Inevitably, the day will come this winter when the cold wind will cut like razors, and ice and snow will turn your carefully laid plans for the evening into vague promises to try again another time.
These are the evenings when the best backup plan is a warm fire, good company and a glass or two of something to chase away the internal chill. And that is when wine lovers' thoughts drift to the wines of warmth -- sweet, rich ports, sherries and other wines whose natural strength is fortified with an incendiary dollop of brandy.
By consensus, the greatest of these wines is fine vintage port. And indeed, to savor a classic Graham or Taylor Fladgate from a vintage such as 1948 or 1963 is a utopian experience.
But vintage port is a wine that involves a lot of rigmarole. Most of the finest vintages require two decades or more of cellaring to shed their formidable tannins and show their full complement of flavors.
Even when served young, they must be decanted to separate the wine from the thick, muddy sediments they throw. And decanting is not a spur-of-the-moment activity. A fine port should be allowed to stand for at least 24 hours before decanting to let the solids settle to the bottom of the bottle. That rules out vintage port as a spontaneous gesture.
In addition, vintage port is expensive. The best -- Graham, Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, Dow and Warre -- cost about $100 for a fully mature vintage such as 1963.
For most of us, that rules out vintage port, but there are some fine alternatives for those who desire the warmth and smoothness of vintage port without the expense and fuss.
*1985 vintage port: The 1985 port vintage was unusual. It had the full, rich, intense flavors of a top port year, but lacked the hard, raspy tannins of a traditionally classic vintage such as 1977.
That's not to say the best 1985s are ready to drink. A half-bottle of 1985 Warre's sampled recently was far too tight and unyielding to sacrifice now. The other top-echelon 1985 ports, which cost about $35 a bottle, are likely no different.
However, some of the second-tier port lodges make fine, chewy, sumptuous wines styled for earlier consumption, and at comparatively reasonable prices. One excellent example is the 1985 Offley Boa Vista ($23), a plump, intensely flavorful wine packed with sweet black raspberry and black cherry flavors and a hint of chocolate. While it is very appealing now, it will probably peak in five to 10 years. It requires decanting.
*Vintage-style ports: Port producers offer some compromises for those of us who do not have the patience to wait for vintage port to mature. They are called "crusted" ports or late-bottled vintage ports, and they are ready to drink upon release. Because they are bottled later than vintage port, most of their sediment is dropped in the cask. There may be still be enough to warrant decanting, but it's not crucial.
While these wines do not achieve the class of true vintage port, the best come close. Two fine examples are Taylor Fladgate's 4X 1985 Late-Bottled Vintage Port ($14.99), a smooth, elegant, warming wine; and the nonvintage Smith Woodhouse Crusted Port, bottled 1987 ($18.59), whose ripe black cherry and Chambord flavors do a convincing imitation of good vintage port at a very attractive price.
*"Single-quinta" vintage ports: Sometimes, when the overall growing season isn't quite good enough to merit declaration of a vintage, the best vineyards (quintas) will produce wine worthy of being bottled separately with a vintage date. These wines are usually styled for earlier consumption than vintage port, but otherwise follow the same rules. Cellaring helps, and they will throw thick sediment.
An excellent example is the newly released 1989 Dow Quinta do Bomfim Vintage Porto ($12.99/half bottle). The Dow is just packed with ripe blackberry and black cherry fruit, with loads of spice, fig and chocolate. If you drink it within the next few months, you can even get away with not decanting it, though ideally you would treat it just as vintage port. The best course: Taste a half-bottle now and lay down a few more for 10 years or so.
*Tawny port: The best tawny ports, such as Taylor Fladgate's 20-year-old, are every bit as great, and expensive, as vintage port. Kept in cask for many years, they lose color and some sweetness but gain complexity.
There are many good choices of less expensive tawnies. One of the best is the nutty, lightly sweet Warre's King's Tawny Port ($10.29).
Some of the best alternatives to vintage port come from outside the Oporto region. They include:
*Sherry: Sweet sherry has kind of a shaky reputation, largely because it is identified with the highly commercial -- though not at all bad -- Harvey's Bristol Cream. Still, the finest sweet sherries are magnificent, warming wines with far more complexity and richness than Harvey's can provide. They never achieve quite the structure of vintage port, but nobody can fault their flavors or silky richness.