’Tis the season for party tricks. This year, I would like to propose a favor so bold, so unexpected, that you might find yourself astonished by its mere mention: Consider serving your guests blue cheese and port.
I can feel you rolling your eyes; stick with me. Yes, the pairing of cheese and port is a very old-fashioned thing, and no, there’s nothing remotely zeitgeisty about it. But I am here to argue that the union of good old port and blue cheese still makes for a surprisingly stirring combination here in our fuzzy modern age. Salty and sweet, tangy and dry, fudgy and bright, there is something primal about it, drawing on hundreds of years of indulgence and pleasure-seeking. Sometimes the classics are classic for a reason, so terribly uncool as to be on the edge of cool again, moving cyclically ’round the passé, a normcore revival waiting for us to finish dinner.
I’m someone who came to love wine first and foremost via natural wine, indoctrinated and radicalized enthusiastically as a young drinker, perhaps without much in the way of comparative analysis. But somewhere between the bottles, I came to understand there was this other land, a haunted plain upon which roamed The Great Wines of the World—“wines you’re supposed to drink if you love wine, whether you want to or not,” as John McCarroll of the podcast “Disgorgeous” described them to me. These bottles weren’t really for me, a hard-charging natural wine purist, I thought; anyway, my ability to access blue-chip Burgundy, Bordeaux or Barolo lay hidden behind the ever-growing price wall.
But port? It hasn’t been cool in America for a hundred years or more; sales are down across the board, and prices have gone with it. In a way, it reminds me of the “Dirtbag Ivy” style moment happening in menswear: Drinking port in 2021 is like wearing a double-breasted suit and loafers to a San Francisco business meeting, which is to say, nobody else will be doing it, and isn’t that kind of great? Port wine performs itself. It’s compelling not because it’s new or modern, but rather, quite simply, because it is.
“Port is regarded as one of the most civilized and sociable of wines,” says Adrian Bridge. Now, he’s in the tank for this stuff—Bridge is the CEO of Taylor Fladgate, one of the largest remaining port houses—but I happen to agree with him. Taylor Fladgate was founded in 1692 by an enterprising Englishman named Job Bearsley, who helped popularize port with drinkers in England; port’s history is interwoven between producers in the Douro and traders, drinkers and entrepreneurs from England, which is why an enumeration of the region’s great houses—Dow, Croft, Cockburn and Symington among them—reads like the ledger of a cricket match.
“Drinking port in 2021 is like wearing a double-breasted suit and loafers to a San Francisco business meeting, which is to say, nobody else will be doing it, and isn’t that kind of great?”
It’s here, in England, where the tradition of pairing blue cheese and port first emerged, combining imported Portuguese wine (fortified with brandy, so as to survive the seafaring journey) with a village cheesemaking tradition that pre-dates the Saxons. London’s Hawksmoor restaurant group, which now includes a bustling New York City location, has long kept the flame of cheese and port, writing in their 2011 cookbook: “Each swill of port should be chased with a nubbin of Stilton, by a mouthful of port, and so on, in an unending cycle of pleasure (unsurpassable until the aristocracy discovered they could do the same thing with vodka shots and cocaine).”
It’s important to say that cheese and port perhaps should not be your first eating and drinking enjoyment of the night; British people figured out hundreds of years ago that the perfect time for the pairing is immediately following an expansively satisfying meal, during which several other drinks were appreciated.
For my taste, I like a rich, red-fruited port paired with proper blue: Give me vintage port from the 1970s and ’80s if money is no object, or else a full-bodied crusted port, for which decanting is advised. There are decades worth of this stuff to be tracked down across the internet (and in dusty corners of your local traditional bottle shop), which makes port a wonderful bottle category to hunt for deals, or shop for your birth year. A serviceable Ruby Port, like that from Quinta do Infantado, runs just $15; the delicious Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Tawny is around $50. A bottle of port from my birth year (which is 1984, if you’d like to send me some) is more like $100 for a nice J.W. Hart, or $160 for the Taylor’s 1984 vintage. Online sellers such as Vintage Wine & Port, Grand Vin Wine Merchants, Astor Wines and Vinopolis all offer a range of prices and offerings, as does the hybrid online retailer and consumer auction house K&L Wine Merchants.
On the cheese front, good English blues such as Stilton or Shropshire are sturdy starting points. Both are available through Neal’s Yard Dairy, champions of traditional English cheesemaking based in London with distribution across the United States. From there you can branch out. Cheese educator and journalist Christine Clark suggests cheeses like Jasper Hill Farm’s Bayley Hazen with a bigger port, or Cambozola paired with something more reserved. In Oregon, where I live, we are privy each November to the annual release of Rogue River Blue, an award-winning cheese by Rogue Creamery that comes wrapped in a grape leaf. It’s fudgy and tangy and utterly of itself, unique and brash, which, when paired alongside port, makes for a kind of bombastic explosion of flavor, like chocolate and salt or honey and hot sauce.
“It’s a lot of flavor at once,” says Clark, describing the wider experience. “This pairing brings out harmony in contrasting two extremes: The sweetness of the port is balanced by the super savory, salty blue cheese and both are lovelier for it.”
Maybe that’s what I love about blue cheese and port the most: The whole thing is a lot, in terms of flavors and textures and what they do to the deepest subcortices of our lizard brains. And you know what? After the better part of two years spent trapped inside, nervously watching the news, detached from life’s rich pageant and apart from family and friends, I’m here for a bit of shared maximalism.
Three Ports to Try
Dow’s Vintage Port 2016 | 375ml bottle, $34.95 via Merchant of Wine
Here is a great entry-level port to get your feet wet, available in a 375ml format that’s perfect for beginners. Dow does some of the most interesting and thoughtful vineyard work in the Douro, and this wine is sourced from their own vineyards, called Quinta do Bomfim and Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira. You can drink this wine right away, but it would age happily for decades if so desired. Expect intensity, deep red and black fruit flavors, and a powerful dryness that makes the perfect foil for creamy cheese.
Warre’s Otima 10 Year Tawny | 500ml bottle, $20 via Total Wine
Tawny port is its own distinct substyle of port wine, impacted by extended barrel aging and yielding nutty, lighter flavors; think of tawny as perfect for those who enjoy other sorts of barrel-aged spirits, such as bourbon. Warre’s Otima 10 Year is accessibly priced and easy to find at many bottle shops and online retailers. Drink this alongside the Dow’s Vintage 2016, and you’ll be on your way to developing your port palate. And it’s quite good as a highball, with club soda with a squeeze of lemon.
Taylor’s Late Bottled Vintage 1984 | $163 via Vintage Wine & Port
I’m getting really into drinking birth year wines lately, perhaps because I am now old. But whatever year you happen to have been born—1960, say, in which case you’re rolling your eyes, or 1998 perhaps, in which case you also are rolling your eyes—there’s a fine port out there with your birth year on it, blipping away in the bottle, waiting for you to drink it with friends.
Three Blue Cheeses to Try
Neal’s Yard Dairy Colston Bassett Stilton (England)
Port and Stilton are the iconic pairing. Just five dairies in the world produce this style of cheese, none better than this one from a small cooperative around the village of Colston Bassett in Nottinghamshire. For a blue cheese, this is surprisingly subtle, with dominant notes of silky butter and pleasant mild sweetness. Much more can be learned via the website of English cheese revival heroes Neal’s Yard Dairy.
Rogue Creamery Rogue River Blue (Oregon)
This cheese wins awards by the herd. Autumn cow’s milk is aged for a minimum of 9 months before being wrapped in a syrah grape leaf soaked in pear eau de vie. Sweetness is there, as is a fudgy texture, but it’s the perfect blue tang that makes this cheese so special.
Jasper Hill Farm Bayley Hazen Blue (Vermont)
Cheese educator Christine Clark recommends “a firmer blue cheese with a bit of cow funk flavor” for pairing alongside port. Vermont’s lauded Jasper Hill Farm makes a particularly good blue cheese in this style, called Bayley Hazen. This is a raw milk cheese, yielding notes of farmyard and barn floor without teetering too far off the plot, offset by complex sweetness and spice.