'Tis the season to crack open a port

Last updated 15:40 20/07/2012

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Neil Hodgson's wine column

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Port is one of those very comforting drinks that conjures up images of an open fire, a rocking chair, a cigar and a glass of warming alcohol. Port is perfectly suited to winter, and the port bottle often comes out at the end of a dinner party, or maybe after dinner while we are sitting in front of the fire on a miserable winter's Saturday night.

While there are many wines made in the style of port outside its natural home in the northern Portugal valley of Douro, the wines made there are just a little bit special. I would compare it to making a Champagne-style wine in Marlborough - very good, but lacking that little edge of finesse you find in the real thing.

Port is also one of those wines that offers huge variations in style, and the right style from a great vintage can age wonderfully well. Port producers aim to make a wine that has deep, rich colour and is as naturally sweet as possible. To preserve these qualities, they fortify the wine with a spirit, locking in the rich colour and natural flavours and adding some nice warming alcohol heat.

The two main styles most people are familiar with are Tawny Port and Ruby Port. The key differences between them are that Ruby Port is a young wine bottled after two or three years in bulk storage tanks, while Tawny Port is aged in oak barrels for 10, 20, 30 or 40 years. Late Bottled Vintage port or LBV is a ruby port from a single vintage, bottled after four to six years.

Vintage port is arguably the most valuable port and is the most widely traded style. Made from wine produced in very good years, it is stored in barrels for only two or three years before being bottled and sold to consumers who risk ageing the wine for many years or decades.

The 1977 vintage ports are considered the best of the last century, and can change hands for hundreds of dollars for a single bottle, and even thousands of dollars for premium bottles.

I have been lucky enough to try a few port wines from the 1977 vintage, and they are exceptional. If someone offers you the chance to try one, don't say no.

In Australia, Seppelt Wines makes port, and each year a barrel is tucked away in the corner of the cellars, not to be opened for 100 years. You can buy these wines from the cellar door or online; not cheap, but for a few hundred dollars the serious port lover can experience a wee bit of history.

I always tell people that the best way to learn about wine is to taste as many as you can. If you want to try different styles of port to see the difference for yourself, drop in to Casa del Vino tomorrow morning.

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Folding Hill Bendigo 2009 Pinot Noir – RRP $40 When the owners established Folding Hill wines in 2001, they set out to make the best possible wine from their piece of paradise in Bendigo, Central Otago, and I managed to get my hands on a few bottles recently. The first bottle I tried was from the 2010 vintage, a wine that has not been fined or filtered. This is a big, rich wine, not too fruity but loaded with blackberry characters. Balanced toasty oak gives the wine a dash of spice, while dry, powdery tannins add structure. This is a fantastic wine, and you can buy it from the Richmond Liquor Centre or contact the winery at foldinghill.co.nz.

Sea Level Home Block 2011 Chardonnay – about $28 When I tasted wines from Sea Level's first vintage, I knew they had something special going on, and this chardonnay confirms those thoughts. Refined, elegant, clean and complex are words that come to mind when you try it. Layers of flavour include nettles, redcurrants, tropical fruits, toasted brioche, and juicy limes in the finish. A super wine from an emerging premium producer.

- Nelson

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