(Courtesy Jack Fear
See, there's something you need to understand about me; I am not, to appearances, a refined gentleman. I'm a big guy, with a forceful physical presence. Though it's been a long time since I worked with my hands, my day-to-day uniform is still jeans, a T-shirt, and boots; about the only thing separating me from the guys on the roadgang are steel toe-caps and a couple of weeks in the sun. I'm neither a snob nor a oenophile, is the thing, and when I'm at the ballgame or slapping burgers on the grill, I usually stick to beer.
So it is both surprising and a little embarrassing for me to admit that many a winter's night finds me by the fire, with my feet up and a glass of port at hand.
Port? Isn't that stuff reserved for drawing rooms, exclusively for the consumption of elaborately-bewhiskered Victorian swells? Well, no - because port has a dirty little secret: for all that it's surrounded in ritual as dense as that of Freemasonry, port is essentially an upscale version of Night Train or Thunderbird. Port is - like sherry, which has its own niche in the history and culture of drinking as exclusively feminine as port's is masculine - a fortified wine. Starting with the makings of a fine Portuguese red, brandy is added to the wine casks before fermentation is entirely complete, killing the yeast before it's worked its way through all the natural sugars of the fruit mash. (As opposed to bum wines, where white spirit is added to cheap nasty wines after fermentation and the resultant concoction is pumped up with sweeteners and artificial coloring. This is why it's possible to get bombed on port-and believe me, it is-without spending two days afterwards in the throes of a hangover so savage that you pray for the merciful release of death.)
The resulting vintage is heavy, sweet, and dark; a glass of ruby port will stain your teeth and tongue like a grape Popsicle. And the stuff only gets better as it ages - not just in the cask, but in the bottle. A decent mid-priced bottle, like Cockburn's Fine Ruby Port, will sit around for at least four years; more expensive tawny ports and colheitas may be corked for twenty years or more before they're considered fit to drink.
A room-temperature port blooms as you sip, its flavors bold and yet mellow - the red-wine tannins softened by the aromas of the fruit, the pleasant burn of spirit suffusing the mouth-filling body of it. It's an ideal dessert wine. Hell, it's practically a dessert in itself; with a ruby port, you'll definitely want to brush your teeth afterwards.
Generally, the older the port, the more you'll pay. For the nuttier flavors of tawny ports, you'll pay $35-$55 a bottle for twenty-year old varieties, ranging into the hundreds of dollars for older wines. I like sweeter varieties, myself, like Cockburn's or Sandeman's Ruby Porto, both about $15 a bottle. Like I said, I'm not a snob. When the snow starts coming down and the winter wind is howling, it's any port in a storm.