Written by Chris Benjamin, director of food and beverage at the Essex Resort and Spa.

Port’s history is a bit subjective, but here’s my understanding. Port has been made for centuries in the Duoro Valley of Portugal, and we have the trade wars in the 1700s between France and England to thank for its introduction to the world. Because of the conflicts, French wine was hard to get in England, so they began sourcing from Portugal. Because most of the wine spoiled on the way over, brandy was added to the barrels before departure, creating a very stiff glass of wine commonly referred to as “blackstrap.”

A minor nobleman sent his son to Portugal to source some of this wine, and legend has it that this son happened upon a winemaker who was adding the brandy (technically called aguardente, which is a neutral spirit made from grapes) during the fermentation process. By doing this, it stopped the fermentation cycle, leaving increased levels of sugar behind yet still enhancing the alcohol levels. Modern day port was born.

While hundreds of grape varieties are blessed by the government to create port, only five are commonly used: tinta barroca, tinta cao, tinta roriz, touriga francesa, and touriga nacional. These grapes are blended and harvested on the dangerous shale slopes of the Douro Valley (one of the most hazardous areas to harvest grapes in the world; several fatal falls are recorded each year).

When buying port, here are some of the rankings you should consider and know:

Ruby Port: The most inexpensive and most mass produced, the wine is stored in cement tanks to keep from oxidizing until it’s blended to match its makers desired flavor. This is a good way to start getting into port.

Tawny Port: Seeing a minimum of seven years in wood and going through the Solera process of aging, tawny ports are the next step up. Slightly nutty from the exposure to wood and lighter brown in color, the tawnys are the beginning of something very special. They are great as dessert wines and pair well with chocolate.

Colheita: George Bergin, my friend from Winooski Beverage, educated me on this one, a tawny port made from a single vintage. Instead of being aged for seven years, these are typically aged in barrels for over 15 years, in some cases 20, and then bottled.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV): This is port that was destined to be a vintage one — but it sat in the barrels for too long, either by accident or on purpose. LBV is a wonderful way to work into a vintage style port.

Vintage Port: This is the most expensive of the styles on average. All the grapes are harvested from the specific year, and these see about 18 months of wood aging before they go into the bottle. These ports are just like wine vintages — they each vary with each year and not every year is a declared vintage year for port. It is only when the best quality grape has been achieved.

White Port: Very rare and made from white grapes, if you find one, buy it. You won’t be disappointed.

Port flavors are as diverse as the hundreds of grape varietals they are made from, but each one is distinct and beautiful. Port is one of the few things that I’ve found pairs well with chocolate, and they make a wonderful digestif.

The state of Vermont’s Department of Liquor Control has a fairly solid selection available. An even better kept secret is the little store of vintage ports that are holed up in the Winooski Beverage Warehouse. George tells me he has several old vintages from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and one from 1937. While they aren’t super cheap (the 1937 goes for over five Franklins), there are some pretty reasonable prices there.

We keep a fairly generous selection at The Essex Resort and Spa, so swing by to try a taste the next time you’re in the area. A word to the wise: Never get intoxicated on port. The residual sugar and strong alcohol is a sure recipe for a disastrous morning. But try some port on your next occasion, and enjoy one of life’s greatest treasures.

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