Port and Chicken, an uncommon pairing

by on August 2, 2012

and a recipe for Port BBQ Sauce

Last week I did something outside the box when it comes to traditional food and wine pairings.  I paired Port with Chicken.  Not only that but I even went so far as to make a Port barbecue sauce.

Port and Chicken?  Chicken and Port?  Port and BBQ?  Have I gone mad?
It is possible.

At its most basic sense Port is a fortified wine, one that comes from demarcated region of the Douro in Portugal.  There are many types of Port, at various levels of sweetness, ranging from light and fruity to rich and thick, with bold flavors of plums, black berry fruit, and figs among others.  But they are all fortified with a neutral grape spirit, similar to brandy, which generally makes them richer and sweeter than their non-fortified cousins.  Traditional pairings for Port include chocolate, cheese, nuts and a variety of desert options (mostly those involving, of course, chocolate) — not chicken.

So why on earth would I think something so rich and bold, typically paired with deserts and cheese, could pair with something as light as chicken?  Well it is simple. We made sure the flavors of the chicken were bold enough to stand up to the rich and sweet flavors found in Port.  Chicken is a blank canvas.  One perfect for experimentation.
And when you own a smoker and have a wild imagination, almost anything is possible.

I was also participating in a Snooth virtual wine tasting and was sent two different Sandeman Ports to sample.  During the live tasting the organizers were encouraging participants to make Port cocktails.  But I didn’t want to make cocktails, I wanted to make BBQ.  So I did.

My husband and I invited our neighbors to join us, and prior to sitting down for dinner I felt the need to announce – “now this is an experiment, please don’t judge if it goes terribly wrong”.

The thing is we smoke a lot of chicken.  But never before have we used Port as the primary flavor for the meal.  We decided to smoke chicken, specifically drums and thighs, and use Port to both infuse the flavor of the chicken while it slowly smoked on our Traeger smoker, and also using the remaining Port to make a BBQ sauce (recipe below).

While the chicken slowly cooked on the smoker the flavors of both the hickory smoke and the Port sauce were slowly infusing the meat.  But we also basted the chicken with BBQ sauce which eventually caramelized the skin creating a crispy, thick, and sweet crust.  The typical light flavors of chicken were now transformed to something rich, juicy, sweet and spicy all at the same time.

When it came time to eat, we had three Ports to chose from.

Fonseca Ruby Port, NV – the Port we used to make the actual BBQ sauce.  Since the sauce and basting liquid required at least 3 cups of Port, we didn’t want to use the Sandeman for these purposes.  It would have taken up most of the bottle.  Instead we bought this everyday priced Ruby Port at our local wine store for around $13.  Ruby Port is a style of Port that is a blend of several harvests that age 2-3 years before being bottled. These are generally lighter bodied (for Port), young, fresh, fruity, great for cooking, everyday priced and meant to be drunk upon purchase.

Next up we had the  Sandeman’s Founders Reserve Porto NV.  According to the Sandeman website this Port is a blend “selected from the finest ‘lots’ of each vintage and aged for 5 years”.  More complex than the Fonseca, ripe and jammy with dark plum, berries, and pepper.

Vintage Ports can often have lots of sediment in the bottle, so it's a good idea to have a decanter standing by to avoid getting the sediment in your glass.

Finally we had the Sandeman Vau Vintage Port 2000.  A “Vintage Port” is considered the finest style of Port.  Produced only in exceptional years, and only from one single vintage (not blended like other styles of Port). The wine is aged in cask for just two years, then spends many years aging in the bottle.  These are special wines.  The Sandeman Vau Vintage was rich and full-bodied, with juicy plums, figs, blackberry jam, and more dark red fruit.  It was much more mature and rich than the other two with darker and more integrated flavors and a smoother body.

The pairing went surprisingly well. So much so that there were moments where nobody spoke. We just kept eating and sipping, in silence.  When tasting the chicken with the various Ports what I found was that when just eating a piece of chicken alone (no BBQ sauce), the Fonseca Ruby Port was the best pairing.  It was lighter, fresher, and didn’t interfere with nor dominate the chicken too much.  But if you took a piece of chicken and dumped it in the BBQ sauce (and really who wouldn’t want do that?), the Founders Reserve and the Vau Vintage became a smash hit.  The richness of the sauce paired with the thickness and deep jammy fruit flavors of the Port and were so intriguing together.  Definitely the surprise of the night.

As our neighbor was leaving he smiled and whispered, “please feel free to use me as a guinea pig any time you feel like experimenting!”  I guess that means we did a good job?!

So, if you’re feeling like trying something fun and out of the box with Port, I dare you to make Port BBQ sauce and smoked chicken at your next BBQ.  Or you could just play it safe and pair it with chocolate.  But really, who wants to play it safe?


Port BBQ Sauce

This recipe was adapted from my traditional BBQ sauce recipe.  The primary difference was that we substituted Port for the water called for in the original recipe and we used no liquid smoke. This would be a great sauce if you are smoking, grilling or even oven roasting a chicken.


  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 medium finely chopped onion
  • 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons paprika
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
  • 2 cups Port (we used a fruity lighter bodied Ruby Port)
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar (gives a nice tang)
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 6 tablespoons brown sugar



Set a medium saucepan to medium-high heat, add the butter and once melted add the onions and cook until very soft, about 5-7 minutes. Add all dry spices and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring frequently, for 2 more minutes, or until the tomato paste begins to brown. Add the port, cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, and brown sugar, and stir to combine.  Lower heat to low simmer and cook uncovered until the sauce has thickened and reduced, typically about 30 minutes. The real secret is to let it reduce to whatever thickness you like.  30 min for a thinner sauce, 50+ for a thicker sauce.

Once the sauce is at the consistency you like you can opt to use a hand immersion blender to make the sauce smooth.  It only takes a few pulses.  If you like it chunky, no need to blend the sauce.

Let cool.  Can be made days in advance and kept in the refrigerator.

We made the sauce first, then we brushed the sauce onto the smoking chicken every hour to baste and give it a nice flavor.  You can also add moisture by spraying a 1:1 combo of apple cider vinegar and port to moisten the chicken.  Especially if you substitute the dark meat for breast.




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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew August 8, 2012 at 11:57 am

Port cocktails are fun! But that sauce sounds great too!


Mary August 8, 2012 at 12:32 pm

The nice thing about Port is that there is usually enough in a bottle to do it all – make the bbq sauce, make a cocktail, and even sip it solo :)


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