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Sip and Savor: The magic of Port wine and grilled cheese sandwiches 

Lineup of Port wines
Photos by Mira Honeycutt

Savoring the seductive dance of sweet and salty flavors

-There’s something sensual about pairing Port wine with a grilled cheese sandwich, something no doubt to do with the seduction of this fortified sweet wine married with the lusciousness and the brash saltiness of cheese.

That’s what I decided to tackle with the help of chef Johnny Jantz and his partner Shaana Rahman, owners of Boccabella Olive Farms in San Miguel. With 30 years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality business, Jantz, a graduate of the California Culinary Academy, was up for the pairing adventure. Besides he had recently nabbed the best chef award at the 19th annual Winemakers’ CookOff for his brilliant grilled cheese sandwich served with tomato bisque.

Jantz, who grew up in Lompoc and later traveled far and wide, from California and Montana to Hawaii and Japan as a chef and culinary consultant, was drawn back to his Central Coast roots to purchase the ten-acre olive ranch four years ago with his partner Rahman.

I gathered a selection of Port wines including the legendary Graham’s 10 year aged Tawny Porto and Warre’s Otima 10 from Portugal along with a selection of three Port style wines from Pass Robles — PasoPort, Roxo Port and Adelaida’s The Don.

Sourdough grilled cheese sandwich ready for Port pairing

On a warm fall evening a group of ten foodie friends met up at the Jantz/Rahman hilltop home at Boccabella Farms. We started with a glass of albarino and an introductory tour of the olive ranch led by Rahman. Hailing from an Indian and Italian heritage, she honored the Italian side by naming the farm after her grandmother’s middle name. Planted to 3,000 olive tress, Boccabella produces limited production of extra virgin olive that is available by appointment only through its intimate tasting room at the farm as well as some local wine tasting rooms and restaurants.

Back in the kitchen, all the ingredients were mise en place and the chef was ready to whip up three inspired creations of the grilled cheese sandwich. The concept of Port wine pairing totally made sense to the chef since the after-dinner wine is traditionally served with an assortment of cheeses, dried and fresh fruits.

“So it’s a cheese and fruit platter on a sandwich,” Jantz remarked as he began to spread his decadent homemade blue cheese butter on walnut/raisin bread, layering it with Gruyere cheese, apple slices, prosciutto and dates and then grilling the glorious sandwich on the sizzling griddle. A second “just as delicious” version of this sandwich was crafted with sliced pears instead of apples.

Chef Johnny Jantz

The kitchen was filled with even more intoxicating aromas as Jantz made a second sandwich, taking sourdough bread and then melting the goodness of Brie cheese with caramelized onion, fire-roasted chilies and smoked pork loin, allowing the sweet, spicy and smoky flavors to frolic between two thick slices weighed down on the hot griddle.

The third sandwich also assembled on sourdough bread was piled with goat Gouda cheese, crispy pancetta and fried shallots with a touch of chipotle sauce adding that extra kick. A variation offered aged English Cheddar replacing Gouda.

With the sandwiches ready, we started the pairing with our selection of this delicious sweet wine, considered among the finest dessert wines in the world. A true Port is produced exclusively in Portugal’s northeastern Duoro Valley. The intensely-scented fortified wine exudes aromas of raspberry, blackberry, cinnamon and caramel, and is traditionally made from all or any of the five grape varieties — touriga nacional, tinta cao, tinta barroca, tinta roriz (tempranillo) and touriga francesca.

Because Port is a fortified wine, its fermentations are relatively short (about two days). Fortification, which involves the addition of natural grape spirit to the fermenting juice, intentionally interrupts the fermentation process at a point where approximately half of the grapes’ natural sugar has been converted into alcohol. This accounts for Port’s characteristic rich, luscious style and also contributes to the wine’s considerable aging potential.

Port style wines of Paso Robles

Dating back to the 17th century, Port was made popular by English trading companies, becoming the quintessential man’s drink served with after dinner cigars. The delicious wine has come a long way since then. In an effort to target female consumers wines such as Otima 10 are packaged in sleek modern bottles or enhanced by sensuous artwork as seen on Paso Port bottles.

Not to be outdone, one of the guests, David Garrett (publisher of the recently released book, Winemakers of Paso Robles) offered his take on a simpler but colorful version, the Unicorn. The dark pumpernickel bread was grilled with cheese tinted with a confetti of primary colors. “It’s grilled cheese on acid,” Garrett remarked.

So how did the Port pairing work with a multitude of ingredients in each sandwich? The seductive tango of sweet and salty flavors was a party on the palate. Indeed, the richness of Port was magical with a riot of flavors rocking each sandwich.

Guests offered their opinions — the luscious Graham’s 10-year-old Tawny Oporto layered with nutty aromas and traces of honey was ideal with the walnut bread sandwich. Warre’s Otima 10, a lighter and delicate Port with hints of caramel and toffee, worked its magic with the sourdough/caramelized onion version. For my palate, this Port would be delicious served on ice as well.

There are a handful of Paso wineries producing Port style wines from the traditional Portuguese grape varieties. We paired Roxo Port’s 2011 Ruby Tradicional, rich with aromas of coffee and cocoa; Adelaida’s The Don, loaded with bing cherries and grenadine; and PasoPort’s Violetta, a vineyard designate wine from Glenrose vineyard sang with notes of blackberry and boysenberry. All three turned out to be ideal with the sourdough/chipotle sandwich.

So re-visit your concept of Port as a dessert wine: it can work even better with a meal than apres meal.

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About the author: Columnist Mira Honeycutt

Honeycutt has more than 20 years of experience as a wine consultant and wine journalist. Currently, she is the California contributor to Sommelier India Wine Magazine. Her wine and food coverage has been published in the Harper’s Bazar India, the Asian Wall Street Journal, Hong Kong Tatler, The Hollywood Reporter, USA Today, Los Angeles Magazine, Los Angeles Times and She was a contributing wine blogger on the highly popular Los Angeles radio station KCRW’s Good Food blog. Honeycutt is also the author of “California’s Central Coast, The Ultimate Winery Guide: From Santa Barbara to Paso Robles,” as well as the curator of the soon to be published book, The Winemakers of Paso Robles.