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Why was Victor Laszlo so eager to get to Lisbon? Perhaps to quaff some of the world’s finest ports.

Port is a paradoxical drink. It’s Portugal‘s most famous product, yet it was invented by the English. And it is identified with the English establishment more than any other wine. The French like it too; they drink about three times more of it than the British.

One can, if one must, buy “port” made in California, Australia, or South Africa. Some of it may be drinkable; some of it may even be very nice. But it will not be port. Port must come from Portugal.

Portugal is one of the greatest-and often unjustly neglected-wine producing countries. Instead of enjoying the finer things in life, some people seem content to settle for less. For instance, Mateus Rose is well known-it is, after all, one of the largest selling wines in the world but it is also of little appeal to the sophisticated wine drinker. Vinho Verdes (the light “green wines” with the vaguest sparkle)

are fresh and amusing. The big Daos, such as Grao Vasco, are substantial and serious.

But the great, unique wine of Portugal is port. It comes from the vineyards of the Douro valley tucked up in the northwest corner of the country, upstream of Oporto, the second largest city in Portugal. The steep hillsides are planted with port grapes that have unusual names like Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cao.

The grapes are harvested in late September or early October, then crushed or trodden upon (by more traditional producers). After the liquid has been fermenting for some time, brandy is added to stop the fermentation. This additional brandy is what makes port a fortified wine like sherry or Madeira.

The addition of brandy was done in the old days to stabilize the wine against the vicissitudes of long ocean voyages. Sometime in the nineteenth century it was felt that the brandy made the wine taste better.

England and Portugal share more than their love of wine. They have had close relations since the Middle Ages. The AngloPortuguese friendship treaty of 1386 is the oldest treaty in the world which is still in force. But England has dominated the port market for 300 years. The most venerable trade organization is the British Association in Oporto; and all the best-known shippers-like Taylor, Dow, and Cockburn-have English names.

However traditional Britian’s love of wine is, some things do change. Gone are the days when gentlemen drank port for breakfast. Gone too are the nights when dinner ended with the ladies withdrawing and the chaps sitting around one or two decanters of port. In a time which has seen the rise of white drinks (white wine, vodka, tequila) and a growing concern over alcohol consumption, port-red, forceful and packing a 20 percent alcohol punch-may seem anachronistic.

But despite these changes in taste, port sales are on the rise again. The worldwide growth of wine connoisseurship has produced a new group of enthusiasts for this fabulous wine and the return to tradition throughout the ’80s has helped to revive interest in this most traditional drink.

But to the new enthusiast, port can be awfully confusing. To begin with there are 10 major styles of the wine ranging from common garden “ruby” port to the Olympian heights of vintage port. Ruby is the basic port matured in wood for three years, then bottled and sold, usually for immediate drinking. White port is pale, usually dry and drunk before dinner. Tawny port sits in its barrel for five years and is rather less brash than ruby, while the even more subtle aged tawnies can mature for 10 to 40 years before being bottled. Late bottled vintage ports are superior wines which mature for four years before being bottled. True vintage ports are in barrel for two years and then mature in bottles until they’re ready to drink. Unlike other wine-producing areas, not every year is a vintage year. A vintage year is “declared” only in the best years. There are greater and lesser vintage years of different character, but any vintage year is a good one.

Vintage port is the grandest port, but it needs 10 or 20 or more years to mature in bottle. That’s why English snobs sometimes bought their children a pipe (from the Portuguese for barrel, “pipa”) of port at birth, so that it would be ready to drink when they were old enough to drink it. If you buy some from 1983 now, you’ll be able to drink them after the turn of the century.

Ideally you buy vintage, lay it down and forget about it for a generation. It is a style of wine that perhaps is best suited to a stable population living in big houses with

big cellars. You can of course buy a bottle of 1960 or 1963 port and bring it home for dinner. But mature vintage port bought from a wine merchant will be hugely expensive-someone has to bear the cost of all those years spent in storage.

People in the port business consider the U.S.-only the eighth biggest port consumer in the world-a snobbish market. Nearly half the port sold in America is vintage, yet only a tiny 2 percent to 3 percent of all port made is vintage. You can’t know vintage-it is of course the pinnacle of the port shipper’s skill, but other ports have so much to offer in terms of taste, interest, ease of storage and serving, and price that it is foolhardy to disregard them. More and more effort has gone into the late bottled vintage ports in particular and they now offer tremendous style and value.

As in many other businesses, the port trade is now dominated by fewer, bigger players. Seagrams owns Sandeman, Hiram Walker owns Cockburn, Smiths International Distillers & Vintners (part of Grand Met) owns Croft, and Symingtons owns Warres, Dow and others.

Which port you like is more a matter of personal choice than objective judgment. For example, I love Taylor-you might think it’s too rich.

The key thing is experimenting: Half the fun of getting to know any type of wine is finding out which ones you like and which you don’t. Port is bound up with custom and tradition (the most famous being that you should always pass port from right to left), but don’t let that stop you from having an open mind.

Port is perhaps at its best on a chilly winter evening with Stilton and walnuts, but try drinking it the way the French do as well. A chilled glass of white port is a splendid aperitif. Port is subjected to some of the most stringent quality controls in the world, so you can buy it and drink it with confidence.


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