Port is an enigmatic drink. Technically, it’s a wine defined by region, not by grape varietal. It comes in several styles and colors. It’s markedly higher in proof than other wines, but remains sweet. And like a spirit, it can be aged in casks for as long as 50 years without becoming overly tannic.
The one thing that isn’t hard to pin down about Port is its affinity for cigars. Smokers have known for centuries that Port makes a great companion when lighting up, especially after dinner when it also complements dessert. And part of that comes from its many possibilities.
“There’s a style of Port for everybody just as there is a style of cigar for everybody,” says Adrian Bridge, the CEO of the Fladgate Group, which exports a number of Port brands throughout the world. Also an enthusiast of both Port and cigars, he riddles off some of the expressions that make up the top tiers of the category: the vintage and late-bottled vintage Ports that possess rich berry flavors and the especially long-aged tawnys that carry nuanced nutty flavors. “There’s multiple layers and that’s what works. The viscosity, the sweetness, of these old wines tends to coat the inside of the mouth and the throat and enhance a cigar.”
While Port’s kinship with cigars has long been known, the history of making wine in Portugal’s Douro River Valley is far longer. It dates back at least to the second century and possibly as long as several millennia. According to Rupert Symington, the CEO of Symington Family Estates, whose family is now in its fifth generation of Port making, the grapes grown today on the steep, tiered slopes that line the river are descendants of vines brought to the area by the ancient Romans.
There are a handful of varietals prized for their ability to flourish in the dry summer climate of the valley and its mineral soil, both of which are parts of Port’s magic. On top of a granite base, says Symington, lies a very thick layer of fossilized mud called schist. The valley, protected from the ocean climate by the mountains to the east, gets most of its rain in the winter. The water percolates down through 15 to 20 feet of the well-drained soil to form storage pockets in the granite. The vines must be able to delve deep enough to find water in the arid summer months and be hardy enough to withstand the region’s heat. “Instead of feeding on the organic material near the surface, the vines nourish themselves deep down in the lower level of schist,” he says. “It’s not particularly fertile, but it gives a particular flavor to the wine.”
That quality is distinctive enough that the wines of the Douro region have enjoyed a legally protected region-of-origin designation since 1756, one of the first in the world. It states that for a wine to be called a Douro it must come from this carefully delineated area. In addition, within Europe only fortified wine made in the Douro valley can be called Port.
With all its heritage, change only comes grudgingly to the Douro valley. Originally, the picturesque terraces that vines grow on were dug into the hillside by hand. Now, machines are used. The grapes traveled slowly down river from the vineyards to vintners by boat. Now, trucks bring them over roads. Amazingly, the tradition of juicing the grapes by trampling them under foot was still widespread in the 1980s. Besides a few examples of resistance, most grapes are now squeezed by machines that have metal plates sheathed in silicone that mimic the human foot. The aim is to avoid crushing the grapes’ seeds, which would make the wine bitter.
While the handful of Port houses that ferment the grapes maintain some of their own vineyards, the vast majority are grown by independent farmers on their own quintas, or estates. They then sell their crops to Port houses to be converted into the final product. One factor that most clearly differentiates Port from most other wines is its high alcohol content (about 19.5 percent or 39 proof), which comes during fermentation. This is as much a consequence of history as anything else.
The world’s appreciation of Port wine stems from geopolitics. Britain, a thirsty nation bereft of grapes suited for wine making, established friendly trade relations with Portugal more than six centuries ago. Even while Brits had a taste for French wines, war with France in the 17th and 18th centuries caused them to turn to their ally, with whom they already had preferential trade relations. The wine got a further boost in popularity in Britain when it was discovered in the late 17th century that fortifying the wine with spirits would stabilize its quality over the long voyage to England. A bonus was that the wines’ interaction with the wood casks used in shipping resulted in improved maturity. The British traded from the Douro’s seaport of Oporto, and a shortening of that name resulted in the term Port. The merchants put their names on the labels, which explains the many English-sounding brand names (such as Dow, Graham’s, Taylor and Sandeman) found throughout the world of Port.
The method for fortifying Port is tied into the wine’s fermentation process and ensures that Port is not only high in proof, but sweet—two important qualities for cigar pairing. After the grapes are squeezed for their juice, yeast is introduced, which feeds on the sugars and expels alcohol. When the alcohol content reaches 14 percent, a brandy of 77 percent alcohol is introduced at a ratio of five to one. (Don’t think of this as Cognac or Armagnac. The term brandy refers to neutral spirit made from wine.) The brandy’s alcohol kills the yeast, shutting down further fermentation. But the wine retains its sweetness even as the alcohol content is increased.
Port can come in different colorations. White Port is made with white grapes. Rosé or pink is made with red grapes, but contact with skin is limited. Not exactly sipping wines, these iterations are popular for mixing cocktails. In fact, Croft and Taylor Fladgate have recently marketed such products premixed with tonic water and sold in cans.
The wines we typically think of as Ports are made from red grapes and retain the color of the skin. They are then treated in a variety of different manners that determine by which of several subcategories they are labeled. The wine can be bottled with little wood aging as ruby Port, a sweet, deep-red wine that enjoys very little oxidation. But it is with longer aging that Port becomes a great cigar partner. Simplistically, smokers can focus on three categories.
Vintage Ports are the celebrities of the Port world, the wines that get the fawning notices. They come only from the grapes of a single year and only from years that are deemed remarkable based on quality. A mere fraction of the best grapes grown in a single year are used in vintage production. Port makers typically designate but three vintage years in a decade. Aged for a maximum of two-and-a-half years, they continue to improve in the bottle and are often cellared for 20 to 40 years. Certain vintages are very collectible. Because it is unfiltered, vintage Port should be decanted and the sediment allowed to settle before serving. Two downsides are that the wines take an enormously long time before they are ready to drink, and once opened, the wine should be consumed within a couple of days.
Late bottled vintage (LBV) is a relatively new concept, premiered in the 1960s. It begins life as a vintage Port does, but may be aged some four years before bottling. Bridge says that LBVs democratized Port, because they represent about five times the production of a vintage and therefore are less expensive. They don’t take the same benefit from aging in the bottle, however. But they do have the advantage of being immediately drinkable, and will also last in the refrigerator for a month upon opening.
Tawny Ports are made from a blend of years that have been aged in wooden casks for a minimum of three years (usually much longer). Maturation causes the ruby color of the wine to turn tawny. Unlike whisky, Port tends to get lighter in color over years as casks absorb the wine’s red tint. At about 30 years, it stabilizes as an olive or tiger’s eye hue. Older tawnys are called Reserves (at about seven years). Some announce their age on the label. Typical age statements range from 10, 20, 30 to 40 years. For Port the stated age indicates an average of the blend of matured wine in the bottle, rather than a minimum age as is so prevalent in the whisky world. With their stopper-type cork, tawnys can be opened and enjoyed over several months. A subset of tawny Port is Colheita, or single harvest Port. It’s something of hybrid between vintage and tawny Port. It represents the vintage year on the label, but is extensively aged in wood, and unlike vintage Port it requires no cellaring. Some are released when the vintage reaches its 50th anniversary.
Bridge considers tawny as an especially good cigar partner, for several reasons. One is that when you’re trying to introduce a drinker to Port, they likely have already had experiences smoking cigars with a whisky. The flavor profile of a tawny Port is the closest in the Port world to a malt whisky.
Another reason that tawny is an easy choice for a cigar pairing, adds Bridge, is its consistency. The wines are blended to a specific taste profile at the start and remain that way after they are bottled. You can try pairings with different cigars, while maintaining a control factor knowing that the same Port will deliver the same taste time after time.
Both Bridge and Symington call out particular tawny Port flavors that complement cigars—dried fruits, toast, nuts, honey and cigar box, with a very long finish.
Tawny Port also has an exceptionally long finish—another hallmark of a great cigar—increasing the potential for a fine pairing. “It just goes rolling on and on,” says Bridge. “If you are sitting out on the deck, smoking a cigar, you know, putting the world to rights, looking at the stars, whatever you’re doing, having something that gives this length of pleasure, both in terms of the flavor from a cigar and then the wine, providing that length and evolution right across the palate seems to lend itself to that moment of contemplation and relaxation and enjoyment of life. And, you know, we’re not allowed to tell people that they should smoke or they should drink because the health lobby doesn’t like it. Nonetheless, there are moments when life’s worth living.”