There you are, sitting across from that special someone, celebrating the end of another successful year and all the possibilities a new year offers. You’ve just dined on a sublime feast, but you’ve made sure to save some room for the sweet finale. How about a medley of cheeses accompanied with port wine, that heady, romantic dessert wine? If you are wincing, thinking that port is too sweet, think again. In Europe, a dessert course of port with cheeses is classic. Port is available in several varieties, ranging from the delicate white, low in acidity and typically served chilled or mixed with tonic water to the aged tawny, concentrated and rich, with notes of walnut, coffee, chocolate and caramel, with much variety between.
“Ports pair well with almost any cheese. The sweetness of port balances the saltiness of cheese to produce a fantastic bite,” says Rich Rogers, American Cheese Society — certified cheese professional and cheesemonger/proprietor of Scardello Artisan Cheese in Dallas.
“Even so, there are specific cheeses that work perfectly with certain ports. Tawny ports are spectacular with hard sheep’s milk cheeses. The slight gamey and complex notes in Ossau-Iraty, Pecorino Ginepro or even an aged Manchego dovetail with the toasty nuttiness of tawny port. Ruby port has a strong affinity to blue cheeses. The classic pairing is Stilton, but most any blue is a knockout pairing with the sweet fruitiness of a ruby port. The port balances the salty and peppery flavors of blue cheese, elevating both the beverage and the cheese. As for other paired foods, walnuts are a classic, but any nuts work well with port. As for crackers, anything with cracked pepper is fun!”
All port wine is richer, sweeter, heavier and higher in alcohol content than unfortified wines. This is because distilled grape spirits are added to fortify the wine and halt fermentation before all the sugar is converted to alcohol, resulting in a wine that is usually a hefty 19 to 20 percent alcohol.
Port became popular in England in the 17th century, when British wine merchants found that the fortified port preserved much better than other wines on the long voyages home. The traditional boats used to transport the casks of port wine, “barcos rabelos,” are still seen on the Douro River to this day — charming and colorful. Porto, where port originated, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of narrow cobblestones, historic buildings and delightful sidewalk cafes and flower-filled window boxes. Tourists and locals alike throng the 58 wine companies that have their aging cellars along the riverbanks.
Portugal is the world’s oldest demarcated wine region. The Douro D.O.C. spreads over impossibly steep terraced vineyards on both sides of the snaking Douro River, east of Porto and stretching to the border with Spain and beyond. In this warm, continental climate on the Iberian Peninsula, wine has been produced since the Roman Age. In fact, the appellation system of this region was founded almost 200 years before that of France, to protect its superior wines, indicating specific vineyards. These wines, such as Port, Vinhos Verdes and Alentejo, are labeled D.O.C. (protected designation of origin).
In the past 40 years or so, the regional industry has boomed, with acclaimed wines forming a Portuguese “wine renaissance” of sorts. Portugal’s most famous and popular export is port wine, and the grapes that produce it are grown in a 62-mile stretch of the Douro River Valley. Some of the most famous port makers are Graham, Cockburn, Taylor and Churchill, to name a few.
Are your taste buds tempted? Scardello Artisan Cheese will provide customers with a made-to-order port-cheese pairing plate, preferably with a day’s notice. The cut-to-order shop, in its 10th year, features some 150 handcrafted Texas, American and European cheeses. (3511 Oak Lawn Ave., Dallas, 214-219-1300, www.scardellocheese.com.)
Note that unopened port should be stored in a cool — not cold — dark location at a steady temperature, on its side if corked. Unfiltered ports, such as vintage ports, can form a sediment or crust in the bottle and may require decanting to allow it to breathe.
Opened port is best consumed within a short period — which should not be a problem! And maybe, just maybe, you’ll end up taking a romantic trip to Portugal this year — exploring the home of port. Saûde!
Types of port wine
- White port: made from white grapes. Pair with Gruyere.
- Reserve ruby port: pair with blue cheese.
- Vintage port: made from the best grapes of a single vintage. Pair with Roquefort or Gorgonzola.
- LBV (late bottled vintage) port: vintage port that’s held in barrel longer. Pair with Queijo da Serra cheese.
- Aged tawny port: pair with hard sheep’s milk cheeses.