Want to serve something special with your holiday desserts, without breaking the bank? There is no better all-purpose bargain choice than...

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Want to serve something special with your holiday desserts, without breaking the bank? There is no better all-purpose bargain choice than ruby Port.

Why ruby? Because it is the youngest, freshest, most inexpensive and unfussy style of Port made. Why Port? Because it can accompany all manner of cheeses, pies and many dark and decadent (but not too sweet) chocolate confections.

True Port, that is, Port which is actually from Portugal, will have a white band across the top of the bottle (just under the foil) stating “Vinho do Portugal Garantia.” This confirms that, not only is the wine made from grapes grown in designated Port vineyards, according to carefully defined regulations, but also that it has been tested and certified by the Port Wine Institute.

Ruby Ports are the lowest rung on the quality ladder, but nonetheless many can be excellent. The American mania for vintage Port (we buy more vintage Port than any country in the world) is more about trophy collecting than practical enjoyment. Vintage Ports must be carefully aged for decades before reaching maturity. Once opened, they must be consumed quickly.

At the other end of the spectrum, rubies will last weeks or even months after being opened. As with all Ports, these are fortified with brandy and average 20 percent alcohol. A little goes a long way. The simplest among them have a sweet, cherry candy flavor, sometimes drifting into cough syrup. Others, perhaps blended from a wider range of vintages and/or kept in cask an extra year or two, can show more mature, earthy, woodsy flavors.

I rarely encounter anyone who doesn’t enjoy a snog of Port at the end of a big meal, but it is easy to overdo it. Due to its sweetness, its place in the meal, and the fact that it is usually consumed on a full stomach, Port’s impact can be muted — at first. Keep plenty of water flowing through your guests!

I remember drinking rubies in years past that simply burned unpleasantly on the way down. But a recent tasting of more than a dozen current offerings surprised me with both the overall smoothness of the wines and the complexity of the top bottles. Ruby Port should be purchased and consumed; it will not improve with bottle age. Here, ranked in order of preference, are the best of them (distributors listed in parentheses).

Nieport Ruby Porto, $17: Interesting and distinctive, this starts out on the rough side, but breathing reveals it to be compounded of a variety of well-knit flavors. The fruit seems older and riper than most other rubies, heading toward caramelized flavors of cooked prune, brown sugar, black licorice and baking spices. Gingerbread, balsamic and a somewhat medicinal note runs through as well. This may not be to everyone’s taste, but I loved it. Drink alone, or with Stilton cheese. (Cavatappi)

Cockburn’s Fine Ruby Porto, $11: This is a fine value and a very polished effort, smooth and substantial, with a silky mix of red currant, blackberry and black cherry fruit. It’s lightly touched with vanilla and tobacco leaf, and it seems to gain concentration through the middle, lingering through a long, smooth, satisfying finish. Great for berry pie. (Young’s-Columbia).

Warre’s Heritage Ruby Porto, $13: The Warre’s is a big boy, rich and loaded with candy cherry flavor. It’s not just simple fruit, however; there is weight and substance behind it, with vanilla, clove, licorice and black tea threaded throughout. (Noble)

C. Da Silver ‘Presidential’ Ruby Porto, $12: At first this seems a bit hard and chewy, with less of the sweetness and concentration than the other top rubies. Airing softens the somewhat bitter, stemmy flavors, finishing with tannic black tea. Good balance. (Young’s-Columbia)

Osborne Fine Ruby Porto, $14: Cherry tobacco flavors suggest that this contains more mature fruit. I like the smoothness of this wine; it isn’t at all tutti-frutti, nor is it raw. There’s an elegant lightness to it (for a Port), and I found it fresh and utterly charming. Pair with mild cheeses. (Young’s-Columbia)

Taylor Fladgate Fine Ruby Porto, $14: Tart and almost racy, with currant, cranberry and kirsch liqueur woven into a tight core. Liquorous and showing alcoholic heat, this is a wine that needs decanting, airing and perhaps some food to cut through the burn. (Young’s-Columbia)

Delaforce Fine Ruby Porto, $9: There is a hint of forest and wood underneath the fruit; it tastes of tangy cassis and black currant underscored with wood bark. Decent structure, the tannins stiff and just entering ripeness, leaving some astringency in the finish. Excellent value. (Young’s-Columbia)

Royal Oporto Ruby Porto, $14: There is a pruneyness to this ruby, showing interesting flavors of mincemeat pie, spicy gingerbread and candied fruits. It loses interest in the finish, where the flavors tail off and it gets a little cardboardy. (Unique)

Quinta do Infantado ‘Estate Bottled’ Ruby Porto; $16: Tight, earthy and tannic, this has a bit of roughness to work through but it offers more complex, compact flavors up front. The finish is pretty raw. Try it with strong cheeses or spice cake. (Unique)

Sandeman Ruby Porto, $12: Simple cherry flavors come on a bit cough syrupy, but smooth and ripe. This is a good budget choice to pair with a rich, not-too-sweet chocolate decadence. (Young’s-Columbia)

Croft Fine Ruby Porto, $13: Sweet with bright flavors of blueberry and huckleberry; this is like taking a bite out of a homemade berry pie. In fact, that is exactly what you should drink it with! (Young’s-Columbia)

Paul Gregutt is the author of “Northwest Wines.” His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com.