Pairing the Sweet with the Sweet

I had some friends out to my cabin this past weekend for a great fall dinner with pasta and several good Oregon pinot noirs to try with the main course. For dessert, one of my guests brought a wonderful, home-made Tiramisu.

I recently read an article that called it “heaven in your mouth!” All those Ladyfinger biscuits with coffee, mascarpone cheese and rum flavour, all rolled together to make a light and very tasty dessert. Thank you for that special treat, dear guest!

I looked at my stash of fortified dessert wines and managed to pull out a variety of six port wines. And as we sat around the table enjoying the wonderful Tiramisu, we all noticed how wonderfully the ports went with it. We got talking abut how different each was, and I thought it would be good to write briefly about fortified wines, in general, and about Port, specifically.

The term “fortified wine” refers to wines that have a distilled spirit (usually brandy) added to them while they are fermenting. The brandy or spirit has the dual effect of increasing the alcohol content of the wine as well as killing any fermentation.

When you end the fermentation process, which converts the sugar in grape juice into alcohol, the remaining sugar stays in the beverage and results in a sweeter taste. So the end result is a fortified wine that tastes sweeter than a regular wine and has more alcohol, usually around 20 per cent vs. 12 to 14 per cent in most wines.

For this reason, fortified wines are often excellent wines to accompany sweet desserts, such as tiramisu, or other special treats such as pumpkin pie, plum pudding, chocolate treats … just about all the great dessert tastes that tempt us at festive dinners.

Fortified wines are different from spirits, such as brandy, vodka, etc., in that spirits are distilled while fortified wines are simply regular wines with brandy (the usual choice) added. There are a number of different styles of fortified wines that include port, Madeira, sherry, Marsala and vermouth. In this article, I’ll write a little more about the first one, port.

Port is a classic and pleasing wine, with a long history. But, figuring out what is what, is quite confusing. While ports originated in the Douro Valley, in northern Portugal, today they are made in Australia, South Africa, the U.S., Canada and perhaps elsewhere. Our local Yukon Liquor Corporation store lists 15 that are mostly from Portugal, but also several from Australia and Canada.

So, where to start?

I’ll begin in Portugal, where it all started. Port is wine history, itself, and the rich list of English surnames on many of the bottles speaks to a 300-year or longer connection between England and Portugal, which began in 1703 with a treaty and tax agreement that allowed English wine importers to bring in Portuguese wines at a low tax rate, as England was at war with France.

English wine importers set up export businesses in Portugal and, to this day, in many cases they are still run by their descendants, having intermarried with the Portuguese and having raised successive generations of wine-exporting children.

Look for names including Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Graham, Osborne, Sandeman, Taylor and Warre. These family port exporters still produce great ports, even 300 years later.

Some of the ports will be described as “ruby” and others as “tawny”. Ruby is the most broadly produced and is aged in stainless-steel or concrete tanks – and, as you might guess, is usually a bright-red colour. I’m not sure if the Liquor Corporation currently stocks a Portuguese Ruby Port, but South Africa’s KWV Paarl Ruby ($15.20) is a decent example sold in the Yukon.

It tastes a little less sweet and has more “bright” red fruit notes than tawny (discussed next). It’s fine to try, and I like it with fresh fruit and cheese at the end of a meal. I do find it a little thin-tasting compared to the tawny wines.

The Liquor Corporation has a good representative mix of tawny ports. I encourage you to buy two different bottles and do a bit of a taste-off with a good sweet dessert.

You’ll see 10- and 20-year-old ports. All of the above-mentioned exporters bottle them. The 20-year-olds are more expensive than the 10-year-olds, and the Taylor 20-year-old tawny ($67.50) and the Dow’s 10-year-old ($39.50) are very good representations.

Tawny wines are aged in wood barrels, and the interaction of the wood and air, in the barrels, gradually turns the original ruby-coloured port tawny, and adds subtle, often nutty flavours to the port wine.

The 10-, 20-, 30- and 40-year-old ports are a bit of a misnomer: they are actually composed of port wines from a number of different vintages, with the average age being at least the years on the label. So, a 10-year-old port might have some 7-year-old, 13-year-old and 10-year-old ports, all mixed together.

As well, there are vintage ports, just like vintage wines, with the wine comprised all of the juice of a single year’s wine. I have a bottle of 1992 vintage port that I bought for my son, when he was born, and I suspect it will be quite good by now.

Like regular wines, single vintage ports reflect the climate conditions of a particular summer’s growth. Hot summers can generally produce superior vintages.

I’m not sure whether or not the Liquor Corporation is currently carrying any vintage ports, but you can find them Outside. You’ll pay for them though, with prices generally starting at about $60 per bottle in the U.S., and likely $80 to $90 or more in Canada.

I am particularly fond of “Late Bottled Vintage” (LBV) ports. They are the second pressings, the leftovers in the barrel, after the Vintage Ports are made. Aged in the barrels, they are bottled four to six years after the harvest. Some are filtered, some are not.

I like the unfiltered ones, which will have a little grape-skin sludge in the bottom of the bottle, but full of character and exciting to try. LBVs are intended to approach the experience of tasting a vintage port without having to wait for the port to age a decade or more in the bottle, and I think they come pretty close.

LBVs are substantially cheaper than vintage ports or many 10-year-olds. An excellent example is Taylor’s Late Bottled Vintage ($27.50) – probably my favourite port listed at the Liquor Corporation.

So, get a good, tasty, sweet dessert; pick up an LBV and, if your budget can stand it, a 10- or 20-year-old one. Or, if you want to really lash out, track down a vintage port. I think I’ve seen some half bottles of port (maybe Dows) at the liquor store, recently, that will be a little cheaper than full bottles.

If you stick with the above port bottlers, you are not likely to go wrong. And once you have tried the Portuguese wines, give the Australian wines a try. Aussies call them “sticky wines”, and I’ve had several outstanding ones.

Enjoy and Cheers!

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