Chess

Chess: A thinking man's game with classic European pedigree.  Hard to get more WASP'y than that.
Chess: A thinking man’s game with classic European pedigree. Hard to get more WASP’y than that.

Since this is possibly the final weekend before world politics devolve into a Third World War what better time to highlight a pursuit that, perhaps more than any other, values strategic thought, deep calculation, psychology, and prudence.  Sadly I am most definitely not talking about 21st Century diplomacy… but rather the game of Chess.

Although come to think of it, maybe Chess could be the answer to this current crisis? The howtoWASP believes that war, and especially unnecessary war, is exceedingly detrimental to Western Civilization (and therefore WASP culture) and should be avoided if at all possible.

Rather than fight things out over the cities of Europe and Asia, why not settle this dispute on the chessboard instead?   How entertaining would it be to have President Obama challenge President Putin to a winner take all (or just the Crimea) game of Chess?  The broadcast rights alone would probably be enough to pay down a significant portion of the national debt.

Then again perhaps challenging a Russian to a game of Chess isn’t the wisest thing in the world?  It would be a bit like challenging a Norwegian in skiing, or an Irishman to drinking, or like the French challenging anyone else to an actual war…  Probably not a good idea.  But enough with the politics and back to the matter at hand, Chess!

Screech Powers was in Chess Club.  Enough said.
In the 1990’s Screech Powers was the face of Chess Club. Enough said.

Chess is kind of a strange topic because it straddles the line between the worlds of WASP culture and nerd culture.  In terms of historic pedigree, Chess has a lot going for it.  It was popular among the British, it’s seen as a noble intellectual pursuit, and often evokes images of civilized competition among students at a prep school or members of a social club.

Then again, over the past half century or so, Chess has definitely struggled with a reputation of being the preferred hobby of the kid you probably didn’t want to hang out with in school.

Today, there's a whole new style of Chess whiz.
Today, there’s a whole new style of Chess whiz.

Thankfully, that has been changing of late and Chess is becoming cool again.  Want proof?  Google the name of the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen, and you won’t see the stereotypical Chess nerd, but rather someone who would look perfectly at home selling Abercrombie & Fitch clothing at the mall.

So, with the social stigma disappearing, and the WASP cred as strong as ever, Chess is definitely something worth learning.

The History:

If you’re looking for historical pedigree, Chess is difficult to beat.  It is one of the oldest games on the planet, having been played in some form or another for neartly 2,000 years.  There is still debate over the earliest origins of the game, but credit is generally given to the Indians (the Asian variety) who played a game called Chaturanga as early as 300 A.D. Chaturanga was played on an 8×8 grid and featured different pieces that each had special attributes, more or less analogous to the modern Chess pieces of today.

By the 7th Century, Chaturanga had found its way to the Persian empire where it continued to gain in popularity and spread throughout the world.  Around the 9th Century the pastime began to pop up in Europe as well, most prominently among the Moors who introduced it into the Iberian Peninsula and what is modern day Spain.  It was during this time that the game, which had picked up the name “Shah” (Persian for “king”) began to be known as Chess.

How many games still around today were enjoyed by Members of the Knights Templar?  Not many, which is pretty badass.
How many games still around today were enjoyed by Members of the Knights Templar? Not many, which is pretty badass.

In the hundreds of years that followed, Chess spread quickly throughout Europe where it continued to evolve. During the 15th Century the modern rules for the game were adopted by the Spanish and Italians.  With small tweaks here and there, the game as we know it today was finalized in 1850.

It was during this European evolution that the aura of Chess as a gentleman’s sport was cemented in place.  Since the Middle Ages Chess has enjoyed a reputation as a noble pastime, where it was viewed as the game of choice for kings, knights, and other members of nobility.  It’s popularity and esteem continued to grow with the great thinkers of the Renaissance and continued into the Age of Enlightenment.  Benjamin Franklin himself went so far as to write an article praising Chess as a method of self improvement and for the virtues of strategy and thought it can instill in man.

In the Modern Age, since 1850, Chess experienced further explosions in popularity as rules for formal competition and rankings were set in place.  However, the good times would not last.  With the onset of the World Wars, and the Cold War that followed, much of the Western world lost interest in the game (it didn’t help that the Soviets dominated the wold competition during those years) and Chess settled into a new role as a niche hobby for those with more brains than braun.

But again, with the dawn of the the 21st Century, it appears those days might finally be behind us and Chess is poised to rise again.

The Game:

The standard starting position for a fresh game of Chess.
The standard starting position for a fresh game of Chess.

The best thing about Chess is that it follows the golden rule for great games:  It’s simple to learn, but nearly impossible to master.  It can be picked up quickly and played by just about anyone, yet subsequently provide a lifetime of challenge and enjoyment for those who seek to improve.  Chess is also one of the few games where chance plays no role in the outcome.  You win or lose based on your play alone and the winner is always going to be the player who commits the fewest errors.

If you’ve never played before, or if its been over a decade since your last game, then the only place to begin is with the fundamentals.

I won’t waste time reinventing the wheel here because there are plenty of great resources available where anyone can learn the basic rules of the game.  My personal recommendation would be to check out Chess.com, which offers great lessons for everyone, from the rank beginner to the Grand Master.  If you want to go the more formal route, there are plenty of books on the subject available for pennies on Amazon, or for free at your local library.

Once you know how the pieces move, you could theoretically begin playing immediately, just be prepared to lose, a LOT.  While there’s no substitute for in-game experience, I would highly recommend devoting at least some further study to the three main components of the game and the strategy and tactics behind them.  As a very brief overview, these include:

There are many different openings, but the howtoWASP prefers the English, for obvious reasons.
There are many different openings, but the howtoWASP prefers the English, for obvious reasons.
  • The Opening:  This covers the first 10 moves or so of the game.  Basically both sides are seeking to establish position and control the center of the board as quickly as possible.  Setting up a solid defense and protecting your king are also paramount.  The good news here is that since Chess has been played for centuries, most openings are set to an established script.  While there are only 18 possible opening moves (and really only about 5 that you’d ever want to use) there are hundreds of “book” openings to cover all the possible responses, re-responses, and so fourth that can follow.  Again, Chess.com provides a wonderful library of book openings.  Like anything else, all it takes is study and experience to recognize and play them.
  • The Middle Game:  This is where most of the action occurs.  The fight for position continues, but more pressing is the need to set up an effective attack, or defense to counter an opponent’s attack.  Most of the time the goal in the middle game is to force exchanges (trading pieces) that leave you with a material (having a greater number of and/or more powerful pieces left on the board) or positional advantage.  This phase requires much more thought and analysis than the opening as tactics begin to outweigh the strategic focus of the opening.   Players must calculate several moves ahead, taking into account many different pieces and possible combinations, to be successful.
  • A typical End Game scenario: short on material, long on options. A tacticians paradise.
    A typical End Game scenario: short on material, long on options. A tacticians paradise.

    The End Game:  Assuming that you didn’t blunder the game away in the middle (which is definitely possible, especially as a beginner) then things proceed to the final phase, the end game.  Here calculations become theoretically easier because there are often only a few pieces remaining (usually mostly pawns and kings), but it rarely seems that way in practice because of the sheer number of possible moves available on the open board.  Here tactics are paramount as even a slight mistake can lead to a disadvantage and eventual loss.  If you’re ahead or even at this point, you’re playing for the win.  If you’re down, then playing for a draw(tie) is probably your best bet.

Of course that’s a gross over-simplification of the game, but those are the basics.  As I said, the only way to truly learn and get better is to sit down and play as much as possible (which thankfully is much easier in the internet age). Fair warning, it will probably take about 6 months of regular play before you start to really understand and win games on a consistent basis, but once you reach that point, you will have developed a new skill for life.

So what are you waiting for?  In this crazy world, where attention spans increasingly need to be measured on a nano scale, and shows like Teen Mom and Jersey Shore makes up a disturbing proportion of the entertainment content available, wouldn’t it be nice to slow down and give your brain a bit of proper intellectual (and supremely WASP’ish) stimulation?

As we know, Benjamin Franklin believed that Chess was an excellent resource for self improvement, and with that in mind, I will close with what I believe is the number one life lesson taught by Chess:  No matter how well you prepare, or how far you’re ahead, we are all but one blunder away from complete and unmitigated disaster.   Perhaps both Obama and Putin would do well to remember that…

Next Steps:

  • Assuming you’ve learned the basics, the best thing you can do is get out and play some Chess.  While in-person games are classic and always fun, the internet has opened up a whole new range of options.  My favorite offering from Chess.com is the ability to play online, turn based games (typically up to 3 days per move) that allow you to play at your own leisure, against thousands of players of every skill level across the globe.
  • When you play, try to play against opponents who are better than you.  While it’s always enjoyable to win, if it’s against a lessor player, you’re probably not learning much in the process.  The flip side is that while losing sucks, you can actually learn a lot if you pay attention.  Remember, it takes about 6 months to really pick things up and become competitive.  Don’t get discouraged!
  • Nothing classes up the joint like a dedicated Chess table.  Although all you really need is a good board and set.
    Nothing classes up the joint like a dedicated Chess table. Although all you really need is a good board and set.

    While online Chess is great, you’ll also want a good, old fashioned Chess set in your home. Why?  First of all because it will make you look smart and sophisticated when guests come over.  Second, it will allow you to play more games in person.  And lastly it can be a valuable analysis tool to visualize and play out scenarios in your online games.

  • Keep learning.  While there’s no substitute for actual play, reading books and watching video lessons on advanced strategy and tactics can really help improve your game. This is obviously more beneficial for experienced players, but if you’re like me, once you catch the bug, it’s hard to stop.
Advertisements

Wimbledon

Green grass, white clothes, and prodigious amounts of tradition.  It must be Wimbledon time.
Green grass, white clothes, and prodigious amounts of tradition. It must be Wimbledon time.

Enter into a discussion of WASP’y sporting pursuits and it won’t be long before you’re talking tennis.  The reason?  Simple.  As far as WASP’y sports go, tennis really has it all: an English heritage, plenty of history, loads of tradition, a distinct association with country club culture, and of course a complicated set of rules that make absolutely no sense to the casual observer.

And when it comes to tennis at its WASP’iest, nothing even comes close to Wimbledon (That’s actually The Championships, Wimbledon if you want to be really proper about it).  Wimbledon is to tennis as St. Andrews is to golf; the spiritual home of the sport.  It’s not only the oldest of the four Grand Slam tournaments, but having been played since 1877, it’s the world’s oldest (and most prestigious) tennis tournament, period.

And so, with the start of Wimbledon only weeks away,  the howtoWASP decided to put together a brief viewing guide to help you, the aspiring student of WASP culture, to fully understand and appreciate one of the world’s truly great a sporting spectacles.  Also so that the when, at your next cocktail party, someone asks if you saw Djokovic’s blown break after attempting that volley drop shot after deuce #4 in the third set of the Federer match you can respond with “Yeah, that was great!” instead of “Yeah… that was great?”

The Tradition:

Between its long history and English setting (taking place at the All England Club in suburban London) you might expect tradition to play a central role at Wimbledon, and naturally, you would be right!    In fact tradition is really what sets Wimbledon apart.  While the other majors have embraced the usual aspects of modern professional sports (technology, advanced playing surfaces, styling, advertising, etc…) Wimbledon has insisted, to the maximum extent possible, on keeping things as they have always been.

Wimbledon is famous for it's playing surface and strict dress code.
Wimbledon is famous for its playing surface and strict dress code.

The most unique aspect of Wimbledon is the playing surface: grass.  A century ago this wasn’t anything special as most tennis was played on grass (the game was originally called “lawn tennis” after all).  However, most tennis today is played on a hard court, or occasionally on clay.  In fact these days it’s pretty rare to come across a grass tennis court at all since they require so much work to maintain.

While the grass court is undeniably cool looking, it also has a major impact on the game itself.  Grass is the fastest surface on which tennis is played, which is mainly due to the low friction between the grass and the ball on impact.  This means that balls move faster and bounce lower than the players are used to.  Also the relatively irregular surface creates more variation and odd bounces, which are also difficult to address.  Those conditions tend to favor “all court” style players who can move quickly and hit a wide variety of shots from anywhere on the court, which in turn generally makes for exciting tennis.

Another uniquely Wimbledon feature is the dress code: all white.  Tennis players can wear whatever crazy colors they like during the rest of the year, but when they play at the All England Club, the choice is made for them.  While this may seem boring, the on-court effect is actually very cool, especially when set against the grass court backdrop.

It isn't unusual for the Royals to make an appearance.
It isn’t unusual for the Royals to make an appearance.

Beyond the court and the dress code, Wimbledon is packed with all sort of other minor nods to tradition.  You’ll see very little advertising on the court for example.  You’ll also usually see members of the Royal Family in attendance, especially in the later rounds of play.  The overall effect is a retro look back at the way tennis used to be enjoyed, but with modern competition among some of the best athletes ever to play the game (more on that to come).

The Score:

Tennis is a fairly complicated game, but thankfully the basics required to enjoy a match on TV (or if you’re lucky enough to go in person) are easy to get down.  First we’ll look at scoring.

A tennis match is decided by “best of” series of “sets”.  Sets are decided by “games” and games are decided by “points”.

In a major, women’s matches are decided on a best of three sets series and men’s matches are a best of five affair.   The sets themselves are generally decided by the first player to win 6 games.  However, there is a catch: you must win by 2 games.  This means that a set can’t end on a score of 6 to 5.  If that happens, another game is played.  If the player who had 6 wins, then he wins the set 7-5 (having won by two).  If the player who had 5 wins, then the score is tied 6-6 and one of two things can happen.

Final score of the Isner vs. Mahut match in 2010, which took 11 hours 5 minutes to complete.
Final score of the Isner vs. Mahut match in 2010, which took 11 hours 5 minutes to complete.

If it’s the final set of most Majors (Wimbledon included), then play will continue until one player has won by two games.  Sometimes this can go on for a very long time.  In fact the longest match ever played was at the 2010 Wimbledon Championship where John Isner won the final set 70-68!

However, most often the set will go to a tie breaker, where the first player to reach 7 points wins.  But like sets, a player has to win by at least two points.  This means that tie breakers can go on for a very long time as well, but since a winner is decided by 2 points (as opposed to 2 games) they’re generally much quicker.  The final score of a set decided by tiebreaker is recorded as 7-6.

Individual games are won by points.  Essentially the first player to win 4 points wins the game, but the scoring terminology is a bit odd.  Instead of 1,2,3… scoring is recorded as follows:

  • 0 Points = Love
  • 1st Point = 15
  • 2nd Point = 30
  • 3rd Point = 40
  • 4th Point = Game

So, for example, a game where a player has won 3 points, while his opponent hasn’t won any, would have a score of 40-Love.  If his opponent wins the next point, it’s 40-15.  And if he wins the next, that’s game.

Pretty easy, but keep in mind there’s that pesky “win by 2” rule to deal with.  In the case of a game, if the score reaches 40-40, it’s referred to as “deuce”.  The player who wins the next point then has the “advantage”.  If he wins the point after that, he wins the game (having won by 2).  If his opponent wins the next point, the score goes back to deuce (sometimes you’ll see the number of times deuce is reached appended, so in this case it’s deuce #2).  Play continues in that manner until one player wins the deuce and his advantage point.

The Play:

Once you understand the scoring, the play is actually pretty simple.  The players line up at opposite ends of the court.  One is the server and the other the receiver.  Once the server is ready, he’ll stand just behind the baseline (see diagram), toss the ball up, and hit it into play.  That first hit must travel over the net and land somewhere in the opposite court’s service box.  From that point on anything goes so long as the ball travels over the net, lands in bounds, and doesn’t bounce more than once before being hit.  The first player to violate those rules loses the point, at which point the ball goes back to the server and the process repeats.  A player serves for the entire duration of the game, but will switch sides (left and right) after each point.

Basic anatomy of a tennis court.

Once a game has concluded, the receiver becomes the server and vice-versa.  It’s generally considered an advantage to serve, which is why service alternates after each game.  After every odd numbered game (so at the end of games 1, 3, 5, 7, etc…) the players will switch ends of the court and get a little break.  Play continues in that manner until one player has won 6 (or 7) games to win the set, and ultimately 2 out of 3 (or 3 out of 5) sets to win the match.

The Lingo:

Tennis has some unique vocabulary, some of which you’ve already experienced just by reading this post.  Below is a quick sampling of some other common (and confusing) terms you’ll hear while watching a match:

  • Deuce Side: The right side of the tennis court. The first service in a game will always begin from this side.
  • Ad Side: The left side of the court.
  • Break: This is when the receiver (as opposed to the server) wins a game.  The final point is called a “break point”.  Breaking an opponent is usually considered a major advantage and will often decide a set.
  • Hold: The opposite of a break, this is when the server wins the game.  Since the server theoretically has the advantage, he is expected to win, or hold, the game.
  • Fault: Technically any ball that goes out of bounds, but generally used to describe an illegal serve, i.e. one that either stopped by the net or lands outside the opposite service box.  If this occurs on the first serve, the player gets another try.
  • Double Fault: Same thing as above, but the illegal serve occurs on the second attempt.  In this case the point is awarded to the opponent.
  • Let: A let occurs when a serve hits the net, but still continues over it.  If the ball lands legally in the service area, then it’s still the first serve.  If the ball hits the net and lands outside the service area, it’s a fault.  However a second serve that hits the net results in a do-over regardless of where it lands in the opponents court.
  • Out: Usually used to describe a ball in play that lands outside the playing area.  The player who hits a ball out loses the point.
  • Ground Stroke: Any shot that a player hits after it has bounced once.  Forehands and Backhands are the most typical ground strokes.
  • Volley: A shot that is hit out of mid air, before bouncing on the court.  These generally occur at or near the net.
  • Lob:  A high, arching shot that goes over the opponents head and usually lands deep in the court.  These are usually defensive shots that give the hitter time to get set up for the next shot, or back an opponent away from the net.
  • Drop Shot: A short shot that is placed as close to the net as possible.  This requires the opponent to quickly move forward and often results in a weak return, allowing for a…
  • Overhead:  Also known as a smash, results from an easily ball hit or bounced high into the air, typically near the net, that is returned with a powerful over-the-head swing.  Usually these shots are unreturnable and result in…
  • Winner: Any shot that decisively ends a point for the player hitting it, but generally a powerful or well placed shot that the opponent either can’t reach or has no chance of returning.
  • Error:  The opposite of a winner, it’s a shot that a player mis-hits into the net or out of play.  Unforced errors are points that the hitter gives away to his opponent via his own mistakes.
  • Spin: Refers to the spin or action put on a ball by a player.  Topspin results in balls that arch down rapidly toward the opponent’s court and kick up high after.  Backspin results from slice shots that bounce low and away from an opponent.  Side spin can be used to “kick” a ball left of right after impact.
  • Pace: Tennis speak for the speed of the ball.  A player that generates a lot of pace on his shots is hitting fast balls that are more difficult to return.

The Players:

While there are 128 men and 128 women all competing for the Singles Championship (plus many others in doubles, mixed doubles, juniors, etc…) there are really only a handful of players you’ll want to pay attention to.  That’s not to say you can’t enjoy every match, but at the end of the tournament, odds are that it will be one of the following four names will be talking about.

Federer defeated Andy Murray in last year's Championship to win his record setting 17th Grand Slam title.
Federer defeated Andy Murray in last year’s Championship to win his record setting 17th Grand Slam title.

Roger Federer: Federer is arguably the greatest tennis player in history.  He’s got more Grand Slam titles than any other play (17) and the grass courts of Wimbledon are his specialty.  He won the Championship from 2003-2007 straight and again in 2009.  Oh, and he’s also the defending champion having won the 2012 event as well.  All in all that’s a record tying 7 titles at Wimbledon, an achievement he shares with Pete Sampras.  A win this year to defend his title would give him the undisputed record and join Rafael Nadal as the only other player in history to win the same major 8 times.  Federer is an excellent all court player with a ton of shots and seemingly unlimited finesse.  The only problem is his age.  At 31 he’s far from his prime and professional tennis is a young man’s game.  Going five sets against a younger, fitter opponent might prove too much.  Still Federer is probably the odds on favorite to win.

Fred Perry was the last British player to win Wimbledon back in 1936
Fred Perry was the last British player to win Wimbledon back in 1936

Andy Murray:  Murray is a relative newcomer to the elite ranks of tennis and is still looking to prove himself and improve upon his lone Grand Slam title (the US Open last year).  However the real story with Murray is that he represents the best shot for a British player to win the Championship since 1936.  He came close last year, losing to Federer in four sets.  Despite the devastating defeat, he came back to beat Federer just a few months later in the gold medal final at the London Olympic games (hosted at Wimbledon), proving that he had what it takes to beat the best on the grass.  He followed up his gold medal with a US Open title last fall and a trip to the finals of the Australian Open this year.  He skipped the French Open and should be well rested and poised to give Britain perhaps it’s best chance in nearly 80 years to win one for the home team.

Nadal is the undisputed king of clay, but is he healthy enough to win a 3rd Championship?
Nadal is the undisputed king of clay, but is he healthy enough to win a 3rd Championship?

Rafael Nadal:  Federer may be the greatest player of all time, but Rafa has made a strong case for himself as the best player of the past 5 years.  His specialty is playing on clay, which is evidenced by his record setting 8 French Open titles, including his most recent earlier this month.  However Nadal’s skills go beyond the clay and he’s proven that he has what it takes to win just about anywhere.  He has achieved a career Grand Slam and has 12 major titles under his belt, including two wins at Wimbledon in 2008 and 2010 (beating Federer both times). If Nadal has a weakness, it has to be his health.  He spent most of the past year recovering from a knee injury and is still feeling his way back to the top.  That being said, he still managed to win the French Open convincingly, proving that even a recovering Nadal is better than most players at 100%.  Rafa has made it clear that he wants to limit his play on hard surfaces to preserve his knees, which means he’ll likely be trying extra hard to secure Grand Slam #13 on the last “soft” court major of the year.

Djokovic is the best player, but does he have what it takes for a repeat of 2011?
Djokovic is the best player, but does he have what it takes for a repeat of 2011?

Novak Djokovic:  Djokovic is probably the best all around tennis player today.  At 26 he’s still relatively young, yet he’s also already managed to rack up 6 Grand Slam wins, including the Wimbledon championship in 2011 (along with the Australian Open and the US Open that same year) and the Australian Open title earlier this year.  He narrowly missed the career grand slam this June in the French Open, losing a grueling 5 set semi-final match to Nadal, the eventual champion.  Like Federer he’s an all court player, which should work to his advantage on grass.  He’ll be a formidable opponent to whomever he faces and will probably be the favorite in every match he plays.  He is beatable, but only through exceptional play on the part of his opponent.  Anything less and he could very well find himself with another Championship this year.

Other Players to Watch:  Other players to watch include David Ferrer, who made (and lost) his first Grand Slam final against Nadal in the French Open this year.  Jo Wilfried Tsonga could also make trouble for the elite four, as could Juan Martin Del Porto.  John Isner represents the best (if not remote) chance for the Americans.  While most of the excitement will take place on the men’s side, Serena Williams is the one to watch for the women.  Defending her title from last year and fresh off a dominating performance in the French Open, the question is not so much whether anyone has what it takes to beat her, but if they can even make it a competitive match.

Next Steps:

There you have it, all you need to understand, watch, and enjoy the 2013 Championships at Wimbledon in style.  Not much else is required on your part but to dress smartly in white, get some strawberries and cream, and tune in June 24 to watch the action for yourself.

Oh, and one final note.  Nothing makes a better excuse to treat yourself to Brunch (and perhaps some Bloody Mary’s) than the Sunday final of a Grand Slam tournament, especially Wimbledon.  Enjoy!

Port

Port: the greatest, and WASP'iest, of all fortified wines.
Port: the greatest, and WASP’iest, of all fortified wines.

After a hiatus, I’m pleased to announce that the how to WASP is back!  And to celebrate its return to the blogging world, I’ve decided to highlight one of my all-time favorite WASP’y indulgences: Port.  Now that I think of it, Champagne would have probably been a better celebratory choice… but that will have to come later.  So for now, Port!

No, we’re not talking about the seaside variety (although confusion could be understandable given the focus of this blog), but rather the undisputed king of all fortified wines.  When it comes to dining like a WASP, there is perhaps no better way to finish off a fine meal that a good glass of Port.  However, the subject can be surprisingly complicated, so it’s important that you know the basics before you can order, and most importantly enjoy, that tote of Cockburn (see Next Steps below) with confidence and pride.

What Exactly is Port?

Excellent question!  And to provide and answer, it is necessary to take a brief trip back in time.  Port, like most things WASP’y, is a product of the British and a dislike of the French.

As most students of history will know, England spent a good portion of the last millennium fighting the French.  However, by the 17th Century they ran into a problem.  The Brits had developed a taste for Continental wine, but thanks to their most recent war with the French, they suddenly found themselves cut off.  Their solution: simply get wine from Portugal (one of their few wine producing allies on the Continent) instead.

A pretty slick solution, but another problem quickly became evident; Portuguese wine proved to be much less stable than its French counterpart   As a result, the Portuguese wine would spoil during the extended sea voyages back to England.  Fortunately for all of us, the classic sense of British stick-to-itiveness prevailed.  They discovered that by adding a small amount of brandy (a process known as fortification) to the finished wine, it could be made stable to endure the long trip back to England and the wine we know as Port today was born.

A Port Primer

Now, you may be thinking “So that’s why it’s called Port, it’s from Portugal!” but you’d be wrong.

The namesake of Port is actually the city of Oporto, located on the Atlantic at the mouth of the Douro River.  This city is where the English set up their first Port Houses to distribute the newly invented wine and where they have remained ever since.  In fact the world’s first Port producer, Warre (established in 1670) is still operation there today!

The Douro Valley, one of the most scenic wine regions on Earth and where Port is born.
The Douro Valley, one of the most scenic wine regions on Earth and where Port is born.

So Port wine comes from Oporto, which makes perfect sense, but it gets a little more complicated.  While Port is distributed from Oporto, the wine is actually produced about 50 miles up the Douro River in the hot and ruggedly mountainous Douro Valley.  This is where the grapes are grown and the wine is fermented.  It’s then packed into barrels and sent down the river to Oporto, where it’s fortified, aged, bottled, and eventually shipped to Port lovers all over the world.

Styles of Port:

Port has two constants: It’s always sweet, and (almost) always red.  Beyond that, however, the varieties and styles of Port are nearly endless.

Part of that variety is thanks to the sheer number of grapes that are permitted in Port.  In most blended wines, you’ll see 3-4 grape varietals, tops.  In Port there are more than 80!  Although in practice the most common types used are Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, and Tinta Barroca.

While the grapes certainly play a role in nature of a Port, it’s really the style of wine that determines its ultimate character (and price).  While there aren’t quite as many styles as grape varieties, there is still a lot to know, so pay attention!  Below are some of the most common Port styles, listed from lightest to fullest.

  • White Port:  White Port is just that, Port made from white grapes.  It’s not very popular and much more difficult to find that the red variety.  It’s also generally known to be not anywhere near as good.  I confess that I’ve never tried it myself, but I’ve heard that it’s best use is when served ice cold as a summer aperitif.  Not really in the same league as red Port, but I included it here for the sake of knowledge.  
  • Ruby Port: The youngest and simplest version of Port.  Just like the name implies, its typically deep red in color.  It’s also fruity, sweet, and easy drinking.  The wine itself is aged about 3 years in wood and is ready to drink as soon as it’s released.  In fact the younger it is, the better it will taste.  Ruby Port is also the cheapest Port available and often a great introduction to the wine.
  • Tawny Port:  By far the most popular and common type of Port you’ll encounter in an after dinner setting.  Tawny Port is generally a blend of good quality wines that have spent a long time aging in oak barrels.  While in the wood, the wine softens and turns to a pale garnet or brownish color (it tawnies, hence the name).  One point of
    Tawney Port is the most common style available.  Note the 20 year marking on the bottle, indicating the average aging of the wine in the blend.
    Tawney Port is the most common style available. Note the 20 year marking on the bottle, indicating the average aging of the wine in the blend.

    confusion is the age marked on the bottle, typically 10, 20, 30, or 40 year old.  This is NOT the age of the wine in the bottle, but rather the AVERAGE time the wines used in the blend have spend aging in barrels.  Tawny Port is generally less sweet and fruity than Ruby Port and offers more complex earthy/nutty flavors.  It varies wildly in quality and price, from less than $10 to well over $100.  Tawny Port is ready to drink upon release and won’t get better with age.

  • Colheita Port:  A sub-variety of Tawny Port where the blended wines are all from a single vintage, usually listed on the bottle.  In other words the wines from a single year are placed in wooden barrels and aged (tawnied) for many years before being bottled.  It’s generally better quality than regular Tawny, but not very common.
  • Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port:  This Port is made from a single, generally lesser quality, vintage year.  The wine is fermented and then aged in wooden barrels for anywhere from 4-6 years before being bottled.  The result is a darker, less soft, and much fuller style Port than the Tawny.  LBV Port is marked with the vintage data and ready to drink as soon as it’s released.  It’s fairly easy to find and you can expect to pay $20-30 for a half bottle, making it a fairly good value.
  • Vintage Port:  The crème de la crème of Ports.  Vintage Port is only made during the very best years and from the very best grapes.  It is aged for a scant two years in oak
    Some older bottle of Vintage Port.  Amazingly these are still drinkable and probably quite good.
    Some older bottle of Vintage Port. Amazingly these are still drinkable and probably quite good.

    barrels before it’s bottled and sold, which is not nearly enough time for the wine to soften or fully develop.  As a result, Vintage Port requires an enormous amount aging in the bottle before it’s ready to drink, typically around 20 years after the vintage, but sometimes even longer (70+ years) depending on the year!  However, the wait is worth it.  Vintage Port is not only one of the best dessert wines in the world, it’s one of the best wines period.  It’s extremely full bodied, rich, and chock full of flavors such as nuts, toffee, chocolate, and spice.  Recent release bottles of Vintage Port are fairly easy to find, but are expensive at $50-$100 a bottle.  For properly aged (and ready to drink bottles) expect to pay around $100 or more, sometimes much more…

Enjoying Your Port

OK, enough with the academic stuff, now it’s time to for the fun part: drinking Port.

As was mentioned earlier in the post, the good WASP will enjoy a glass of Port as an after dinner drink, which means you should too.  Because Port is a sweet wine, it’s the perfect compliment to dessert.

Truth be told, nothing goes better with a good glass of Port than a simple hunk of dark chocolate, but in general the rule is that Port will pair beautifully with any dark colored dessert.  In other words if chocolate or dark berries are listed in the ingredients, you’re good to go.  What if you’re having a light colored dessert?  Sorry, you’ll just have to wait for the post on Sauternes…

Proper Decanting is necessary to aerate and remove sediment from Vintage Port.
Proper Decanting is necessary to aerate and remove sediment from a Vintage Port.

Of course Port can also be enjoyed without dessert on its own.  Or for a truly classic paring, try a glass with walnuts, or any strongly flavored cheese (Bleu cheese is best).

If you’re serving Port at home (or just want to impress your friends/annoy your waiter) it should be served at cool room temperature, or roughly 65 degrees.  Most Ports can simply be poured and enjoyed, but properly aged Vintage Ports (don’t even think about serving otherwise) requires several hours of decanting to remove sediment and allow the wine to properly aerate.  It may seem like a lot of work, but just do it, otherwise you’ll have wasted that $100 investment and worse yet, cast yourself as a WASP noob in front of all your friends.

Port-ing Thoughts

Port really is a wonderful wine and, unlike most things WASP’y, actually represents a phenomenal value.  Port’s popularity has waned in recent years, which is bad for Port producers, but great for you as a consumer since low demand = low prices.  Good quality Ruby and Tawny Ports can easily be had for less than $20.  Even an expensive Port (like a $100+ bottle of Vintage Port) is a great deal considering a comparable quality dry red wine will cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

Another value consideration is that unlike normal wines (that will start to turn bad a mere day or two after uncorking) Port will stay good for weeks, or even months, after opening.   The reason of course is the fortification (adding brandy to wine to preserve it) that makes Port so special in the first place.  After all, if it could survive weeks in the cargo hold of a ship, a couple days on your shelf is nothing.

Oh, and one last parting word of warning…  Because Port is a fortified wine, it will typically have an alcohol content that is far higher than normal table wine, usually anywhere from 15-25%.  In other words, watch out!    Generally speaking, a serving of Port is about half that of a normal glass of wine, so pour and enjoy accordingly.  Cheers!

Next Steps:

  • The first step is obvious: Go out, buy some Port, and drink it! I recommend starting with a bottle of Ruby Port and working your way up from there.  The beauty of Port is that it’s usually available in half bottles and cheap enough to try a bunch of different brands and styles without breaking the bank.  And if it’s something you don’t care for, just pour it out or cork it up for a couple weeks till you can offer it to someone who does.
  • Real Port only comes from Portugal, but that hasn’t stopped others from imitating the
    Renwood, out of Amador, CA, makes an exceptional Zinfandel based Vintage Port.
    Renwood in Amador, CA makes an exceptional Zinfandel based Vintage Port.

    style.  Many wine producers (particularly in the US) make at least one port-style wine, often with very good results.  Typically these wines are made with local varieties (Zinfandel makes particularly good Port wine) and will be sold as Ruby or sometimes LBV style Port.  You’ll rarely see Tawney or Vintage offerings.  Some makers can call their wines Ports (via grandfathered rights, otherwise Port is trademarked and can only be used for real Port) but most will not.  You can identify them by their smaller bottles, alcohol content (around 20%), and usually find them along with the other fortified wines at the wine shop.

  • Most high end restaurants will include Port (almost always Tawney, but sometimes Ruby’s or Vintage as well) on the dessert menu, which you should absolutely try.  A popular offering is from a producer called Cockburn.  This is a wonderful choice, but you can save yourself some embarrassment by using the correct pronunciation: COH-burn.  Enjoy!