Time flies, and before we know it, it’s the end of 2020. With all the tempting goodies surrounding us at this time of the year, which wines go best with these treats? Let’s be honest – any wine, from sparkling to red, will heighten the festive mood. If there is a group of people enjoying a long lunch, chances are there will be all wine colours on the table.
But there is one wine I always insist on drinking in December, and that is port.
Blue cheese and port is a classic pairing because of the contrast between saltiness and sweetness. Thinking along this line, port can go with other savoury dishes such as roast turkey or venison. The secret is that the dish must have a similar intense flavour to stand up to the port.
Most people think there are two styles of port. Ruby and late-bottled vintage (LBV) come together in the fruitier style, while tawny port with an indicative age (10, 20, 30 or 40 years old) is the oxidative style. Actually, in the world of port, these are all classified as wood-aged port because they spend all their time in wooden casks before bottling. Ruby and LBV spend around 2–6 years in large oak vats (over 20,000 litres), so they retain more primary fruit aromas and have a deep ruby colour.
Tawny ports are aged in smaller casks (about 630 litres) for a longer time, so there is more interaction with oxygen. As they age, the colour fades from ruby to amber/tawny and the fruit aromas give way slowly to nuts, coffee, chocolate and caramel. Tawny ports are more complex and concentrated, with a smooth, mellow palate.
Different ages of wines are continuously blended to achieve consistent characteristics, so the age of a port denotes its average age. For instance, 20-year-old tawny port has the perfect balance between fruits and aged characteristics and is arguably the most popular tawny port. Because of its nutty character, it pairs well with Chinese dishes like hairy crab and even xiao long bao.
All wood-aged ports are fully aged prior to bottling, and they are meant for immediate consumption as they do not improve in the bottle. They come with T-shaped stoppers, so you don’t need to finish them in one go. They can remain in good condition for 6–8 weeks after they are opened.
Vintage port is a different style of port because it only spends the first 18–24 months in wooden casks and the rest of its life improving in the bottle. Vintage port is the pinnacle of port because it is only made in the best years, when the wine has good structure, tannin, depth and balance supported by ripe fruits. When a port house decides that a wine is good enough to make a vintage port, it has to be assessed by the IVDP (Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto), the regulating body for the port trade. Once it is approved, the port house then formally announces the vintage declaration. On average, only about three vintages have been declared in each decade, which means that vintage port is extremely rare. A young vintage port is fruity and powerful with a firm structure, but it can age for decades, developing multilayered aromas of cedar, spices, nuts and dried fruits accompanied by a long finish.
Don’t confuse vintage port with LBV port. LBV was created to fill the gap when no vintage port is declared. Although this wine comes from the same vintage and has a similar fruit profile to a young vintage port, it is not as dense and multidimensional and certainly will not develop with ageing.
Aged vintage port as well as 30- and 40-year-old tawny port is best enjoyed on its own after a day of feasting. I like to have a glass when the party is over as I reflect on the year gone by. And with so many things happening in 2020, I’m sure I will need more than one glass to contemplate.
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