hybrid Traminette, and is usually served as an aperitif: in a host of cocktails, on the rocks with a twist of orange, or mixed with your favorite sparkling wine.