My first real introduction to port was from my brother-in-law, the most erudite, bohemian, renaissance person I know. Formerly a wearer of three-piece suits on Wall Street, he now sports a long ponytail, jeans, and slip-on Merrells while gardening, renovating, and building things like a koi pond and a “moon” gate inspired by one in a Mill Valley redwood grove, on his Russian River property in Monte Rio. But before that, he would invite us to his Nob Hill apartment in a “muse,” as he charmingly referred to his alley off Sacramento Street, where he’d serve his signature Caesar salad with homemade croutons toasted in his home-blended herb-infused olive oil. We would then retire to the “parlor,” with the crackling fire and his hand-built harpsichord, and he’d bring out dessert: Stilton cheese, Carr’s Whole Wheat Crackers, and port.
And so began my adventure with this lovely alternative to traditional desserts.
So just what is port? Technically, “real” port, like how Champagne can only be from France, can only be from the Duoro Valley in Portugal. This is a fairly new requirement resulting from a trade agreement with the U.S. and the European Union, which is why you’ll still find some wines produced in the United States labeled as port. If producers were labeling their wines as port in 2006, they were allowed to continue with their labeling; other producers were required to label their wines as “port style” or some other designation, such as “dessert wine.”
Port is a fortified wine, which means it’s distilled with either a grape spirit or a neutral grain spirit to stop the fermentation before all the sugar is converted to alcohol. Port comes in a variety of styles from white to tawny to ruby, but I’ve just focused on a few ruby styles produced in the Sonoma Valley. All of these wines have a higher acidity, which results in a less syrupy, sweet, and cloying finish, and all would appropriately grace your holiday table.
Kunde “1904” Sonoma Valley Dessert Cuvee NV ($40)
Named for the year the Kunde estate was purchased, this wine is a blend of fortified zinfandel and petite sirah, and fresh chardonnay and viognier to halt the fermentation process. With lots of cherry and berry notes and medium body, it has an almost dry finish, and isn’t at all a “sweet” wine in the traditional sense.
Eric Ross Dry Creek Valley Old Vine Zinfandel Port
Eric Ross Lodi “Struttin’ Red” Port 2012 ($54)
Made from the grapes sourced from three different vineyard blocks from the same ranch in Dry Creek Valley, well known for its old vine zinfandel, this well-balanced port has hints of oak, a lovely full aroma, and jammy fruit and berry flavors.
Lighter than the OVZ port, “Struttin’ Red” gets its name from a rooster who was nearly run over by a grape-loaded forklift during harvest. This port is made from Portuguese varietals, which combine to add “floral depth,” fruit, tannins, color, acidity, and spice. It’s fortified with St. George Spirits brandy produced from old vine zinfandel from the artisanal distillery in Alameda for a “kiss of sweetness.”
Little Vineyards Sonoma Valley Port 2010 ($35)
A gold medal winner at the 2013 Sonoma County Harvest Fair, this port wine, is made entirely from estate-grown petite sirah.
Barrel aged for two years in 40 percent new Bordeaux oak, it has been fortified with brandy from the G3 Distillery. Its “vibrant fruit profile” with a fruity nose and rich berry flavors create an elegant, lingering finish.
B.R. Cohn Olive Hill Estate Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Port 2015 ($40)
The Olive Hill Estate Vineyard is coveted for its cabernet, and this limited cabernet port is produced from a particular block of vines grown specifically for port, which are harvested late in the season and produce an intensely flavored grape. The port has berry aromas and a distinct flavor of chocolate and notes of oak.
Imagery Estate Winery Sonoma County Port NV ($29)
Made with petite sirah and cabernet and fortified with brandy, this port was the winner of Best of Class at the 2014 Sonoma County Harvest Fair and has an abundance of cherry and chocolate notes. Referred to as “… a port for any day, at any time,” but it’s said founder Joe Benziger calls it the “ultimate nightcap.”
Although all of these “ports” are best with strong-flavored cheeses (like Stilton), they are equally enjoyed with an intense dark chocolate. And even if you don’t have room for this after your holiday dinner, it’s a wonderful light brunch the next day.