Rich, luscious, and indulgent; port is the quintessential wine for sitting by the fireplace on a snowy winter’s day. It’s also the perfect pairing for the holiday season in Michigan.
Ports, which are fortified with neutral grape spirits or brandy amid fermentation, offer a high alcohol kick while preserving sweetness. Port is fit for pairing or as dessert all on its own. The wine should be as sweet or sweeter than the dessert, or the combination will “taste a lot less meaningful,” says Mick Descamps, advanced sommelier and wine director at The Red Wagon Shoppe in Rochester.
Though true port comes only from Portugal, port-inspired wines are available from elsewhere for fortified fans exploring alternate options. Close to home, various Michigan producers have port-style offerings. Examples include 840 from Sandhill Crane Vineyards in Jackson, Mirage from White Pine Winery in St. Joseph, and Catherman’s Port from St. Julian Winery in Troy.
“I do sell a bit of port, but it is still quite niche,” says Descamps who has hopes to expose younger generations to the style and amend the misconception that port is simply an after-dinner indulgence. His first step for persuasion: education.
Ruby ports, exuding the jewel-tone color true to their name, maintain a fruit character: black raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, and fig. Basic ruby ports are widely produced, easiest to find, and consistent year to year. “These wines tend to be more supple, more fruit-driven, and not as tannic,” Descamps says. “So, they tend to be friendlier.” Late-bottled vintage rubies — barrel-aged for four to six years and filtered to remove sediment — exhibit far higher quality and more depth.
Taking it up a notch is single quinta port, focused on fruit from a specific farm. The ultimate: vintage port, produced only in exceptional years. Extended bottle aging follows at least two years of barrel aging, creating “layers upon layers of flavor,” Descamps says. As for food pairing, he says basic ruby ports are suitable matches for sweet treats such as bitter dark chocolate and fresh berries while older rubies are better alongside complex cheeses.
Subjected to extended wood-aging, tawny ports are paler and more oak-driven than ruby ports, often tending toward golden raisin, candied citrus, toffee, and caramel notes, which are best served with nutty or savory desserts. Entry-level tawny ports are 10-year, which maintain some fruit character. “You may find some elements of plum still, some hints of raisin or cherry, but definitely buoyed by stronger wood notes,” he says, adding that most serious tawny ports live in the 20-year tier and “can be quite exceptional” — sweet without being saccharine.
At the top tier are 30-40-year tawnies in which any semblance of fruit is stripped away, leaving behind complex notes of caramel and hazelnut that also pair well with caramelized confections like crème brûlée or candied fruit.
Cortney Casey is a certified sommelier, co-founder of wine and vineyard website Michigan by the Bottle, and co-owner of Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Rooms based in Shelby Township, Royal Oak, and Auburn Hills. For more information, visit michiganbythebottle.com.