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Various bottles of Port shot on location for the Christmas spread (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Various bottles of Port shot on location for the Christmas spread (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Port authority: A sweet red wine perfect for the holidays Add to ...

Rupert Symington seems to have an enviable job. He's the joint managing director of Symington Family Estates, a fourth-generation descendent of the dynasty that makes one in three bottles of all premium Port sold worldwide, including the Graham's, Warre's and Dow's brands.

But these days the Porto Prince has his work cut out for him, trying to revive sales of a sweet, high-alcohol Portuguese red in a wine world that has largely gone, for lack of a better term, dry.

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In Canada, Port imports dropped off in each of the past four years, according to the Association of Canadian Distillers/Canadian Vintners Association. Sales went from 277,137 nine-litre cases in the 12 months ended September, 2006 to 213,100 cases for the most recent corresponding period. That's a 23-per-cent tumble at a time when dry table wine advanced strongly.

While so-called vintage Port - the $50-and-up cellar-worthy style coveted by collectors that makes up only a tiny fraction of the Portuguese fortified-wine category - largely stood its ground, the big market in mid-priced styles that form the core of Symington's range, especially amber-hued tawny, has taken the big beating and was particularly hard-hit by recent economic woes. "With the recession, people definitely went down to more value wines," he told me on a recent swing through Toronto. "Anything [in Canada]over $20 was a stretch. We're hoping that we'll get people back into it."

In desperation, some of his competitors have been pushing the concept of Port cocktails in an attempt to dust off the drink's grandfatherly image and appeal to free-spending club-goers. (Search the Internet for "cheeky vimto" if you want to know what misguided youth in the key Port market of England are tossing back before they toss up their take-out curry; it mixes Port with a blueberry-vodka cooler.)

To his credit, Symington is not staking his firm's future on cocktails. He holds fast to the classical view that fine Port is best on its own or at the end of a leisurely meal, with cheese or dessert. He's got my vote. And he's got a fitting mantra for this holiday entertaining season. "If Champagne is for celebration, then Port is for relaxation."

Quebeckers seem to agree with him more than consumers in other parts of the country. The province accounts for 69 per cent of all Port consumed in Canada, with Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia making up most of the balance.

The irony is that sales of Port have fallen just as its quality has improved. Stricter control by producers over their contract farmers in Portugal's Douro Valley, better vineyard practices and the application of modern technology have yielded fresher, more balanced wines.

On the technological front, for instance, Symington has introduced 17 "robotic lagares," machines that slowly stomp grapes with giant, rectangular metal feet equipped with silicon "toes." The expensive, proprietary technology is a mechanical throwback to foot treading by humans, which has become inefficient and outmoded but generally is considered superior for pressing Port grapes without extracting bitterness from seeds. A big advantage of the robot system is that it's done in temperature-controlled vats, which can be kept cool to preserve fresh fruit flavours.

There are about 10 styles of Port, depending on how you count them, from powerful, spicy, astringent vintage ports that are designed to be aged a minimum of 20 years, to relatively uncomplex and fruity ruby ports at the low end.

If you want a fine bottle that you can open over the holidays, my suggestion would be either a tawny or late-bottled vintage, two styles that probably have benefited most from the quality boom.

Named after its colour, tawny sees extended aging in wood casks (usually between 10 and 40 years) and represents a blend of wines from several harvests, yielding flavours like roasted nuts and dried fruit. Tawnys work nicely with desserts, particularly ones that feature caramelized sugar, such as crème brûlée. Runny French-style cheeses, such as reblochon or pont l'Eveque, also work well.

Late-bottled vintage Ports are made in similar fashion to vintage ports, with fruit sourced from a single year's harvest. But they're bottled free of sediment and generally do not improve with age. Darker and more purple than tawnys, they yield fresher fruit flavours and work splendidly with desserts featuring dark chocolate, fresh fruit and harder cheeses, such as cheddar, as well as blue cheeses - much better than most dry red wines.

Good Ports are not nearly as sweet as some people believe. They usually contain a good amount of sugar, yes, but they tend to be balanced by lively acidity. And you might want to pour out that stale bottle from last year. Ports are best consumed within two weeks of opening.

If you've not tried a quality Port for many years, you may be surprised by how complex and satisfying they can be. And you won't be asked to show your senior citizen's card at the cash register, either. Symington recalls an uplifting encounter with a new Port fan at a tasting in Los Angeles last spring. "This girl came in and said, 'I buy a bottle a week now. What I like to have every night is a glass of Port.' She was 23 or something. I wish there were more of her." It sure would make his job easier.

Taylor Fladgate 10 Year Old Tawny Port

SCORE: 90

PRICE: $34.95 in Ont.

This is quite sweet and big on raisin with dark chocolate and a nutty ending.

Warre's Otima 10 Year Old Tawny Port

SCORE: 90

PRICE: $22.95 in Ont. (500 ml bottle)

This one is fruity, with hazelnut, caramel and a faint note of cherry liqueur. It's on the sweet side and would be nice on its own at the end of a meal or with creamy cheese and candied nuts.

Graham's Late Bottled Vintage Port 2005

SCORE: 90

PRICE: $16.95 in Ont.

This big value is packed with jammy red fruit, dark chocolate spice and a touch of herbs.

Warre's Late Bottled Vintage 2000

SCORE: 91

PRICE: $35 in Ont.

Unusual for an LBV because it's bottled with its sediment and thus will improve with cellaring. Solid acidity and tannins give it a tight tug. It's available widely in Quebec and only in Ontario through Vintages special order service (416-365-5767 or toll-free 1-800-266-4764, product No. 444786).

Fonseca Bin 27 Reserve Port

SCORE: 90

PRICE: $15.95 in Ont.

A ready-to-drink premium ruby style that's velvety and fresh, with concentrated plum, dark berries and a hint of spice. It's a great value.

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