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Originally published Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Wine Adviser

Expert has advice on buying port

The love of wine grabs people by the throat (and wallet) and leads them down many different and fascinating pathways. I've met thousands of...

Special to the Seattle Times

Pick of the week

Graham's Six Grapes, $18. Six Grapes is sourced from the same vineyards (essentially Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta das Lages) that go into Graham's vintage ports in declared years. It emulates their style — full-bodied, rich and fragrant. Six Grapes is consistent, young, dark and luscious, a loose-knit and fruit-powered vintage character port, with — dare I say oodles?! — yes, oodles of boysenberry, blueberry and sweet cherry flavors, and a finishing whiff of sweet tobacco. (Distributed by Alaska)

The love of wine grabs people by the throat (and wallet) and leads them down many different and fascinating pathways.

I've met thousands of winemakers, wine sellers and wine enthusiasts over the years, each with a different tale to tell. But Roy Hersh is the only person I can recall who actually named his daughter after a famous port producer. "My wife wanted to name her Elizabeth," says Hersh, a friendly man with an extraordinary appetite for port. "I wanted to name her Taylor — a specific port producer I've always loved. I said, 'No way are we having Elizabeth Taylor in our family!' So we compromised on Taylor Elizabeth."

Taylor Elizabeth Hersh — now 5 — has been helping her father decant ancient port wines, he adds proudly, since she was 3.

Hersh has become one of the world's leading authorities on the subject. Born in Bayside, Queens, he holds degrees in culinary arts and hotel/restaurant management. After working in restaurants in New York City and elsewhere, Hersh moved to the Northwest in 1996 to become the director of purchasing for the Cucina! Cucina! restaurant chain. He held that post until the business was sold in 2001.

His love affair with port began, says Hersh, while he was working at The Water Club restaurant in New York back in the mid-1980s. "The Water Club had a great port-wine list," he recalls, "and the sommelier prided himself on that. We also had one of the early wine-preservation systems, and we were putting 1963 vintage ports on it. We decanted through cheesecloth, and I'd suck the juices from the cloth to check on the wines." It was, in fact, the cloth that launched a thousand sips.

This early listing to port led Hersh to start a newsletter (Much Ado About Grape), then to a slot on AOL hosting a port-oriented wine chat, and eventually to a full-time business named For The Love Of Port (FTLOP).

At the center of Hersh's port-centric world is the FTLOP newsletter, regularly posted on his Web site, www.fortheloveofport.com. It debuted in July of 2005 and now reaches thousands of people in 64 countries. Much of the Web site — articles, archives, newsletter, chat board and community tasting notes — is offered for free.

On the FTLOP Web site you will find no advertising, just a bonanza of information, chat and opinion, all related to port and other fortified wines. A donation is required if you want access to the database of tasting notes.

A tour through Hersh's personal wine cellar revealed, as anticipated, an amazing assortment of vintage ports, along with excellent examples of still wines, mostly Italian, French and Spanish. Lined up along the walls of his tasting room/office are dozens of empties dating back as far as 1815. The man has consumed an astonishing number of ancient ports and Madeiras, yet remains as enthusiastic and humble as anyone I've met in the wine business.

"Port is a small niche in the wine world," he notes, adding, "I actually prefer Madeira to port. I find it's the most complex wine on Earth, even more than Burgundy. It takes me to that higher place."

For those interested in starting their own explorations of that higher place, Hersh offers the following advice: "Port is a great bargain today, and always has been relative to other great wines," he enthuses. "I suggest you start with less-expensive, easy-to-find examples. Look for what used to be called Vintage Character and are now Ruby Reservas and LBVs. These are at price points that everyone can afford."

The best bargains, Hersh believes, are the single quinta vintage ports. Roughly comparable to a single vineyard wine, these traditionally come from what used to be called "off" vintages. But with improved winemaking and vineyard practices, there are rarely any off vintages these days, and single quinta ports are almost always made.

Apart from that general advice, Hersh offers the following recommendations: Among the LBVs (late bottled vintage ports made for immediate drinking), he especially likes Quinta do Noval, Quinta do Crasto, Niepoort, Warre and Smith Woodhouse. These are made in traditional styles, meaning that they will throw a sediment and need to be decanted. Prices are $20 to $25.

Among the Ruby Reserve (Vintage Character) ports, Hersh recommends Graham's Six Grapes (my Pick of the Week), Fonseca Bin 27, Quinta de la Rosa Finest Reserve and Cockburn's Special Reserve, which he believes is the best-selling port in the world.

Last, but certainly not least (these being my own personal favorites), here are recommended bottles of tawny ports according to the stated age:

10-year-old: Niepoort; Ramos-Pinto; Taylor

20-year-old: Ferreira 'Duque de Braganca'; Sandeman; Quinta do portal

30-year-old: Graham; Vista Alegre

40-year-old: Sandeman; Taylor

A final thought, readers, as we head for Valentine's Day: If you plan to have wine with chocolate, remember, port is the wine to choose.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines and Wineries The Essential Guide." His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Wine Adviser
My column, Wednesdays in Northwest Life, is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices.
wine@seattletimes.com

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