For many, Christmas and Port wine are inextricably linked. A bottle of Port is a must for any wine lover’s Christmas season celebration checklist. I cannot imagine the holiday without a glass of this special wine.

Port wine takes its name from the city of Oporto, Portugal, the only location in the world able to boast the prestigious Port label. Oddly enough, the growing region of Portugal’s Douro Valley is one of the most inhospitable areas of viticulture in the world, with baking-hot summers averaging 100 degrees and subzero weather in winter. Its isolated landscape is just as uninviting, with steep hillsides, poor, dry soils and archaic-looking planting terraces. Yet, in spite of the extreme temperatures and poor terrain, the Port grapes thrive.

Port is made mainly from five authorized varieties, with Touriga Nacional (too-REE-gah na-SHUN-al) being the lead grape in the blend. This grape adds tannin and black-currant aromas. The other grapes offer their own unique attributes: Tinta Roriz gives spice; Touriga Francesa adds softness; Tinta Barraco contributes high sugar; and Tinta Cao provides bold flavor.

As much as the terroir affects the final product, the process used in making Port is also key. Just after harvest, a celebration of sorts begins with the traditional foot-treading in open-trough wine vats by families and workers of the wineries. They march, walk and dance in keeping with this winemaking tradition. This may seem a bit awkward and unappetizing, but the human foot is perfect for the task because it won’t break the pit in the grape.

Port styles range from crusted and ruby to tawny, blended from wines of different vintages made in different years and having spent time in wooden barrels; these styles are ready to drink immediately after bottling. Other styles are late-bottled vintages aged in wood and also ready to drink. Vintage and single Quinta Ports differ in that they spend minimal time in wooden barrels before being bottled for the long, slow aging process.

THE VALUE

  • Graham’s 10 Year Old Tawny Port, Portugal (about $40 retail)

THE SPLURGE

  • 2003 Churchill Vintage Port, Portugal (about $100 retail)