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A Petaluman’s guide to port wines here and abroad

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Many are drawn to port because it’s a comparably small category of wine, meaning a basic understanding is something that most people can swallow within a few gulps. Once one moves beyond the overly sweet versions that are popular at American wineries, the nuanced flavor profiles of authentic port wine represent a much broader range than the few sub-categories might suggest. Because a full understanding of port requires going back to the original, this article deals with Portuguese port only, unless noted otherwise.

This is due in large part because port wine is not so much about a specific chateau or vineyard, but is instead more closely related to the flavor profile of each individual port house (also called a “port lodge”). Master blenders will often spend their entire career with one port lodge, guaranteeing that their particular flavor stays consistent over time. Once you find a port you like, it is likely you will enjoy other ports from that same lodge.

Similar yet different

Port is a fortified wine, meaning a distilled spirit is added during its fermentation process. That spirit is often referred to as “brandy,” although it is actually quite different. This addition causes fortified wines to have a higher alcohol content — roughly 18 to 20 percent — compared to standard table wines that are usually 10 to 13 percent. Port is just one in the family of fortified wines, which includes madeira, sherry, marsala and vermouth. Each has its own distinct characteristics, born from its origin of production, the grapes used and when the distilled spirit is added.

Port and madeira are most similar. Both come from Portugal, and both use “aguardente” as a spirit additive, which suspends fermentation midway through the process. Port comes from the city of Porto, which is where it, and Portugal, get their names. “Aguardente” loosely translates to either “fire water” or “water with teeth,” both apt descriptions. To say that it is unpleasant on its own would be an understatement.

Madeira sources different grapes than port and comes from the semi-tropical Portuguese island of Madeira. Due to higher ambient temperatures during aging, as well as the heat that madeira was historically subject to during shipping, it has a much different flavor. Today, madeira is heated during aging in order to replicate that flavor profile.

Sherry comes from Jerez, Spain, and is made exclusively from white grapes. The fortification comes at the end of fermentation, so it tends not to be as sweet as port. Vermouth comes from Turin, Italy, and starts as white wine, before spirits and various botanicals are added to give it an aromatized characteristic. Marsala comes from Sicily and is available in both fortified and unfortified. It was first produced by John Woodhouse, of the Woodhouse port lodge, as an inexpensive substitute for port and sherry.

The process

Port is made by adding the aguardente part way through the initial fermentation. This suspends fermentation, ensuring that more residual sugar is retained compared to standard wine, which is allowed to complete fermentation. Technically, to be called port, the grapes must be grown, crushed, fermented and initially aged in the Douro Valley of Portugal, which is world’s oldest demarcated wine region. The Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto, or IVDP, is the consortium responsible for regulating, monitoring and promoting the port industry.

Brief history

Port wine really came into its own in the early 1700s, when England and France were at war. The industry would continue to grow each time those two countries suspended trade. England and Portugal have a long history of cooperation and so when the thirsty English went looking to replace French wine, they looked to Portugal. Port was popular with the English and due to fortification, it could survive an overseas trip. Many port lodges still bare English names, such as Taylor-Fladgate, Graham’s, Dow’s and Sandeman’s. Although port style wines can now be found in almost every former British colony, only those from Portugal are officially designated as port.

Here in the US, fortified wines are often called port, however they are all too often an overly sweet, late-harvest wine. Some are not even made from port-style grapes. These wines also tend to be quite young, because real estate here is expensive, meaning many wineries do not have the patience or pocketbook to age fortified wines as they do in Portugal.

Origin stories

The Douro River starts in Spain, winding its way through Portugal’s Douro Valley, before it empties into the Atlantic at Porto. The Douro Valley is an isolated, rugged and harsh environment. It is so remote that for centuries the only feasible way to transport the young port to the port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia was by flat-bottomed boats called barcos rabelos. Many a port was lost in the rapids along the journey before the hydroelectric dams of the mid-1900s, which forced transportation to change as tanker trucks took to the newly renovated mountain roads. The hills are so steep that vineyards must be terraced and the ground is so hard that dynamite is required to blast a hole for each individual vine. The weather ranges from frigid winters to hot and dry summers, keeping farmers are their toes. Port vineyards are not watered, so along with all the other factors, it makes for very difficult growing environment.

The Basics

Like most wines, ports fall into two main categories: red and white. The whites, from white grape varietals, are fairly rare here in the US. The reds are made from grapes with names like Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Touriga Nacional, most of which are rarely grown here. White ports come in both dry and sweet varieties with ages that range from 10 to 40 years. Pink port is fairly new, but unlike some pink wines, it is of no lesser quality. In fact, it’s harder to make.

Reds are split into ruby and tawny. Both start life the same way. They are crushed, either mechanically or by foot, in large open-topped lagars, made of either stone or neutral concrete so the grape skins get plenty of exposure. After roughly three days, the fruit is moved into fermentation tanks. When the sugar levels are right, fermentation is suspended by the addition of aguardente. All port must then age for a minimum of 2 years before it’s sold. There are other restrictions regarding how much of a port lodge’s stock is allowed to be sold in any given year, which helps guarantee the future supply.

In the spring of the second year of aging, each port lodge determines whether to declare that year’s port a “vintage.” Unlike most table wine, port vintages only come around two or three times a decade. “Vintage” ports are the rarest, and usually most profitable, but a lodge will only bestow the title on ports that meet their own stringent standards.

Their name is their reputation, and with port, reputation is everything. Due to this philosophy, there is no bad port. There are those that appeal to different palettes. But port is not like, say, beer, where you can find lousy versions of a good style. If a lodge is willing to put its name on a bottle of port, it will be good.

With port, price will be your guide. Base ruby and tawny ports, which are usually under $20, can be a bit plain, especially when a good late bottle vintage is only $30, and great aged tawnies range from $30 to $60.

A vintage port is bottled unfiltered and so it will continue to age. There are ports from the early 1900s that are still improving with age, although that is not the case with every vintage. Thus, it is important to check a chart to see when each vintage should be drank, held or both (there are several such charts online).

Ruby port is usually dark in color, with strong fruit flavors and is aged in vessels other than wood prior to bottling. Bottling is generally done and is where a ruby does most of its aging.

Tawny ports do all the aging in barrels and are filtered at bottling. Once bottled, they are ready to drink. As the name implies, these ports are tawny in color and range in flavors from nutty to orange peel to tobacco. Tawny’s rarely show any of the fruit flavors common in a ruby. While it’s a style that is rare to find in U.S. producers, Sonoma Portworks, right here in Petaluma, offers a couple of excellent aged tawnies.

Ruby ports are bottled after two to five years of aging, although reserve blends get a few more years prior to bottling. Common vintages go into the bottle earlier and require more time to age, where late bottle vintages are allowed more ageing, so they require less time in the bottle before sipping.

Those labeled reserve or special reserve have been aged about six years before bottling, and thus they tend to cost more. There are also crusted ports, although it’s uncommon in the US, likely because these ports are quite similar to late vintages. Crusted ports are an unfiltered higher quality ruby, often called a “poor person’s” vintage.

The number on the bottle – usually 10, 20 or 30 - designates the average number of years the port remained in barrels prior to being bottled. These ports are blended from dozens of barrel-aged ports, each from different harvests, to come up with that particular port lodge’s proprietary blend.

The unique character of each lodge is what sets ports apart from most wines. It isn’t the vineyard, but the port lodge that determines the flavor. For tawnies, it isn’t the year picked or produced, but the port lodge’s preferences that determine the taste.

The blender chooses from dozens of aged tawny barrels in order to make sure that port tastes the way that lodge’s aged tawny has always tasted. Because of this, a bottle of Graham’s or Taylor’s 10-years-old tawny opened today should taste the same as the ones produced 50 years ago. That is the blenders job (usually a lifetime appointment) – to make sure that a particular port lodge’s character remains consistent.

Colheita is an aged tawny port, but from just one vintage year. Unlike the blended tawnies of the same general age, colheita’s will have much sharper and distinct characteristics. It’s like a single malt scotch versus a blended scotch. For most, the blended varieties are more appealing as they tend to be more smooth, however colheita’s offer an excellent value if you find a particular flavor you like.

What’s in a label?

First and foremost, authentic port is distinguished by the selo de garantia, or “label of guarantee,” which all port lodges are required to affix at the top of every bottle.

If the word “tawny” does not appear anywhere on the label, it is a ruby. Declared vintages will say so and will list the year. Late vintages will also be labeled as such, but the time between vintage and bottling date can vary and will affect the flavor and value of the port.

Tawny port comes in base tawny, with no vintage or bottling year, and is therefore on the inexpensive side, as well as the aged tawnies, which will have designations such as 10 years old. Because these are blends of barrel-aged ports, you will never find a vintage date and I have yet to see a bottling date.

Finally, colheita tawnies are from a specific vintage and so will have that year listed. What is important is the bottling year, because the same 1980 colheita bottled in 1995 will taste quite different. The extra years of aging will be reflect in the price.

Reputation over profit

Because most of these port lodges have been around for hundreds of years, their reputation is more important than their profit margin. Thus, even a 10-year-old tawny will usually contain a blend of tawny ports with an average age of 12 or 13. In turn, you can expect a 20-year bottle to be more like 25 years, and 35 years, on average, for a 30-year bottle. Unlike younger bottles, when it comes to the 40-year-old blends, all of the ports used must have at least four decades of aging.

Where to start

Start local. I hesitate to suggest that one try port by the glass in a restaurant or bar before purchasing a full bottle, because so many do not properly store their port nor do they toss a stale bottle. A blemish on the American port industry is that restaurants and bars sell stale port, which turns off potential fans before they even get started.

Le Bistro used to be a great place to try port because they used port in and served port alongside some desserts, so it was constantly being turned over. Seared carries a couple of Taylor Fladgate aged tawnies, which sell regularly, so are rarely stale. I have found port at other local restaurants like Rosen’s 256 North, Wild Goat Bistro and McNear’s, but do not hesitate to send it back if it tastes stale. If you are lucky, you will find a restaurant that is serving a “century” of tawny ports, which is a single port lodge’s 10, 20, 30 and 40 years old tawnies (a total of 100 years). This is a great way to see and taste how barrel aging effects port over time.

Most of our local wine retailers carry a selection of port. Willibees, BevMo, Bottle Barn, Vine and Barrel and Petaluma Market all have decent choices. If looking to try a ruby, start with a late bottle vintage, as the slight extra cost will reap great benefits over buying a standard tawny. Charley’s Wine Country Deli and Vine and Barrel usually have at least one excellent LBV on hand.

If looking for a tawny, I suggest Whiskers Blake, which is usually available at Wilibees and BevMo. Although this is an Australian port, it stands up to Portguese tawnies twice its age, and at $13 to $15, is an inexpensive way to find out if you like tawnies. It is sweeter than most, but if you like this one, then you will likely enjoy the more expensive and authentic tawnies. For a larger selection of aged tawnies, visit Santa Rosa’s Wilibees, as well as nearby Bottle Barn for vintages other than just the most current year.

Because port selection is limited locally, you may find yourself surfing the internet for a particular bottle. But be leery when purchasing from online wine auctions because you’ll never know whether the port was stored properly, just like any wine.

After opening

Contrary to what so many bar managers seem to believe, port is a wine, not a spirit, and therefore should not be left out on the shelf once opened. For those unfamiliar with the various styles of port, the type of cork is the best indicator. If the bottle has a regular cork, it is likely a ruby port. These bottles should be drunk during a single sitting as they will grow stale quickly. If you do have left overs, keep the bottle in the refrigerator and finish it quickly. If the bottle has a stopper, it is likely a tawny port (which includes colheitas). These bottles can be re-corked for short periods of time, usually no more than two weeks. Refrigerated, they will last longer, although never past about five weeks.

Consuming

As a word of caution, contrary to popular belief, most ports pair better with dried fruit, cheeses, vanilla ice cream or whatever is being served for dinner, than with chocolates or cigars, which can deaden the delicate, diverse and distinct flavors of a good port.

Also, port should not be served in small glasses. This does not mean you have to pour a full glass, although I have never found a good reason not to. Port has been in the barrel or bottle for many years and therefore needs a bit of space to expand and breath. White wine glasses are your best bet as there’s plenty of room for swirling. A few swirls will help dispel any harsh alcohol aromas left over from the aguardente. Once swirled, lightly blow into the bowl of the glass in order to drive out any lingering alcohol aromas and you will start to smell the port’s natural character.

Unlike most American port, which tends to swing sweet, Portuguese ports offer a wide array of flavors, from the young and brash fruity rubies to the sophisticated vintages to the elegant tawnies, all of which can be enjoyed as more than just an after-dinner wine.

Locally, I host a group on Facebook titled “Petaluma Port Club” for anyone who is interested in attending port wine tastings.