The following is a part of a guest series authored by Lauren Gutshall on discovering new wines and beers.
When most people order a dessert-like drink, they turn to either sugary, neon-colored libations or a good espresso martini to finish the night. But there are plenty of beers and wines that satisfy the need for that little something sweet.
My preferred after-dinner drink is a small glass of 20 or 30- year tawny port, especially if it comes after an amazing culinary experience. I could devote several weeks of “Sunday School” to the many nuances of port, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on the basics.
Let’s start with the most fundamental issue: true ports must be produced in the Douro Valley region of Portugal. Wineries in other countries may produce port-style wines, but like champagne, the name port is used exclusively for the fortified wine made in a specific “demarcated” region of Portugal. Port was named in the late 17th century for the town of Porto, where most of the wine was exported to other areas of Europe, particularly England. In fact, port producers are called shippers.
Port is not made from any one specific grape, although touriga nacional and tempranillo are commonly used. It is barrel-aged and fortified with a brandy-like spirit, which stops the fermentation process and increases both the sugar and alcohol contents.
There are several styles of port, but the three that you hear the most about are ruby, tawny and vintage ports. Ruby ports are blended and tend to be very fruit-forward and grapey. Tawny ports age in the barrel, are blended, and some bottles are marked with their “age” – 10, 20, 30, or 40- year. Vintage ports are very rare; the term is reserved for years of exceptional quality. A vintage is declared by the shipper. Unlike tawnies, vintage ports spend a short time in oak (under two and a half years) and then continue to age in the bottle for another 40-50 years.
The older the port, the more concentrated and complex the flavors become. As ports age, they become more viscous and richer and tend to have notes of vanilla, chocolate, nuts, tobacco and oak. Even the color of port changes as it ages, from a purplish ruby red to deep golden brown.
Port wine is heavily regulated by the Port Wine Institute, which also operates a few tasting rooms in Portugal. Nate and I went to the Port Wine Institute in Lisbon, where the menu includes more than 300 different port offerings.
Like ports, Flemish sour ales have a rich complexity that make them perfect dessert beers. For me, “sour ale” feels like a bit of a misnomer and belies the lovely sweetness that Flemish red ales tend to have. They get the name because they are fermented with bacteria to produce a lactic acid that makes the ale sour. The beer does have a slight tartness, but it’s balanced by a rich, fruity taste.
Flemish reds are distantly related to English porters and brown ales, but the obvious introduction of oak and bacteria give sour ales very distinct characteristics. Since they are aged in oak, they can have a strong tannic structure and fruit notes of cherry and raspberry. Like ports, Flemish reds are sometimes blended to produce the desired taste and their flavor profiles are extremely complex. In addition to fruit, they can have vanilla notes, hints of leather and strong spiciness.
The classic port pairing of aged blue cheeses also goes beautifully with Flemish red ales. While both can pair with other foods, I think both Flemish reds and ports are best when they are the stars of the show. While I’ve been known to drink both as aperitifs, my preference is to have both ports and Flemish reds after dinner with a bite or two of rich dark chocolate. Nate would tell you that the best way to drink either one is with a good cigar. But most of the time dessert (in a glass) is all you need.