What is white port?
One of my favourite drinks for summer is white port and tonic. Portônica, as it’s known, is the go-to aperitif in the city of Porto that sits at the end of the Douro Valley where port is made.
White port is a fortified wine, made in the same way as its red counterpart by adding brandy to halt the fermentation of wine, leaving residual sugars which give sweetness to the finished drink. The earlier in the fermentation process the brandy is added, the sweeter the port will be.
Most white ports are made quite dry and are intended to be drunk young as an aperitif, either by itself over ice or, more commonly, as a portônica garnished with a lemon slice, a sprig of mint or even a stick of cinnamon to bring out its gentle spicy notes. Use about 100ml port to 150ml tonic with plenty of ice either in a high-ball or in a more modish balloon-shaped glass.
But white port is good for so much more. Its closest cousin in a cocktail cupboard is dry vermouth and, while it lacks vermouth’s characteristic bitterness, white port can happily be used as a substitute in so many cocktails. It makes a killer martini (the less port you use, the drier the martini will be: I favour about one part port to five parts gin or vodka), or mix it with equal parts of gin and Campari for a riff on a negroni called a cardinale.
Sweeter styles of white port tend to be aged in oak casks to give extra richness and depth, the sweetest of which are known as lágrima, meaning ‘tear’, because the high sugar content in the wine creates tear-shaped droplets when it’s swirled in a glass. These are best as an alternative to red ports after dinner as an accompaniment to cheese, or as a tea-time treat with a piece of cake.
Because white port is not better known in this country, it means prices are kept low, so they offer great value for money. Once open, dry white port will keep for about two weeks in a fridge, while sweet styles will last for a couple of months or more (in the unlikely event they’ll need to).
Best white port to buy
Made from a blend of native grapes grown in some of the Douro Valley’s highest vineyards, this is fresh and vibrant with a slight tropical-fruit sweetness that makes it versatile. It can be served any which way, but is very good in a cardinale.
The original white port, first made in 1934, this is extra-dry, crisp and herbaceous. It makes a fine portônica garnished with a slice of orange, or in a dry martini with green olives alongside.
Dry in style but given a nutty depth by blending single-varietal wines that have been aged in barrels for three years. Great with tonic or by itself over ice with salted almonds and/or a hard sheep’s cheese to nibble on.
Gold medal winner in the recent International Wine Challenge awards, this is aged for 10 years in old oak barrels before bottling. Rounded and complex with gentle spice, it goes surprisingly well with smoked salmon.