A rich, fortified wine, Port is widely recognized as a dessert or digestive drink but isn’t often perceived to be much else. Available in a range of styles, however, the signature Portuguese beverage can make a delicious complement throughout a meal.
“There are two major challenges with pairing food with Port: high alcohol and sweetness,” says Rachel Speckan, marketing director at Maverick Wine Company, an import/distribution company based in Chicago.
Generally, Port works best alongside dishes that are lower in spice, with a lot of savory qualities.
“Umami and proteins are ideal partners to utilize,” says Speckan. “Herbs such as sage, rosemary, fennel and star anise accentuate the herbal and floral characters inherent in the grapes used to make Port.”
And there are a lot of them: More than 80 grapes are permitted for red wine-based Ports, while 30-plus white grape varieties can be used to craft white Port. These can yield six different expressions of Port, which allow for additional flexibility.
“Ruby and late-bottled vintage (LBV) Port can be great pairings with starters,” says Jillian Riley, wine director/sommelier at NoMI, Park Hyatt Chicago. “Their bodies tend to be a bit lighter and they maintain acidity, key components when you’re working with first courses incorporating vinaigrettes or lighter fare.”
White Port can be another great way to start a meal. Dry, off-dry or sweet, it plays well with green salads and seafood. At Barão Fladgate Restaurant, on the grounds of Taylor’s Port Cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal, it’s mixed into a white Port and tonic cocktail that’s integrated into a structured luncheon menu designed to flaunt the wine’s versatility.
The drink, paired with scallops, is meant to engage diners’ appetites and kick off the experience. Vintage Port with veal and a tawny Port with a caramel dessert are other match-ups that often surprise guests.
Riley agrees “vintage Ports can be exceptional with entrées, especially salty, savory meats.” But adds that tawny Port, which is slightly aged and nutty, can be just as well suited to a meaty or gamey main course. “A beef Bourguignon with a sweet tawny is as luscious as it gets.”