School has started, and it’s back to the hustle and bustle of life. Before we realize, the holidays will be upon us. We need time to ourselves; time to slow down and relax. With all the stresses in life, one must have an outlet for the purpose of keeping our sanity. My elixir of sanity happens to be Port.

It all started when my wife was in her third trimester of pregnancy, some years back. It was in the middle of winter, and I seem to recall frost on the ground. Even having the heat off and I’m certain the windows open, she was still hot. I stayed huddled in a small corner of the bed trying to keep warm and wondering exactly how many pillows we need on the bed. Between the near Baltic conditions, my wife’s constant repositioning and the snoring, it was a miracle I made it through the winter. That “miracle” was named Port, and we’ve been close ever since.

Port is named after Oporto a city across the bay from Vila Nova de Gaia in Portugal, where the Port wines were aged, bottled and exported. The market discovery for Port was during the reign of King William III of England. With the levy of high taxes on French imports, his subjects would need to look elsewhere to quench their thirst for wine. They turned to their trading partner, Portugal.

Initially the wine exported from Portugal was harsh and did not travel well on ocean voyages. Looking for an alternative, and following a lead, two English importers traveled to the Lamego Monastery. There they discovered the monks adding grape spirit to wines and storing them outside in the sun. This addition of spirit (fortification) made the wines more stable and gave them the ability to travel long distances without detriment. Port wine was an instant success in England and has integrated itself as part of their heritage and traditions.

Port is a particular style of wine called a fortified wine. These wines have a high alcohol grape spirit added during the fermentation process and killing the yeast. Since the yeast has not converted all the sugars in the grape to alcohol, the wine remains “naturally” sweet. The addition of alcohol causes the final product to be around 20 percent by volume.

There are many different fortified wines throughout the world but only the fortified wines from Portugal are allowed, by EU law, to carry the name “port.” It is the “styles” of Port wine that differ greatly and this is determined by how it is aged.

The two main styles of Port are those aged with some exposure to oxygen and those deprived of oxygen exposure. The tawny ports are those aged with oxygen exposure causing the dark red color to turn a tawny brown, thus the name. With age, these wines develop fruitcake, baking spice and nutty aromas. Tawny ports come in differing ages, some noted on the label. I tend not to buy tawny without age designation because some of this entry level tawny Port is nothing more than white Port and ruby Port blended together; a blasphemous practice that should have been outlawed years ago.

Ruby ports are wines that are protected from oxygen to ensure the primary characteristics of the grape remain. These wines have that dark ruby-garnet color with aromas of baked raspberry and strawberry, vanilla and floral characteristics. These ruby ports, like the tawny, have different age designations. Although most are a blend of different years, vintage port is made from just one special year. These wines occur about three times in a decade and have the ability to age, and improve, in bottle for almost as long as the shelf life of a Twinkie. Many people say buy one around when your child is born and let them drink it when they retire.

One drawback of Port wine, and the only one I can think of, is their expiration time once opened. Since tawny has some oxygenation during aging, they can survive longer once opened, a month or two. The ruby ports are good for, at most, a month after opening. The real tragedy is degradation of vintage ports. Depending on their time spent in bottle, they can go from amazing to dull in the matter of eight hours. Plan accordingly and if need be, invite friends to share in your fortified bounty. After all, it is better to share than to waste.

So, if you are looking for a drink on a cool evening, a ridiculously good pairing with a chocolate dessert or a way to survive your wife’s pregnancy, then Port wine is your drink.

Dennis Fraley is a local nurse anesthetist who moonlights as a wine educator and consultant. For more information about his services and upcoming classes, visit www.winewired.com or contact him at dennis@winewired.com.

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