Pause and savor the Port

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Winemaker Philippe Coquard knows that nothing goes better with winter’s biting winds than a warm fire and a glass of port, the fortified dessert wine favored by sophisticated palates. For Coquard, co-owner of Wollersheim Winery north of Madison, winter is a time for reflection and relaxation – and a bracing glass of the winery’s red or white port.

“In my younger days, I used to drink a lot of port as an aperitif wine while my friends were drinking mixed drinks,” says Coquard, who grew up in a winemaking family in France’s Beaujolais region. “Like anything made from the grapes, port was just a natural fit for my taste buds.”

Coquard began making his red port in 2001, starting with just five barrels. The winemaker now has 80 barrels aging in his cellars. White port was introduced in 2009 after Coquard and his wife Julie sampled some Muscat-based dessert wines while traveling in southern France. The first batch, offered in January 2010, sold out in a little over a month, he says.

“Port is a special wine because it’s a gentle wine that satisfies many senses.” Coquard adds. “It has some sweetness, yet it has depth because of the aging, and it has class and personality.”

Wollersheim’s red port is made from fully ripened blackish-red Foch grapes, while the white port is made from fragrant, white Muscat grapes. Both ports are produced through a short fermentation time of just a few days, after which brandy is added at 187 proof to stop the fermentation process, leaving some of the wine’s natural sweetness and fruitiness. Coquard ages his red port for 13 months in older American oak barrels, and white port for six months in older French oak barrels, each of which imparts different nuances to the finished wine.

“Our red port has a rich, smooth sweetness with notes of dried cherry and raisin, and our white port is sweet and aromatic and full of fruit with floral hints of peach,” he says.

Port originated in Portugal, specifically in the Douro Valley in the country’s northern provinces. The wine’s name derives from the city of Porto at the mouth of the Douro River. Port produced in Portugal utilizes any of five wine grapes, although Touriga Nacional, considered the country’s national grape, is preferred.

Port can be served relatively young, or it can be aged through the introduction of distilled spirits. The wine is now made in countries around the world.

Here is a brief guide to some ports worth sampling:

One of the best values is De Krans Cape Ruby Port ($13) from South Africa’s Klein Karoo. The blend of Tinta Barraca, Touriga Nacional and Souzão grapes offers a palate of sweet red fruits, chocolate and spices in a youthful, softly textured wine.

Hardy’s Whiskers Blake Classic Tawny Port ($14) is a non-vintage wine from Australia. It pours a brownish brick-red, with complex notes of toffee and caramel on the palate, balanced with apple, pear and even a little blood orange. It’s an excellent value for the price.

Another Australian tawny port, The Portly Gentleman ($15) from Buller Wines, is produced from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Mataro and Shiraz grapes. The result is a bouquet of berries with a rich, smooth mouth-feel.

The Offley 2005 Late Bottled Vintage Porto ($19) ratchets things up a notch. The Portuguese wine opens with a distinctly different aroma of cedar and pine needles, offering a well-balanced palate of red fruit with a hint of chocolate.

Churchill’s 10-Year-Old Tawny Port ($32) remains among the best. The palate offers touches of bitter orange, lemon peel and a hint of ginger, with a medium-long finish that is both soft and sweet. Persnickety wine critic Robert Parker Jr. declared it “the best tawny port I’ve tasted in years.”

Coquard also has several port barrels aging an additional three to five years at Wollersheim. He expects them to turn into a fine tawny port.

“The longer process helps the wine lose its youth and boldness and become classy and smooth,” he says.

And that will be the port to sip some winter’s day in years to come.

On tap

Wollersheim will release its latest vintages of red and white port on Jan. 26 with a celebration at the winery that includes food, music and, of course, wine. For more information, visit www.wollersheim.com.