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Port a nice treat for wine lovers

Port’s versatility and diversity make it a good gift as well as a special treat to keep at home.

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Port’s versatility and diversity make it a good gift as well as a special treat to keep at home.

Choosing New Year's host gifts for wine lovers can be a challenge, as you navigate the useless (reindeer bottle stoppers), the tacky ("Wino X-ing" signs) and the endless permutations of corkscrews (who needs another one?). Wine — the obvious choice — is fraught with peril, if only because of the sheer variety out there. Champagne is an easy answer, welcome in any wine-loving household and required for a midnight toast. But a less obvious and equally impressive way to go, bottlewise, is port, which can be sipped now or later

It is a fortified, sweet wine produced in the Douro Valley of northern Portugal, one of the most stunningly beautiful wine regions in the world. It takes its name from the city of Oporto, at the Douro's mouth, from where the wine traditionally sets sail to market, most notably to Britain. Port is made from traditional Portuguese grape varieties, with neutral distilled spirits added to the fermenting juice. The alcohol (about 20 percent in the final wine) halts the fermentation and preserves the wine's sweetness.

Port's stylistic variety gives us plenty of gift-giving options for loved ones and those we must impress, and for when we want to treat ourselves to something special.

Vintage port is top of the line in power, prestige and price. Port houses declare a vintage only in the best years, and their best grapes go into those blends. Aged in the cask for two years and then bottled, these ports are meant to age in your cellar for years, even decades. The 2007 is the current release, though some houses release older vintages from time to time. Vintage port is a nice gift to give the wine collector on your list. You might want to attach a note with your name so he'll remember who gave it to him as he savors it years from now.

Further down the price scale are ruby ports. These are fruitier and more supple than vintage and meant for immediate enjoyment. They typically are blends of wines from several vintages, meant to promote a house style immune to vintage variation. (An exception to that rule is "late-bottled vintage," or LBV, ports. An LBV is essentially a single-vintage ruby, meant to capture some of the character of a vintage port at a fraction of the price.)

Ruby port typically is not labeled as such; that would be too easy. But it often carries a proprietary name or "reserve" designation. Ruby is also the category in which port houses can innovate and introduce new wines aimed at capturing the attention of younger wine drinkers.

Some innovations, such as pink port, are questionable, but others are exciting. Three years ago Fonseca released the first organic port, made from organically grown grapes and certified organic grape spirit. Called Terra Bella, the wine seems to pulse with energy drawn directly from the schist of the Douro's terraced vineyards. This year's entry is Noval Black, from the prestigious Quinta do Noval, a lively ruby that is almost as edgy as its sleek label. If vintage port conjures images of Britain's upper-crust society at the height of the empire, these rough-and-tumble rubies remind us of the swashbuckling adventurers who built that empire.

So for a Happy New Year gift for the wine lover, or for yourself, consider port: a bit of history, a bit of modernity and always a special occasion in a bottle.

A sample of fine ports

Barros Vintage Porto, 2007, Portugal, $52

Moderately rich, less tannic and brawny (and less expensive) than vintage port typically is, this wine from the exceptional 2007 vintage is accessible now, whereas most from this vintage will need a decade or more of cellaring. I do recommend opening it several hours before drinking. My bottle tasted even better the second night.

Fonseca Terra Bella Reserve Porto, Portugal, $23

Made from organically grown grapes and organic grape spirits, this lively ruby should dispel any remaining notion that port is stuffy and old-fashioned. Fonseca is part of the Taylor Fladgate Port group, and all of its wines are terrific.

Noval Black, Portugal, $22

This edgy ruby port was introduced to the U.S. market last summer. From its sleek, untraditional labeling to its expansive, fruit-forward style, it appears designed to attract the millennial generation of wine drinkers. But no matter your age, the wine is delicious.

Dow's Trademark Finest Reserve Porto, Portugal, $20

Smooth and polished, this wine from the famed Symington Family Estates group of port houses suggests chocolate and caramels.

Warre's Warrior Reserve Port Wine, Portugal, $17-$18

Warre's is another Symington property, and this delicious wine is rich, chocolaty and mouth-filling, with supple texture and the raisiny, earthy quality wine lovers describe as "portlike."

Port a nice treat for wine lovers 12/28/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:45pm]

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