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Cálem Port Wine Lodge

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ABOVE: The Porto wine-tasting room of the Cálem cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia. (Shelves on the right contain bottles for sale.)

Buying port wine:

Like sherry and vermouth, port (or Porto) is a fortified wine, not a table wine. During fermentation, the winemaker adds neutral brandy to the wine, which stops the remaining grape sugar from turning to alcohol and results in a sweeter, fruitier wine that can be drunk as as apéritif or after-dinner wine.

The basic types of port are:

White port. Porto branco is made from white Malvasia grapes and can range from dry to sweet. It's usually served chilled, either as an apéritif (dry) or a dessert wine (demi-sec or sweet).

Ruby port. This red, fruity wine is a blend of different grapes. It's typically aged in oak casks for several years before bottling, and--like white or tawny port (see below)--it's ready to drink when bottled.

Tawny port is a lighter, less sweet wine than ruby, and it's aged long enough to take on an amber or "tawny" color while absorbing flavor from the oak vats or casks.

A more expensive--and more cherished--variant of ruby port is:

Vintage port, which is blended from a single year's wines, during a year that the Port Wine Institute and the maker have declared a "vintage year." (This doesn't happen often; in a typical decade, only a handful of years will have the optimum conditions that yield vintage wines.)

Unlike other Porto wines, vintage port is bottled without filtering, and the presence of fruit sediment allows it to mature and improve in the bottle for decades. A really good vintage port might deserve 30 or 40 years of aging before being opened--and once opened, it must be drunk within a few days (unlike other ports, which are good for six or seven months after they've been uncorked).

To make matters even trickier, vintage port must be stored horizontally in a dark place, allowed to sit vertically for at least 24 hours before opening, and decanted after the fruit sediment has settled to the bottom of the bottle. To keep an old cork from crumbling into the wine when opened, you can use an iron bottle cutter (available in Cálem's shop) that, after being heated in a flame, grips the neck of the bottle and neatly severs the glass below the cork.

Tips:

  • If you can't afford vintage port, you might want to try crusted port, a less-expensive unfiltered product that consists of blended nonvintage wines.

  • Late-bottled vintage (LBV) is a convenient alternative to traditional vintage port if you lack the patience to wait 15, 30, or 40 years for a taste. LBV is a vintage port that has been aged in wood and is usually filtered before bottling, so it's ready for drinking whenever you are, and it will stay good for months after being opened. (Note: Some LBVs are unfiltered and may benefit from several years of aging; if the bottle has a cork instead of a stopper, you should drink the wine within a few days.)

For more information, see Wikipedia's article about port wine.

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