The Noble Writ: A Port for Every Storm, Part 1

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As cool autumn weather begins to settle in, my thoughts turn to richer wines that can keep the chill away. One wine that fits this bill perfectly is port. Typically, port is imbibed while enjoying a good book at bedtime or while sitting next to the fireplace, but it makes a lovely match with cheese or nuts or even a not-too-sweet chocolate dessert.

This week, I'll cover the history and production methods of port as well as the most common form you'll encounter in the market. Next week, we'll delve into the other varieties of port and discuss some food matches.

The river Douro in Portugal - JOAO MIRANDA, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Port as we know it today is one of the few positives from the long hatred between France and England during the last millennium. When the French cut off the supply of red wine Bordeaux in the mid-1600s, the English went searching for alternatives.They found a suitable one in the convenient port city of Oporto, Portugal.

Prior to the interest of the English, the Portuguese were making red wines from the ancient vineyards lining the steep banks of the Douro river. The vineyards that produce port actually start some 40 miles inland from Oporto and stretch east almost to the border with Spain.

And what special vineyards they are, originally cultivated during the Roman occupation and tended continuously since the 1100s. The conditions are harsh. Soil only a few inches deep over the underlying rock clings to precipitous hillsides, where the remnants of ancient terraces struggle to slow the erosion of this life-giving layer into the river below. The temperatures can be brutal as well, with summer highs above 110° F not uncommon.

Despite this unforgiving environment, more than 100 varieties of grapes are turned into port, though only twenty are "officially approved." However, five dominate production: touriga nacional, touriga francesa, tinta barroca, tinta cão and tinta roriz, which is better known as tempranillo, its Spanish name. The grapes must be hand-harvested due to the steep inclines -- back-breaking work not for the faint of heart.

Vineyards in the Douro river valley - USER "HUSOND," WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
The production of port brings us back to the 300-year-old relationship between Portugal and England. Through a happy accident, early English wine merchants supposedly discovered a local Douro tradition of adding brandy to still-fermenting wine. This process, called fortification, stops the yeast from further fermentation, which leaves some residual sugar in the wine. Fortification also boosts the alcohol level of the wine to around 20%. For English purposes, the fortified wine also had the benefit of being better able to withstand the sea voyage to England and to stay in drinkable condition for a longer period of time.

Soon, virtually all wine exported through the city of Oporto to England was rich, fortified port. But success breeds corruption, and adulterated wines began to be produced by the early 1700s, endangering Portugal's lucrative trade. In response, during the 1750s, the government created an innovative entity to set prices, categorize the quality of vineyards, implement regulations governing production and direct the finest wines to be exported. This was one of the first efforts at the official classification and regulation of wine production.

Port's method of vinification is quite different from that of ordinary red wine, where the pigment- and tannin-rich grape skins are left in contact with the fermenting wine for a week to a month or longer. Because high-proof alcohol is added to port after only two or three days of fermentation, port producers must work to extract as much as they can from the grape skins in a very short period of time.

While most red wine producers try to be gentle with their grapes, port producers abuse them. Traditionally, hours of vigorous foot-treading of the grapes in stone troughs called lagares was employed, but as labor has become scarce, much of this work is mechanized. Foot-treading is still practiced by a few producers and on a limited basis by others for high-end wines that justify the cost.

DAVE NELSON
  • Dave Nelson
The port industry produces a wide array of products that span broad ranges of both price and ageability. We begin with the bottom of the ladder on both accounts with ruby port. Ruby ports make up the bulk of the market but can be very enjoyable wines of real quality. They are not intended for aging and are unlikely to improve if you forget them in the cellar. Once opened, they are best consumed within a day or two on the counter or within the week if you choose to store the open bottle in the fridge.

Ruby ports are blended from wines that have been aged for two to three years. Each producer has its own targets for flavor and sweetness and aims to keep its ruby port consistent from year to year. Most ruby ports that show up on fine wine retailers' shelves are known in the trade as "premium" rubies, though this term is unlikely to show up on a label. Many of these wines have fanciful brand names like today's sample:

Fonseca Bin 27 ($17, Wine & Cheese Place): Deep, rich purple in color. Slightly spirity initially on the nose, but this is bolstered by ripe plum and a touch of dried red fruits. Full and rich in the mouth, with nice length and a velvety texture. Very good integration of the spirit with the lush fruit. Other recommended ruby ports: Warre's Warrior; Graham's Six Grapes; and Quinta do Noval's Noval LB -- each of which retail in the $15-$25 range.

Dave Nelson is the author of the blog Beer, Wine and Whisky. He writes about wine for Gut Check every Tuesday.

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