The Whisky Lover’s Guide to Port

On the surface, port seems to have little in common with whisky. The former is made from fermented grapes and is notably sweet, while the latter is distilled from grain and sports more than twice as much alcohol. However, as a red wine fortified with distilled spirit, port pairs well with many of whisky’s flavorful kindred companions—cigars, cheese, and red meat, for instance.

With its legendary power and flavor intensity, port makes a wonderful diversion, certain to please both the wine and the spirits lovers gathered around your holiday table.

Made from a handful of indigenous red grape varieties in Portugal’s Douro River valley, port can be classed into two broad groups: ruby and tawny. Ruby ports are aged briefly in large casks before moving to the bottle. While whisky evolves only in the cask and is considered ready to drink on release, ruby ports leave additional aging to the imbiber, as the wines evolve and ideally improve with added years in the bottle. Tawny ports spend their entire aging period in cask and, much like whisky, they are considered ready to drink when they are finally bottled—10, 20, 30 years or more down the line.

At the pinnacle of the ruby port family is vintage port. Vintage ports are rich and muscular in texture and defined by flavors of fruitcake, licorice, bramble, and cobbler. Port producers typically declare a vintage year only when quality across the region is high, occurring on average three years out of every ten. Fortune smiled on the Douro in 2014 and ’15, with back-to-back vintages. However, the vintages are different in style, affording an opportunity to get a taste of the pleasures and breadth of vintage port.

Starting with 2014, a year marked by slightly cooler and wetter weather, the wines are lighter-bodied and provide pleasure now, but will also benefit from 15 to 25 years of aging. Try the Churchill Vintage Port 2014 (90 points Wine Spectator, $47/375 ml). It’s juicy and lively, with plum, anise, and açaí berry flavors backed by a bramble and mint-edged finish. Available only in 375 ml or magnum format, the half bottle provides the perfect trial size. The Quinta do Infantado Vintage Port 2014 (92 points Wine Spectator, $64) shows a high pitch to its mix of red currant, pomegranate, and blackberry fruit, laced with a light menthol hint. Both wines show the readily accessible profile of the vintage. Curious about how they might evolve over time? Pouring vintage port into a decanter and then tasting how it changes over a few days will offer some insight.

Thanks to warmer and drier weather, the 2015 vintage is one of considerably more depth, structure, and ripeness. A number of houses made exceptional wines, including Graham, Quinta do Noval, Quinta do Vallado, Quinta do Crasto, and Fonseca. While the ’15s are built for longer cellaring than the ’14s, it’s still okay to sample the wines now—best in a decanter over a few days—before deciding whether to tuck a few bottles away for the coming decades.

Vintage Port Picks

James Molesworth offers reviews and tasting notes on a sampling of 2014 and 2015 vintage ports. Scores from our sister publication, Wine Spectator.

2014 Vintage
Lighter-bodied wines provide pleasure now, but will also benefit from 15 to 25 years in the bottle.

Cockburn Vintage Port Quinta dos Canais—$55, 91 points
A core of plum, blueberry, and blackberry coulis flavors, with an anise and fruitcake-filled finish. High-pitched and elegant. (2,500 cases made)

Quinta do Crasto Vintage Port—$70, 91 points
Solidly built, with a muscular core of plum paste, warm blackberry confiture, and Licorice Snap notes. Plush, with good length and drive. (700 cases made)

Churchill’s Vintage Port—$47/375 ml., 90 points
A lively core of plum, anise, and açaí berry flavors keeps the energy up through the bramble and mint-edged finish. (160 cases imported)

2015 Vintage
Wines of depth, structure, and ripeness that will go the distance for decades.

Graham’s Vintage Port The Stone Terraces—$210, 96 points
Gorgeous and seductive, with warm plum sauce and blueberry reduction. Light milk chocolate and black licorice notes on the finish. (400 cases made)

Quinta do Noval Vintage Port—$110, 95 points
Polished, with long, caressing, fine-grained structure. Plum eau de vie, boysenberry puree, and blackberry cobbler notes. Rock ’em, sock ’em port. (2,600 cases made)

Fonseca Vintage Port Guimaraens—$58, 93 points
Warm, lush, and really well-built, with layers of blueberry, açaí berry, and plum reduction flavors. Graphite-edged grip lines the finish. (4,500 cases made)