So you’ve got a bottle of Port, maybe a gift, and you’re not sure what to do with it.

You think it’s a sickly-sweet connection suited only for dessert or afterward. That it’s a hoity-toity thing that stuffy Brits sip out of teeny glasses with a finger pointed upward. That all of them are the same, made from the same weird grapes. That it’s too expensive, and that you won’t get your money’s worth because after you consume a small amount and set it aside, the wine will go south quickly.

Well, think again.

Yes, this fortified red wine usually has a sweet edge to it, but it’s not as candy-like as many popular California chardonnays, zinfandels and red blends.

It plays well with many end-of meal dishes, especially a good blue cheese, crème brûlée, dark chocolate and fruit-laden pies, tarts or more. The rule about the wine needing to be at least as sweet as the food should be heeded. Oh, and drink it from a regular-sized wine glass, big enough for swirling.

And of course it’s a great fireplace wine, but that also makes it a firepit beverage in the warmer months. And not only is white-Port-and-tonic a cocktail that should be on everyone’s list, especially on those blissful summer eves, but Port is now the No. 1 pre-dinner aperitif in, of all places, France.

That’s according to Ryan Opaz, a former Twin Citian who with his wife, Gabriella, runs Catavino, a Porto-based company (catavino.net) that organizes food-, wine- and culture-based tours in Portugal and Spain.

He loves the stuff, but knows the wines often are saddled with “bad experiences with Grandpa’s faux-Port jug wine” and the whole “it’s too sweet” cliché.

“Most people are afraid they won’t like it because it’s ‘sweet,’ ” he said. “Turns out balance is what makes Port great, and the diversity. To say ‘I like Port wine’ is to leave me guessing as to what you mean. Sweeter? Drier? Red fruits? Caramel?

“There are so many styles to explore, and you can get very good quality for under $20. Plus, that $20 bottle will last you a few weeks, so you can have a nice sip every night if you want before bed,” said Opaz.

The good news is that Port is getting better, thanks in part to improved vineyard and winery practices. In the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines of 2014, two of the top-rated wines (No. 1 Dow’s 2011 and No. 13 Fonseca 2011) were Ports, and this past year Taylor Fladgate’s 2009 Late Bottled Port came in at No. 16.

The better news is that more and more of it is reaching these shores — even if the above-cited bottles are long gone — because of that whole supply-demand deal. “More and more people are discovering it,” Opaz said, “and more producers are making it.”

As for the need to age, he added, “Today’s high-end Ports are great in their youth and with some time in the bottle, but don’t worry about that. Find one that fits your pocketbook nicely and then taste. If you like it, maybe pick up an extra bottle and let it age. Just don’t be afraid to explore.”

Amen to all that. A few more tips on delving into the rich world of this rich wine:

Terminology: Ruby Port is younger and redder in color than Tawny, having spent less time in the cask; it tends to be fruiter and lighter than Tawny, which tends to have darker, brownish/chestnut colors and deeper flavors from the fig/date and nut families.

Vintage Port contains grapes from a single year, a really good year: Only five vintages have been declared since 1997 by the assiduous Port Wine Institute, and these wines absolutely should be cellared. Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) wines are from those same years but are aged in oak casks for considerably longer (four-plus years vs. 18 months or so for vintage wines), and are more approachable upon release.

Many bottles read “10, 20 or 30 Years Old.” These are blends of wines whose average age when bottled is 10, 20 or 30 years. Thus a 30 Year Old Port is an entirely different animal from a 1985 Vintage Port.

Where and how it’s made: These wines are made exclusively from grapes grown in the Douro region of Portugal. Its strikingly steep vineyards have been cultivated for centuries in what has become one of the wine world’s premier destinations.

The grapes are transported by boat or truck to the town of Porto at the river’s mouth, and neutral spirits are added when the vintner wants to stop the fermentation process. They are aged in enormous, often-centuries-old casks called pipes.

The most popular varieties are touriga nacional, tinto roriz (tempranillo), touriga francesca and other Iberian grapes; white Port is made from similarly obscure Portuguese varieties.

Brands and house styles: Several British companies have dominated the Port world for 200-plus years. Two companies own most of the familiar names: Symington (Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s, Cockburn’s and Smith Woodhouse) and Taylor Fladgate (Taylor’s, Croft and Fonseca). But the wines’ profiles differ, often widely.

In my experience, Fonseca and Taylor’s are especially masculine, often brooding and brutish, and Warre’s is quite feminine, elegant and refined. Graham’s Ports tend to fall on the sweeter side, and Dow’s on the drier end.

Two recent discoveries: Sandeman’s efforts to improve their Ports are, uh, bearing fruit, and a fairly recent addition to the Twin Cities market might be my favorite: Kopke, deep and mysterious and seductive.

But this entire wine realm is seriously worth checking out, especially now, amid what many might deem our especially long Port seasons. But it’s fun in any season or setting.

As Opaz notes, “I just prefer a glass of Port all by itself. “

 

Bill Ward writes at www.decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.