30 Second Wine Advisor: Ruby, Tawny or Black?

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Ruby, Tawny or Black?

Some people think of wine as seasonal: Cool "summer sippers" are reserved for the dog days of August. Brisk rosés serve in sunny spring. Big red wines go with substantial winter dinners. And Port, of course, must be saved for blustery cold weather, with logs crackling in the fireplace.

Not so, say I! If we are to be so limited by the seasons, then why was air-conditioning created? In other words, when I'm in the mood for a sprightly white, a robust red or a delicious glass of sweet, strong Port, I see no reason to wait until the "proper" time of year.

And so it was the other day, when I spotted a bottle with the intriguing label "Black Port," I took it home to open that very evening, despite the oppressive heat of August.

Noval "Black" Porto proved to be a pretty decent example of the genre, too. It shed a raw alcoholic edge and became a little more rounded after four or five days "breathing" in the open bottle than it was on the first night, but either way it was a decent value at $20 or so.

If you're wondering how "Black" Port fits into the standard hierarchy of Ruby, Tawny and Vintage Port, don't worry about having to memorize something else. It's not a new category but, apparently, an eye-catching way to market a standard Ruby (non-vintage, usually made from younger vines) in a glossy black bottle. Ruby isn't really red; "Black" isn't really black. It's standard Port-y purple, and it appears to be a way for Port-maker Quinta do Noval to use up the fruit from acres of recently re-planted vines that haven't gained enough age to go into the pricey Vintage Port.

Anyway, I passed on lighting the fireplace, but with the air-conditioning keeping our house at a comfortable temperature, it was perfectly fine after a light summer dinner, and Bacchus didn't strike me with bolts of wine-dark lightning for breaking the rules of wine seasons.

Of course, I can't open a bottle of Port without thinking about what to eat with it, a topic that I took on in some detail in an article around Thanksgiving season last year, "Pass the Port ... and the cheese," where I tried another Ruby with samples of walnuts, fresh fruit, dried fruit and goat cheese.

The goat cheese - a local favorite from Capriole Farmstead in Southern Indiana - won that battle. So this time I decided to match it against a couple of other kinds of cheese. The idea came up at the spur of the moment, and the cupboard was fairly bare, bereft of the traditional Stilton or any fancy turophile (cheese-geek) cheeses. But I rounded up a block of sharp Cheddar ("rat cheese") and a couple of wax-covered rounds of mini Babybel, as well as a log of mild Capriole, and we started tasting and sipping.

* The Capriole, which had been good enough to beat out the fruit and nuts in last year's tasting, wasn't bad at all, but in this pairing the tangy cheese was almost too much for the sweet-tart Port. Tasting them together, the cheese out-shouted the wine, winning a battle of volume rather than singing sweet harmony.

* Babybel is a very mild, buttery commercial cheese made in a factory in Leitchfield, Ky., so I might declare it locavore, but it's industrially made, shunned by cheese snobs. Nevertheless, it actually worked quite well with this Port. Its creamy fat coats the palate and makes the wine seem much more smooth.

* The Kroger "rat" cheese proved best of the three. It worked like the Babybel to soften the wine, while its more distinct sharp flavor made a good pairing with the wine without overpowering it. A similar artisanal cheese, Gloucestershire or, to keep it local, Kenny's Kentucky Farmhouse Cheddar, would likely go better still. I may have to try another Port before the snow flies, just to check this out.

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Today's Tasting Report

Noval NV "Black" Porto ($21.99)

Noval Black Port

Dark blackish purple with a clear garnet edge. A bit of alcoholic burn on the nose, giving way to spicy black plums and prunes. Warm black fruit on the palate, a bit thin compared to more costly Port, and showing distinct alcoholic heat, but it does give a hint of Port style. A bit of mild cheese definitely helps bring it into balance. After four or five days in the open bottle, simply left at room temp with the cork pushed back in, oxidation has roughly approximated aging and the wine is much more approachable; dark, plummy fruit is now forward, with little sense of alcohol on the nose or palate despite its Port-typical 19.5% alcohol content; it seems more full-bodied and a much better representation of quality, albeit non-vintage, Port. U.S. importer: Vintus LLC, Pleasantville, N.Y. (Aug. 19, 2012)

FOOD MATCH: As reported above, it demonstrates Port's facility with cheeses, particularly mild, creamy cheeses that can ameliorate its alcoholic heat upon first opening.

WHEN TO DRINK: While Vintage Port can last for decades, Ruby Port is really intended to be drunk up reasonably soon, and the tiny "T-cork" closure here is simply not meant for cellaring. That said, I wouldn't worry about keeping one for a year or even three, particularly given the improvement it shows with rough-and-ready "breathing."

VALUE: Compared with the more lofty prices of Vintage and even Late Bottled Port, this one is fairly priced against the competition in its niche. Wine-Searcher.com indicates that my $21 local price is right on the national median, but it's listed here and there for as little as $16 or $17.

Noval's Black Port website is essentially a slick television commercial online, with limited promotional information. It's available in English, Portuguese and French, grabs your browser and opens a new full-screen window without asking first, and requires a click to confirm that you're of legal drinking age, a barrier that I find a bit odd given that they're not going to pour a free sample out of your computer's CD drawer.

You'll also find information about Black Port on the company's Facebook page.

Locate vendors and compare prices for Noval Black Port on Wine-Searcher.com.

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