These days, Portugal’s famous fortified wines can sometimes be seen as somewhat futzy, associated with the post-dinner sips beloved by English nobility. Many drinkers shrug port off as too sweet or too strong—a shame, because it offers a full range of applications beyond digestifs and dessert pairings.
“Port is extremely misunderstood,” says Sandy de Almeida, the bar manager at The Drake Hotel in Toronto. “It’s often seen solely as a dessert wine, which is a gross misconception.”
Consider port a sleeper agent of a bottle. Unlike lower-proof fortified wines, an open bottle has a shelf-life of months, ready to be shaken or stirred into any number of cocktails in a snap. And its uses reveal port as a bit of a chameleon: It can sub into spritzes just as easily as it can into cold-weather cocktails. Sip it neat or dose a Tiki cocktail or a cobbler with a healthy dash of port.
“I like to work with port because it can add body, mouthfeel, flavor, and color to a cocktail,” says Danny Kuehner, the bar manager at Madison on Park in San Diego. Matt Young, the general manager at Cure in New Orleans, seconds this. “It’s complex—rich and robust while maintaining fresh acidity. Low in alcohol, it makes excellent, multi-faceted cocktails.”
Beating the Bad Rap
Why isn’t port the bar staple it deserves to be? “The biggest misconception is that all port is just sweet,” says Kuehner. “I feel like a lot of people fail to grasp the depth and complexity you can find in port.”
“It seems to me that many Americans group port wine with brandy,” says Anthony Caporale, the director of spirits education at the Institute of Culinary Education. “While they're correct in that both are made from grapes, the two are very different drinks.”
De Almeida also notes that bartenders often are confused by technicalities. “Does it go off within hours? Days? Do you keep it in the fridge? When do you serve it? All of these queries may seem intimidating if you aren’t familiar with the port.” (The answers: Drink it with anything, refrigeration isn’t mandatory, and you should finish an opened bottle within a few months.)
A Port Primer
Port is a type of fortified wine produced in the Douro region of Portugal. Its name comes from the city of Porto, located at the mouth of the Douro River, the hub of the port-wine trade from the late 1600s, when it began to grow popular abroad.
“Like other fortified wines, port has a distilled spirit (in this case aguardente, a neutral grape spirit) added to increase the alcohol content and preserve the wine,” says Caporale. “It’s fortified during fermentation to stop the process, leaving unfermented sugar in the wine that gives port its notably sweet, rich character.”
While many people group all styles of port together, there’s really a rainbow of red-port styles, ranging from ruby and tawny to vintage, colheita, and late-bottled vintage (LBV) ports.
Ruby ports drink like a full-bodied fruit-forward wine. “Think plums, cassis, berries,” says de Almeida. According to Caporale, these are generally the least-expensive ports, made from red wine aged in concrete or stainless-steel vessels without exposure to air, which preserves the wine’s original red color—thus the name of the category.
Tawny port is aged in wooden barrels, allowing contact with air to oxidize the wine and impart deep gold colors and nutty flavors. De Almeida notes that this style of port is “much more mellow in flavor and color, lighter-bodied and takes on more nuttiness. Think hazelnuts, dried fruit, and butterscotch.”
Vintage ports, like vintage wines, are made only from grapes harvested in the labeled vintage year and spend most of their aging time in the bottle, Caporale explains. LBV ports start as vintage ports but spend more time aging in barrels before they're bottled, and are usually ready to drink without additional bottle-aging.
“But don't worry about learning them all,” says Caporale. “Just pick one at your price point and enjoy.”
The drinks pros are unanimous in their preference for tawny port, particularly for using in cocktails. “Probably because it’s perfect for fall and winter,” according to Kuehner. “It’s barrel-aged for longer and has darker, more complex flavor profiles.” Young agrees, often reaching specifically for Feist tawny. “It’s great: high-quality, inexpensive, and bright.”
Caporale also is on the tawny train, “Particularly the medium-dry styles,” he says. “I like the nutty flavor, rich, golden color, and slightly less sweet character. There are also lots of different types and prices to choose from, so you can find a tawny port for every drinker and every occasion.”
De Almeida prefers Taylor Fladgate’s 20-year-old tawny, though “Its LBV is a nice balance between a ruby and a tawny” she says. “It’s typically aged between four and six years, and you still get a bold, intense flavor with some added complexity and a nicer price for mixing in cocktails.”
Pour It with Port
Speaking of cocktails, “Don’t stick to an antiquated idea of only pairing port with cheese and sweets,” says de Almeida. “Port is versatile and pairs with all kinds of food. It works really well as a base in cocktails and just as well as a modifier.” She prefers to use port in place of other fortified wines in classic cocktails, subbing it in for the vermouth in a Manhattan or Negroni or the sherry in a cobbler.
Young co-signs the port cobbler. “They’re a good cocktail to begin with. I prefer tawny port in a cobbler because of its slightly oxidized, aged character.” He also leans towards port as a way to balance out higher-proof spirits, like cutting rum and becherovka with an ounce and a half of port in a Tiki-leaning port sour.
Caporale prefers to swap in port wine in place of syrups or liqueurs. “Ruby port is an easy swap for crème de cassis or Chambord and makes a fantastic Aviation when substituted for crème de violette,” he says. “A tawny port can stand in for amaretto, Crème de Noyaux, or Frangelico, and makes a fantastic Portuguese Margarita when used in place of triple sec.”
Kuehner throws caution to the wind and uses port as a workhorse bottle. “I’ll use it as a base in a low-ABV drink, a modifying liqueur, a splash, float, even as an aromatic substitute for bitters in egg-white cocktails,” he says
“Port wine is an underappreciated gem,” says Caporale. “I love introducing people to port and watching them realize during that first taste that it isn't what they expected. The flavor sells itself. Port is delicious, approachable, and easy to enjoy, even if you don't generally like wines.”
For de Almeida, port goes beyond flavors. “It reminds me of laughter and loud voices, of drunk red-faced aunts and uncles, and lots of food on the table,” she says. “It’s the spirit of family and holidays. Of warmth.”