"Maybe instead of dessert or just one little bite of your favorite holiday pie, a small glass of port is so sumptuous," says wine writer Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible. She shared an excerpt about the history of port.

Noelle Carter: Now that we're in the thick of the holiday season, port seems to be one of those things that's perfectly suited to this time of year. For those of us who are new to port, could you explain what it is and where it comes from?

Karen MacNeil
Karen MacNeil (Photo: Lowell Downey)

Karen MacNeil: Port is a fortified sweet wine that comes from northern Portugal, specifically from the Douro River Valley. That's the only place in the world where true port is made.

NC: What is it fortified with?

KMN: It's fortified with natural grape spirits; it's really like a clear brandy that is added during the making of port to raise the alcohol level just a little bit. Often those spirits are made with the very same grapes that the port itself is made from. Port is very delicious, but it takes a little bit of understanding before you buy it. Depending on how you count, there are anywhere from six to 10 major styles.

Shall I tell you about the two top styles? If you're going to have a bottle of port for Christmas or the holidays, you're probably going to focus on either tawny port or vintage port.

Here's the key question you have to ask yourself: Would you rather have creme brulee or would you rather have chocolate cake? Because tawny port has flavors very similar to creme brulee, all that caramel, brown sugar, cream, custard, those sorts of flavors. Whereas vintage port is very chocolatey, very berry, very deep and complex in the way that dark chocolate is. Those two main styles of port are radically different, and they are both delicious.

One of the things that makes it so fascinating and fabulous during a holiday meal is that it often is the perfect way to end a big, rich meal. Maybe instead of dessert or just one little bite of your favorite holiday pie, a small glass of port is so sumptuous. It can have all those flavors.

NC: I can't wait to go out and pick up a bottle or two for gift giving. Are there any particular labels that you recommend? How much should I plan on spending for a decent bottle of port?

KMN: For a tawny port, probably we're talking about $35 to $50. Remember, usually people serve small amounts of port, no more than 2 ounces, because it is so concentrated. A bottle of port is going to serve 12 people; one bottle will go a long way.

Because vintage port is the top port and is often given as a gift, I think you should count on anywhere from $100 to $200, or sometimes more if you buy a very old vintage.

NC: Are there any particular names or labels that you would recommend?

KMN: I love the ports of Graham's, Dow's, Warre's, Taylor Fladgate -- very famous vintage ports that are delicious -- and then smaller producers like Quinta do Vesuvio. When you see the word quinta, it translates to farm in Portuguese. It means that the wine came from one very small, prestigious estate. Quinta do Vesuvio's vintage ports are also phenomenal. Smith Woodhouse.

In fact, there aren't all that many great port firms left. They've consolidated over the years. The ones that we get here in the U.S. are almost uniformly the very top ones. Luckily, I would say you cannot make a mistake. Any true port from Portugal on a shelf in the U.S. is, in fact, one of the 20 great brands in the world.

NC: Let's say for some strange reason I don't finish the bottle of port the night that I serve it. How long will a bottle keep after it's opened?

KMN: Port will last quite a long time. If it's tawny port, it will last easily a month or more -- three, four, sometimes even five months. Vintage port depends on how old the wine is that you're serving. If you're serving a wine from the '80s, it would probably last a week maybe. If you are lucky enough to have a really old, wonderful vintage port like the famous 1970 version, that probably is only going to last a day. The older the wine is, the more frail it is.

But here's an important point: Even when you may not want to drink the port, if you have a little bit left in the bottle, it is absolutely phenomenal to cook with. Even when port is past its prime for drinking, it is still wonderful at layering flavor into all kinds of dishes, stews and soups.

Noelle Carter

Noelle Carter is a chef and test kitchen manager at the Los Angeles Times.