Ports to Call On

Paul Blow

Like many people, I often crave something sweet after a meal. It could be a single morsel of dark chocolate, some ice cream, or a small glass of port. I have a few bottles of young vintage ports lying around, but they’re too expensive to open on a solo Tuesday night, and they take decades—generations, even—to come around (hence the traditional English practice of buying cases of vintage port upon the birth of a child: It can be enjoyed by father and son when the former is middle-aged and the latter has come of age).

But I’m talking about a casual weeknight meal, so I’m not looking for anything fancy—just something juicy, fruity, and well made. Port can be divided into two categories: bottle-aged (ruby) and wood-aged (tawny). Tawnies are aged in the barrel at least 10 years, long enough to become amber and oxidized. They lose primary fruit but will not continue to evolve in the bottle. Ruby-style ports, which include simple rubies and vintage ports, are bottled without much barrel aging to preserve the fruit; then the vintages will develop in the bottle.

Ruby ports are inexpensive and abundant, but they’re often thin and unsatisfying. I’ve been experimenting with another category of port, late bottled vintage, or LBV, that shows some of the nuance and power of a good vintage port but doesn’t require terrible expense and/or the onset of old age. These wines can often be found for less than $25. Lacking the richness and depth of vintage ports, LBVs are selected from lots that didn’t make the cut for vintage but still show the concentration, flavor, and fortitude to weather extended time in the barrel. The wines spend four to six years in cask (compared with one year for vintage port), which allows them to soften and open up. Then they are bottled and ready to drink upon release. They can also reward further aging, so hold on to them as long as you want.

Once opened, a bottle can last for a week or so before declining in quality. The wines may have some sediment and should be decanted. LBVs are not made every year, but always in years considered good enough for vintage ports, as well as other above-average years. Right now, 2000, 2001, and 2003 are all very good buys. Here are a couple of my favorites from recent vintages:

Taylor’s Fladgate LBV 2000: This house invented the style and still makes one of the best. This LBV tastes like vintage port, with a massive, full-bodied style smelling of blackberry purée, coffee, and chocolate and leaving the mouth with a lovely aftertaste of spice.

Niepoort LBV 2003: This one was released recently and also has lots of the fiery character you’d expect from a vintage port. It’s full of dark, juicy cherry and plum, with notes of espresso and rock dust. Built with great finesse, this port is young for an LBV and will mature gracefully for more than a decade. Definitely decant for an hour or so before serving.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.