What conjures up when one thinks of port? Try a cold winter’s night sipping by the fire top off a joyful evening.

Port originates in Portugal, a country steeped in wine tradition. In the 14th century, England and France were frequently at war, hindering imports from France. Thus, England looked to Spain and Portugal for wine. When shipping wine by boat at such a distance, the wine would spoil (oxidize), so brandy was added to fortify and ensure it would make the long journey. The English enjoyed port, and many families established businesses in Douro Valley (northwest Portugal), as indicated by the many English names to port shippers: Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Gould, Graham, Osborne, Offley, Sandeman, Taylor.

In 1986, Portugal joined the European community, which significantly improved the modernization of vineyards and vinification methods. Portugal is first and foremost known for port, which is sought-after and considered one of the world’s most remarkable wines.

Portugal, carpeted with rolling vineyards, is a country that is just 370 miles long and 125 miles wide (smaller than the state of Kentucky), but 14th in world wine production. In the north, a few excellent table wines have emerged made from grapes traditionally found in port. There is an eclectic mix of grape varieties, although only five (Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cao, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Francesa and Touriga Nacional) are mostly grown and used. Undoubtedly, the leader of the pack is the Touriga Nacional, the basis for fine ports and red wines of the Douro, which is gaining increasing presence in many other regions.

Port is a fortified wine. It is made similar to wine; however, fermentation is arrested by the addition of a grape spirit/brandy at a sweetness level the port house prefers. The sugars convert to alcohol, coming in at 18 to 20 percent alcohol by volume (still wine averages about 13 percent).

Port that ages in the bottle creates a completely different style than port aged in oak casks. While aging in wood, port's fruity aroma develops through oxidation to create a bouquet that is reminiscent of dried fruit, toasting, wood and spices. The aging process also adds to its smoothness, while making the bouquet more complex.

There are several styles of port, but here are the main finds in the market:

Vintage Port: A vintage port can only be declared vintage in an excellent production year. It is aged in oak for one to three years and needs bottle-aging to be drinkable. It reaches exquisite levels at 20 to 40 years. The port will build sediment, and when served to guests, it should be decanted.

Late Bottle Vintage (LBV): Aged four to seven years in oak, LBV has softened tannins, making it more approachable to drink. This port will continue to improve in the bottle and age for 20-plus years. This port has been filtered, so it is not necessary to decant.

Ruby Port: This is young port that is stored in large vats for up to three years, and then released to market for consumption. This is the least expensive and most widely produced port.

Tawny Ports: Tawnys range in age from 10, 20, 30 to 40 years. They are kept in oak and aged; and as they age, they will lose color and turn more golden. The fruits will develop more dried-fruit aromas.

Colheita: This is a Tawny from a single vintage and aged for a minimum of seven years before being bottled, but often is aged much longer to develop exquisite flavors. Colheita represents only one percent of port production.

Single Quinta Vintage: This can be produced when a vintage has not been declared. It comes from a single estate, and is usually sold for less than a vintage port and considered a second wine to vintage port.

The British used port as part of a dowry for their daughters. When the women married, port was traded for other goods and services. This later evolved into the tradition of saving port from the birth year of children, to be given when they reached adulthood. Port also is still used in the U.K. at formal military dinners to toast the Queen.

Port is more than just tradition. The next time you feel like topping off your evening, try sipping on a port. It could be the perfect end to a perfect night.

Tasting Tip: Although port is fortified, it will oxidize once opened. If it is an older vintage port, it will oxidize just like wine within a couple of days. Some of the younger ports will last a week or so, depending on how it is stored.

Wine Recommendation: Try a vintage port that has been aged for at least 20 years to show its true expression. Then have a 20-year (or older) Tawny to experience the more dried-fruit qualities. These are both quintessential wine life experiences!

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