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A good port will leave you grinning

Glass port

Glass of port

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(All bottles are 750 ml unless otherwise noted)

Cockburn Special Reserve, $18

*Fonseca Bin 27, $20

Graham’s “Six Grapes” Reserve, $22 ($13 for 375 ml)

Taylor Fladgate LBV 2007, $25

Warre’s Optima 10 Year Old Tawny, $26 (500 ml)

Fonseca 10 Year Old Tawny, $30

Taylor Fladgate 10 Year Old Tawny, $31

Graham’s 10 Year Old Tawny, $33

Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny, $50

Croft Vintage 2009, $84 ($44 for 375ml)

Fonseca Vintage 2009, $100 ($55 for 375 ml)

*Now through Dec. 31 Fonseca is offering Bin 27 in a Limited Edition “Artist Series” bottle. As part of the initiative, Fonseca will donate $15,000 to the Waterkeeper Alliance, an organization dedicated to maintaining clean waterways worldwide.

Updated: December 8, 2012 6:05AM

I graduated college a few days before Christmas, and the next morning I was in an airplane lifting up and away from the desert, bound for O’Hare.

A few days later, I was bound for JFK. From warm to cold, to cold again. Actually, I was happy to be back in the cold and the thrill of big cities because blazing sun and an endless tableau of cacti can take you only so far.

I was going to New York for a few days to sit through interviews and stay with a high school friend who had graduated college six months earlier and was working in Manhattan. He and his roommates were Ivy Leaguers, and members of their alumni club. One night, one of the roommates came home from the club with the glow of discovery on his face.

At the suggestion of a bartender, after dinner, he had tried a wine called “port.” His top button and necktie loose, he spoke through one of the most sincere smiles I have ever seen. It was as if he could not contain his joy.

“It was so tasty,” he said, his pitch rising slightly, almost suggesting a question. But there was no question; he was smitten.

The endorsement was so strong I vowed to try port myself. But the next night came and I completely forgot about port, instead beelining for the dive bars of Hell’s Kitchen. Only years later, when a gracious server set a glass of port in front of me, did I truly understand that smile. Like most people, the moment I tried a great port, I was a believer. And if chilly weather had an official drink, it would be port.

Preceded by a bit of a stodgy reputation and an intimidating air, port is quite simply a delicious sweet wine served in small doses. “In general, put it in your mouth, drink it,” says Robert Bower, an eighth-generation descendant of the Yeatmans, an early and influential port family. “If you want to take it a step further, then we can talk about dessert.”

As the story goes, port was born when British wine merchants began adding brandy to red wine while it was fermenting in Portugal’s Douro River Valley so that the wine would survive the long maritime journey home. The technique continues today in that same valley, which meets the sea at the city that lends its name to the wine, Oporto.

Port wine hovers at around 20 percent alcohol, and its concentrated flavors offer up dark fruits, raisins, nuts, vanilla, chocolate and toffee. It is made for sipping slowly, either on its own or with dessert. Aficionados pair port with savory food, too, but you should walk before you run.

Start out by matching a ruby port with dark chocolate, and then try an aged tawny port with crème brulee. When you are ready to try (and pay for) vintage port, made only in the years when the grapes are best, go for the classic Stilton cheese pairing. (Another port style, late bottled vintage, is the bridge between ruby and vintage; an LBV is of higher quality than a ruby and more affordable than a vintage.)

Think of ruby and LBV as fruity, aged tawny as nutty, and vintage as intensely fruity when young and more complex as it gets older. Vintage port, which can easily age 50 years in its bottle, is the pinnacle. But a nice ruby or LBV can raise your eyebrows and a great tawny — aged in oak barrels for 10, 20, 30 or 40 years before it gets to you — can change your life, or at least make your night.

When Bower has guests over for dinner he likes to drop a bottle of port on the table as he is clearing the plates. “I let them pour their own,” he says. “A 20 Year Old Tawny lubricates good conversation. And if you’re playing poker, give everyone 20 Year Old Tawny. The tells become really obvious.”

If you do not finish the bottle — and you probably will not finish the bottle unless you are hosting a dozen port-loving guests — ruby, LBV and tawny ports will last a couple months after they have been opened. Vintage port will survive a couple days if it is old and fragile, or a couple weeks if it is younger. Just keep them corked and cool — no need to refrigerate.

You do not have to belong to an Ivy League club to enjoy port regularly. Order a glass after dinner (fine dining restaurants and steak joints usually carry good ones), and keep a bottle at home.

Pour a small glass or two after dinner. You might find that port fits your lifestyle in ways you could not have imagined, especially on chilly dark nights when good conversation and smiling seem to be almost a necessity.

Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer. E-mail

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