When it comes to wine, one of the more enjoyable traditions of the winter holidays involves a bottle of port, the glowing embers of an evening fire and the warm companionship of a few good friends. This exceptional dessert wine from Portugal comes in two basic styles: tawny and ruby. The first spends anywhere from 10 to 40 years in wood casks, taking on a brownish hue and a distinctly nutty quality. Rubies are bottled much sooner, maintaining their bright garnet color and a richer fruit flavor. Vintage ports are at the apex of the ruby pyramid. Bottled two to three years after a declared vintage, they are rather pricey and need 10 to 20 years to mature. For our tasting, we stuck with the more affordable "vintage character" and "late bottled vintage" ruby ports. Here are the panel's top picks:

Graham's Six Grapes Reserve, $20

A "vintage character" port, this is a house blend made in a consistent style intended to remind one of a well-aged vintage bottling. Think of it as a port for everyday drinking. The Graham's is one of the best, with lovely soft fruit laced with spice, graham, pepper and fig. It shows remarkable acid balance, which offsets the ripe berry and candied fig flavors, and closes with sweet clove and cinnamon.

Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Vintage, 1999, $22

"Late bottled vintage" ports are made from a single vintage, but spend more time in wood than true vintage ports, which allows them to soften and mature considerably. They are typically filtered before bottling and are ready to drink upon release, but won't improve with time in the bottle. With its dark berry and candied nut aromas and big chocolate and rich berry flavors, the Taylor Fladgate is a fine example of this style.

Quinta do Crasto Late Bottled Vintage, 1997, $20

This one opens with creamy berry aromas along with smoky cinnamon, cedar, licorice and dates. The flavors have a spicy pound cake component to them along with fig, mocha and berry fruit. While the Quinta do Crasto is also a "late bottled vintage," it differs from the Taylor Fladgate by being unfiltered, which means that it should continue to improve in the bottle for a number of years, but may throw a sediment that requires decanting.

This week's panel: Andrae Bopp, Andrae's; Fawn Goldy, Tastevin; David Kirkpatrick, Boise Co-op; Cindy Limber, Bardenay; Karen McMillin, Idaho Wine Merchant; and Kevin Settles, Bardenay

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