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!
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The Single-Malt Scotch

Few things scream WASP like a glass of good single-malt scotch.

In the pantheon of WASP culture, few treasures are as coveted and revered as a bottle of good Single Malt Scotch Whiskey.   Scotch has always enjoyed a certain amount of mystique.  It’s the drink that everyone knows, few dare to try, and fewer still know anything about.  It’s also possibly the strongest (both literally and figuratively) “statement” drink out there today, in that scotch has the ability to project that WASP’y image like no other.  Don’t believe me?  Order a glass of next time you’re out to dinner with friends and see what happens for yourself.

But wait, not so fast!  There are a few things you should know before hitting the bar.  Like most things WASP’y, scotch can be a somewhat complicated and confusing subject.  It’s also important to concede right off the bat that scotch does has a few things going against it.

First, scotch is definitely an acquired taste.  This is probably the single largest barrier for the average scotch virgin.  They get a glass, smell it, have a sip, grimace, and immediately go back to their boring old vodka cocktail.  However, I believe the common mistake most first timers (myself included) make is that they try cheap scotch.  This makes sense as the vast majority of scotch out there is the cheap, comes in a plastic bottle, variety.  Bluntly put, it tastes like crap.  When you’re ready to give scotch a serious try, spend a little extra money, you’ll be glad you did.  Even good quality scotch  is still an acquired taste, but you’ll find it’s much easier to acquire than the cheap stuff.  Which brings us to the second issue…

This bottle of Macallan 60 year old scotch costs as much as a midsize family sedan.

It’s expensive – or rather, it can be expensive.  In reality scotch prices run the gamut from less than $10 to more than $10,000 a bottle and, like most things in life, you get what you pay for.   In other words, you’ll want to avoid the really cheap stuff.  A typical “good” bottle of Scotch will usually range anywhere from $30 – $100 depending on the age and producer.  While that’s not inexpensive, it’s not outrageous either considering the amount of time and effort that went into creating it and that contents won’t go bad after opening (like wine).  What makes a good scotch? Well, keep reading and find out!

A Primer on Scotch Whiskey:

No one knows for sure when the Scots first started making whiskey, but it is known that the ancient Celts produced distilled spirits, which eventually evolved into the scotch whiskey we know today.  The first recorded example of distillation in Scotland is attributed to Christian monks during the 11th Century A.D.  However, scotch whiskey didn’t hit the big time until the 19th Century.  It was then that reductions in whiskey taxes, the advent of new distillation technology, and the outbreak of the phylloxera epidemic (which destroyed European wine production)  combined to push scotch to the forefront of the British drinking scene.  It’s remained a favorite and a classic ever since.

Many modern day distilleries have been operating since the 19th Century.

Scotch whiskey is essentially like every other whiskey in the world, in that it’s a spirit distilled from cereal grains, and subsequently mellowed through aging in wood casks.  What makes scotch unique is the type of grain used (barley), the manufacturing process, and of course the fact that it can only be made only in Scotland.

Today scotch falls into one of two major categories:  Blended and Single Malt.

Blended Scotch Whiskey: The vast majority (more than 90%) of scotch available in the US today falls into this category.  Essentially blended scotch is exactly what it sounds like, a product that’s created by blending various other whiskeys (sometimes as many as 50 or more) together.  The idea is to create a softer style of whiskey that appeals to a wide audience.  Similar to the great Champagne houses of France, each blended scotch producer of  has a certain “house style” that they’re known for.

One of the primary differences between a single malt scotch and a blended scotch in terms of quality (and cost) is that in addition to pure malt whiskey, the latter may incorporate cheaper grain whiskey (mass produced from corn) into the blend.  In fact the typical ratio for blended scotch consists of 60% grain to only 40% malt.   The higher the proportion of malt whiskey in the blend, the higher quality (and more expensive) a given scotch will be.

Johnnie Walker is one of the most famous brands of blended scotch. The Black Label version is aged 12 years and comparable to a quality single malt.

Another determination of quality is the age of the blend.  Normally most whiskeys used in the blend are aged about 5 years.   However, some higher quality blended scotches will use whiskeys that have been aged longer, sometimes much longer.  For example, if you see a bottle of blended scotch labeled as 12 year, that tells you that every whiskey in the blend (both grain and malt) has been aged for at least 12 years.

One common misconception when it comes to blended Scotch is that they’re inferior to single malts.  While that’s often true, remember that a high quality blended scotch can actually be much better than a cheap single malt.

Single Malt Scotch Whiskey:  Now we’re getting into the real WASP territory.  No other drink conjures images of the WASP lifestyle like a glass of fine single malt scotch.  But what’s all the fuss about?  Well, lets find out!

As we just learned, blended scotch typically only contains about 40% actual malt whiskey, with the remainder of the blend being cheaper, mass produced grain whiskey.  Single malt scotch on the other hand is 100% malt whiskey.  In fact to be considered a single malt, a scotch must be:

    • The product of a single distillery
    • Made exclusively from barely malt
    • Made in Scotland

The actual process of making malt whiskey is both expensive and labor intensive.  It begins with the grain (in this case specially selected barely), which is subsequently malted.  Malting means that the barely has been soaked in water to the point of germination, or when it’s just beginning to  sprout.

The malted barely is then dried in kilns fired by peat and coal.  The use of peat during the drying process is one of the unique aspects of Scotch whiskey and it imparts a distinctive smokey flavor and aroma to the finished product.  Next, the dried malted barely is mixed into warm water to create a mash and yeast is added to begin the fermentation process.

Peat is harvested from bogs and was traditionally used as a source of fuel. Today it’s burned in kilns to dry out the malted barley, which helps give scotch whiskey its unique flavor.

After fermentation is complete, the mash is distilled and finally pumped into wooden casks for aging.   After 3 years, you’ve got yourself a single malt scotch whiskey.  In the end each batch of whiskey is a unique product of its maker and environment, with a distinct style all its own.  No two distilleries will ever produce the same single malt and that’s part of the mystique and allure of the spirit.   

Like their blended cousins, higher quality single malts are often aged longer than the 3 year required by law.  As the whiskey ages in the barrel, its tastes and aromas evolve.  The whiskey also becomes more mellow and smoother with time.  Usually you’ll see scotch sold as 10, 12, 16, or 18 year old, with the price increasing accordingly.  It’s also possible to find even older examples such as 20, 30, or even 60 year old single malt, although they’ll cost as much as a car payment, or sometimes even the entire car!

Enjoying a Nip:

OK, now that you know what makes a single malt scotch special, it’s time to head out and try some for yourself.  Once you’re at the liquor store, you’ll probably be bombarded with a number of options.  As we learned, each distillery makes its own unique style of scotch and unless you’re familiar with that brand, you’ll never know exactly what to expect.  There are however some general geographic guidelines that can help.  scotch production is divided into three major areas, with each focusing on a general style of whiskey.  They are:

    • The Highlands:  Basically all of northern Scotland, this is the largest production region.  Most of the distilleries are located in a sub-region called Speyside (for its proximity to the Spey river).  General characteristics of highland single malts are rich flavors, smokiness, and a touch of sweetness.  Think of them as medium body whiskeys.
    • The Lowlands:  Mainly known for the grain whiskey distilleries used in blended scotch, but there are a few single malt distilleries here as well.  They’re known for a much lighter style scotch, both in terms of flavor and color.  They sometimes have a sweet scent and fruity characteristics.  Think of them as light bodied whiskeys.
    • Islay: The smallest of all Scotch regions, Islay is an island off the western coast of Scotland.  It’s known for its heavily, full bodied style whiskeys.  They often have an intense peaty flavor and seaweed or brine-like aromas.
Map of Scotland showing the three primary whiskey regions.

Once you’ve decided on a style and got a bottle picked out, it’s time to drink.  This may seem like the easy part, but be warned that some people take their scotch very seriously and drinking it the wrong way can be a major faux pas.

In this case the “wrong” way refers not to the physical act of drinking, but rather to how the drink is prepared.   When it comes to scotch, there are really only a few acceptable preparations:

    • With a cocktail mixer – Such as cola
    • With Water – Still or Soda, as preferred
    • On the Rocks – Served over ice
    • Neat – Nothing but the Scotch, served at room temperature

The general rule is that the better (more expensive) the scotch, the less acceptable it is to alter the flavor with additional ingredients.  So, for example, while it’s perfectly OK to add a splash of Coke to a cheap blended scotch, you might get punched in the face for doing the same to a fine 30 year old single malt.  For some, the only acceptable preparation for really good scotch is neat, but you can generally get away with “on the rocks” in most situations.  Save the water and other mixers for blended whiskeys.

Neat typically means at room temp. But for those who want a little chill without diluting their whiskey, scotch rocks are available. Cool them in your freezer and use in place of ice.

Some people take their tasting very seriously, but for the beginner there are just a few characteristics you should be looking for.  First is whether there are any obvious fruity or citrus characteristics which are products of the malted barely.  A lot of the flavor will come from the barrel aging, which can contribute flavors such as vanilla, coffee, toffee, spice, or caramel.  There will also probably be a peaty or smokey flavor from the kiln drying process.  Finally, some aged scotches can take on tropical flavors such as coconut or banana.

Armed with the above knowledge you’ve got everything you need to buy, drink, and hopefully appreciate scotch like a pro.  And to that last point, one final word of warning; Scotch is definitely NOT something you want drink to get drunk.  Don’t be mistaken, it’ll do the job and then some, but you’ll likely experience one of the worst hangovers of your life.  Just remember that Scotch, like all things WASP’y, is best when kept classy.  Enjoy!

Next Steps:

  • Head out and try some scotch for yourself.  Be sure to spend a little extra and buy something worth trying, or you’ll surely be disappointed.  A 12 year old single malt from a major distiller (Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Macallen) is a good compromise between quality and price.
  • Remember that scotch is an acquired taste that might take some getting used to.  One way to ease yourself into it is by mixing in some water to dilute the taste.  If you’re drinking a single malt, pour it over the rocks.  For blended whiskey, I enjoy a splash of soda water thrown in as well.
  • You may think of scotch as the quintessential man’s drink, and it is (Remember it was Bill Brasky’s spirit of choice)!  However, most men will admit there’s something undeniably appealing about a girl who can appreciate a glass of good single malt.  For ladies, knowing the basics of scotch can help make a powerful and lasting impression among the right company.