Port expert Ernest Cockburn once wrote that “the first duty of Port is to be red,” but the truth is a little different. Often overlooked in favor of its more famous ruby and tawny cousins, white port can be a crisp aperitif or a sweet after-dinner drink. Like other port, white port comes from grapes — white grapes, in this case — grown in Portugal’s Douro Valley. During fermentation, winemakers add brandy to the wine, halting the fermentation process and leaving some sugar from the grapes in the mixture. The result is a wine that’s both sweet and strong. Buying the port that’s right for you means knowing your vocabulary and thinking about how you’re going to serve it.
Red ports have been popular outside Portugal since the 18th century, and you can count on most retailers to have a reasonable variety. White port, however, has been growing in popularity for a much shorter period, and you’ll probably want to visit a specialist wine retailer. You’re more likely to find a selection of white ports to choose from.
In order to buy the right white port, you need to first decide how you intend to serve it. Dry white port is a good aperitif, while sweet white port is a better choice for a dessert wine. Dry white ports also pair well with seafood, while sweeter varieties typically pair with cheeses. Once you’ve decided, you can start choosing your port.
Like most wines, white port has a certain amount of specialized terminology. White port itself is Porto Branco; other parts of the port’s name can indicate its age or flavor:
- Seco, Leve Seco or Extra Seco: Dry, with Extra Seco being the driest.
- Doce: Sweet, usually denoting a medium-sweet port.
- Lagrima: The very sweetest white port, from the Portuguese word for tears. This extremely sweet wine is very rare in the United States, sometimes called Doce Lagrima.
Most white ports are young wines, although there are a small number of aged varieties. Don’t worry about age at this point; if you enjoy your first bottle of white port, you can experiment with aged white port later.
Even light white ports have quite a high alcohol content; the lowest is around 16%, while the upper limit is about 21%. As a result, you shouldn’t serve port like any other wine; serve it in small glasses. These are often called sherry glasses, after another high alcohol-fortified wine. Alternatively, serve port and tonic as an aperitif; mix one part white port to two parts tonic water, serve over ice and garnish with mint or a slice of orange.